Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 43, Spring/Summer 1998
Ecotourism in Drylands

Editor's note:
Of ecotourism and linkages

by Katherine Waser

According to current statistics, ecotourism is the fastest-growing segment within tourism -- an industry that has become the world's largest, even bigger than oil. A good working definition of "ecotourism" comes from The Ecotourism Society:

"Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people."

This short statement defines, clearly and succinctly, the two components of ecotourism that are crucial to its ultimate sustainability:

  • The preservation and conservation of local biodiversity and habitat is paramount, because that is the capital wealth that sustains ecotourism. If this capital is squandered, the very basis for ecotourism projects will vanish.
  • Local populations must participate in and gain economic benefits from ecotourism projects, not only because they themselves are part of the local ecosystem, but also because such benefits will give them needed incentive to participate in biodiversity conservation.

But successful ecotourism projects require involvement from others besides local people. Other important stakeholders, and some of their potential roles in an ecotourism partnership, include:

  • Government (local, national and inter-regional), which can develop policy fostering biodiversity protection, local capacity-building, and local participation in ecotourism.
  • The tourism industry, which can develop best practices including self-policing guidelines, accreditation programs, tourist education programs, and methods of returning more economic benefits to local communities.
  • Tourists themselves, who can become educated on ecotourism issues, demand more sustainable practices from the tourist industry, and become themselves more responsible and involved travelers.
  • NGOs, which can act as advocates for local involvement and liaisons among other stakeholders, as well as develop and coordinate local projects and provide capacity-building and education.
  • Research institutions, which can gather baseline data regarding local and regional carrying capacities, as well as long-term data on the social and ecological impacts of ecotourism projects.

To achieve local development while conserving the local environment and biodiversity is no easy task. The dilemma facing would-be ecotourism developers is obvious: tourism as a whole has hitherto been an industry whose growing success tends to lead to degradation of the very natural attractions that draw the tourists. Furthermore, dependency on mass tourism has often had negative consequences for local people, particularly when such tourism is externally controlled, promotes seasonal "drought/deluge" economic cycles, or leads to tension between local people and visitors. Many fear that ecotourism will fall into the same traps.

This is a valid fear, and certainly ecotourism development is far from being an "exact science." However, to focus on these potential negatives is not helpful to on-the-ground practitioners, who are face-to-face with the current reality: tourism development is booming, and there is no end in sight. That being the case, immediate and ongoing efforts to effect a shift from unplanned mass tourism to sustainable ecotourism are an appropriate response.

With all these points in mind, this issue presents snapshots of ecotourism that demonstrate the range of its problems and potentials in various developing drylands countries around the world. In arid coastal Baja California, Mexico, gray whale tourism is a well-established phenomenon that is beginning to be practiced more sustainably. In Uzbekistan, a country in transition, the requisite natural attractions are abundant but an atmosphere in which ecotourism can flourish still needs to be fostered. In Tunisia, a local NGO is spearheading an ambitious and multi-pronged project to revitalize an ancient Berber town. In the Gulf of Aqaba, a coalition of Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli NGOs is working jointly and cooperatively to promote sustainable ecotourism there.

Finally, in this issue we are pleased to present a special update on the status of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification following COP-1, held in Rome last fall. As this report states, the CCD "sees itself as the first international convention to address environmental destruction of natural resources and spread of poverty in rural areas in one effort." It should not surprise anyone that these words so closely echo The Ecotourism Society's definition of ecotourism. No matter what the particular issue being tackled, the complex problems of sustainable development require equal and simultaneous attention to the needs both of human populations and of the environment. What's more, developing multiple connections and synergies among those tackling these issues will increase our chances of meeting such seemingly contradictory needs. Conventions such as the CCD, and developments such as the movement towards ecotourism, are positive signs that we now better understand the importance of all these linkages, and that we are beginning to make progress in achieving them.

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