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Good Will Hunting – Can Ecotourism Turn the Tides?

Can the game of ecotourism truly help preserve biodiversity for future generations, or will more blood be shed before the ecosystem fails?

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It was a leonine tragedy that captured the world’s attention – Cecil, a rare black-maned lion living in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, was killed, skinned and beheaded by an American dentist and sports hunter on safari in July. An icon for tourists who visited the reserve, largely due to his distinct black-fringed halo and relaxed demeanour around safari vehicles, Cecil’s habits and movements were also tagged and tracked by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Research unit at Oxford University. Global outrage ensued, with everyone from US singer Taylor Swift to Singapore’s Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam weighing in on the issue.

(LATEST:  No charges pressed against the American dentist, as hunt was legal, rule Zimbabwe courts.)

Apart from highlighting that trophy hunting is still legal in Africa, with the necessary permits and licences, Cecil’s death has thrown conservation to the forefront of the tourism game, and the importance of tourists being aware of the impact that the tourist dollar plays in the larger ecosystem.

As Megan Epler Wood, founder of The International Ecotourism Society (Ties), puts it: “No other sector spreads wealth and jobs across poor countries like tourism does, but no other sector grows with so few controls.”

Jeepah

Tourism is a key driver of growth and wealth distribution in poor countries. This unfortunately includes the dollars from the hunting industry.

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

In broad strokes, Ties lists the core principles of ecotourism as that of “uniting conservation, communities and sustainable travel”. Drilling deeper into that definition, United Nations Environment Programme believes that ecotourism should “sustain the wellbeing of local people, as well as create local participation, and ownership and business opportunities, particularly for rural people”.

Assistant Professor Sin Harng Luh from the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore suggests that ecotourism arose as a niche area in the 1970s to 1980s, as a reaction to the ill effects of mass tourism which typically involves large numbers of tourists, and with negative consequences such as environmental pollution, erosion of traditional cultures, and insufficient benefits to the local economy. Besides providing a sustainable alternative to mass tourism, ecotravel addresses the savvy consumer’s demand for more unique and authentic experiences.

And there are obvious demand-driven benefits to both travel operators and government bodies in supporting this. According to The World Bank, Africa attracted 33.8 million visitors in 2012, up from a low of 6.7 million visitors in 1990. Eighty per cent of leisure travellers to the continent cite wildlife as their main purpose for travel. Last year, close to 1.7 million visitors passed through South Africa’s Kruger National Park alone, up by over 200,000 more tourists from the year before.

Visiting wildlife is the main reason for 80% of travel to South Africa. In 2012 alone, the continent drew 33.8 million visitors.

Tourism and hospitality operators are well aware of the growth of this market, with many creating customised itineraries and an array of experiences catering to this burgeoning increase in visitors.

Joss Kent, CEO of Andbeyond, a leading luxury experiential-travel company, places local community integration and development as a key component of business operations. He tells The Peak: “We recognise that if we are not able to get meaningful benefits to the local communities living around our wildlife areas, these areas would not sustain. It is vital for the communities surrounding wildlife areas to feel the benefits flowing out of conservation, in order to support these reserves.”

One example where the effects of ecotourism have had a direct impact is Botswana. After banning trophy hunting – a practice that, though controversial, has driven its conservation efforts – two years ago, remote villages have complained of wild animals hurting their crops or prowling close to homes, turning what was once treasured as revenue to pests, reported The New York Times last month. There is also a reduction in the trickle-down effects of trophy hunting for the local economy – there is less employment which translates to less income that would have gone into the installation of basic infrastructure such as lighting, toilets and water pipes.

Ranger

The conditions surrounding areas earmarked for conservation must be ripe as well. Consequences such as wild animals eating crops or less income from hunting industry may be more relevant to villagers than the greater ideal of preservation.

WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY?

In a 2011 survey by the Conde Nast Traveller magazine, 93 per cent of readers said that travel companies should be responsible for protecting the environment – a call that an increasing number of travel and hospitality operators are recognising and heeding via their business practices, whether they are driving community-driven initiatives or vetting local suppliers and operators.

The issue of who should champion conservation has been up in the air.

Protected nature areas around the world receive eight billion visits per year and the annual value of protected-area tourism is estimated to be worth US$600 billion (S$840 billion), according to a study by PLOS Biology journal in February. Yet, less than US$10 billion is spent annually on safeguarding and managing these areas.

Quotient Travelplanner says it centres its corporate social responsibility efforts on ecotourism initiatives. Co-founder and director Lim Hui-Juan says: “As part of our campaign Rhinos Can Fly, Quotient seeks to raise US$50,000 to translocate one rhino from South Africa, where a rhino dies from poaching every seven hours, to Botswana, which has the lowest poaching rate on the African continent.” The translocation is carried out by Rhinos Without Borders, a project by Andbeyond and Great Plains Conservation, two respected African tourism entities. This experiential-travel agency also plans to donate part of the proceeds from selected travel itineraries to achieving this target.

As part of checks to ensure suppliers comply with its principles of sustainable tourism, Lightfoot Travel maintains close relationships with operators, often meeting them in person at least once a year, for the Asia-based destinations it offers. One area that Andbeyond emphasises when working with travel partners is sustainability credentials. Kent says: “We look at issues such as whether our selected partner’s guides and staff are aware of responsible travel practices and can communicate them clearly. We make sure that there is tangible evidence of recycling, as well as an awareness of and adherence to green practices. If the partner or supplier is situated in a wilderness area, we examine whether they are aware of the habitat that surrounds them and take an active role in protecting it.”

Closer to home, The Six Senses Hotels Resorts and Spas, Como Hotels and Resorts, and the Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts pride themselves on providing luxury accommodation that is ecologically sensitive. Larger hotel chains such as Indian luxury group ITC Hotels are following suit, with many implementing standard procedures for energy saving, and managing waste and water, and seeking ways to certify their green practices and supply chains.

ITCHotelWashing

At certain ITC hotels, sheets are washed with water recycled through the hotels’ in-house water-filtration systems.

GIMMICK VS GOODWILL

Still, critics remain unconvinced about the purported values of ecotourism. With one out of every five consumers prepared to pay more for a holiday organised by a company with a better environment and social record, the concept of ecotravel has unfortunately been accused of being a lofty marketing spin with a licence to charge more. To date, there are no firm industry guidelines as to how much of an average tourist dollar should be integrated into the local community, or an acceptable percentage that is taken by the middle man. Travel companies whom The Peak spoke to were unable to shed light on the distribution of revenue collected from tourist activities to stakeholders including operators, government agencies, conservation groups and communities.

Camp

Glamp site Sal Salis donates a portion of its tariffs to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Prof Sin advises travellers to refrain from jumping to that conclusion. He adds: “A lot of research and efforts in changing existing operating procedures and practices tend to be put in by many travel operators and resorts that are well-known for being sustainable and eco-friendly.”

On a local level, Kent firmly believes that the travel industry needs to facilitate partnerships with neighbours, whether they are local communities, governments, or the private sector, to maximise the positive effects of ecotourism. Renowned English conservationist Jane Goodall sums it up: “I don’t think conservation in a rural community will ever work, unless the people are your partners, unless they get some benefit and some pride.”

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