Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The eco-tourism paradox

Visit our country… or the monkey gets it!

Here’s an interesting concept… well at least I thought so: Is travelling to developing countries a good or bad thing for the environment. Could it be both in the same action?

In a lot of ways this whole economic downturn and the flat tourism market it’s produced are doing great things for the environment. People are taking staycations instead of vacations, thereby saving vast quantities of increasingly scarce fossil fuels and their associated carbon emissions.

By not travelling people generally consume less plastic, less paper, and less water – on the whole we just seem to consume less when we’re at home and we generally do so in locations that are better able to cope with the resulting waste.

But… and this is a really big but (think J.Lo), over the years tourism’s big gift to the planet is that it’s attached an economic value to nature. Developing communities have generally realised that the big old trees in the forest are worth more standing unharmed than they are chopped down for paper pulp. The monkeys swinging through their branches – they’ll educate the local kids.

However, when the economy slows down and the tourists stay home, those old trees start to look pretty tempting once again. It’s obvious to all that going back to the bad old slash-and-burn days is a short sighted solution, but in developing countries people often just don’t have the financial backing to ride out a global recession.

So what to do? Travel? Stay home? It might just be that we’re equally damned… and equally blessed whichever we choose.

As far as I can tell there’s no easy answer. The most likely fix is for travellers to exercise a bit of intelligence – ask some pointy questions before you make that booking: Is there a short-haul destination I could visit instead? Who owns this hotel? Where do you get your water? Is this food local, or did you fly it in?

But perhaps the most important thing you can do in terms of the environment while travelling is try to learn from the locals. Behave like a missionary in reverse. Odds are, if you’re travelling to a developing country your hosts will have a smaller ecological footprint than you. So look around, and see what ideas you can bring home.

Go forth, travel, think, learn and you might just land on the positive side of the paradox.