Problems in Ecotourism. More Knowledge is Needed to Understand and Respect Wildlife

Scientific Essay, 2017

23 Pages

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2017 declared The Year of Sustainable Tourism

Several aspects of sustainability

Limits of Nature

Information and education are keys in reaching sustainability

People want to see animals – Do the animals want to see people

Swimming with dolphins often leads to dangerous habituation

Animals are individuals – with individual needs and fears

The Last Change Tourism

The visitor is urged to respect the wildlife

Nature Tourism: Billion dollar/euro business

Mutual interests in nature’s and people’s economies

Poaching: Huge losses for wildlife and national economies

Nature tourism can open doors for criminal activities

World Heritage seriously threatened by criminals

Respect to animal rights is the key in Responsible Tourism



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Non-invasive utilization of wildlife is a major incentive for international tourism, but the increase in extraction of natural resources should show more respect to animal rights and welfare. In many destinations, a lion’s share of travel decisions is based on the possibility to see wild animals. Problems in erosion and pollution of environment are better understood than the relationships between visiting tourists and the local wildlife. United Nations declared 2017 “The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development”, and the theme of annual World Environment Day (5 June) was dedicated to sustainable wildlife experiences by the theme “ Connecting People to Nature”.

In spite of unanimously accepted emphasis of respect of nature and decades-long education and studies, unpleasant fact is that there are far too many operations going on in so called ecotourism that do not respect nature or animal rights. The preset outlook presents an excerpt from recent studies and news items regarding the close relationships between international tourism industry and managing and conserving nature – as well as problems in the relationship – in the Year of Sustainable Tourism.

The present overview briefly describes a few conflicts – and also successful examples – between wildlife and wildlife tourism, published recently, mainly in 2016 and 2017.

In the era of global economic depression – and unfortunately of global mental depression, too – international tourism seems to be one of the major drivers of man’s activities toward better future. Such a conclusion can be drawn on the basis of ever-growing numbers of international arrivals in leisure-time travel. The latest statistics of The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) show that the numbers of international tourist arrivals have grown steadily for six years in a row.

In 2015, the annual growth rate of international tourist arrivals was 4.4 percent. Some 1.2 billion trips were made (1184000000 arrivals all together), i.e. 50 million international arrivals more than in 2014. And the trend is expected to continue. The UNWTO projects that the number of international arrivals will be some 4 % higher in 2016 than in the previous year (UNWTO, 2016).

The economic role of international tourism is huge, representing some 10 % of the global gross national product (GNP). The rise in the markets benefits both the already rich developed nations as well as the poor, emerging economies in the developing world. The statistics of the international tourism reveal that the wealth brought about by the international tourism benefit mostly the industrialized nations, Europe leading the way in the growth of tourism industry.

Leisure time travel is a corner stone of international travelling. In UNWTO’s latest statistics, the number of trips (arrivals) for holiday, recreation and other forms of leisure time activities (i.e. the activities usually covered by the term tourism) rose to 632 million trips, thus accounting for 53 % of all international travelling.

Sustainability in all sectors of tourism has been the leading paradigm for the industry for decades. But in spite of unanimously accepted ambitions and objectives, there are severe shortage of knowledge of best practices in all levels of stakeholders. The importance and need for maintaining sustainability is one of the key issues in local and international tourism, and this approach is getting more and more important with the ever-increasing numbers of travels, and simultaneously with the continuously worsening state on natural habitats (Connell and Page, 2008).

Means are available to develop the tourism industry’s actions towards sustainability, and a lion’s share of destinations and wildlife attractions could enhance the ways in maintaining and managing the experiences of visitors – with a full respect to nature’s necessities. As early as in 1970s, a comprehensive guidance was presented for creating and maintaining symbiosis for the preservation of nature and the utilization of natural resources for tourism (Budowski, 1976; 2008). The importance of responsible tourism in the maintenance of wildlife is well known and recognized, and several positive examples are described recently (ENS, Environment News Service, 2017). Comprehensive “toolbox” for managing and maintaining nature’s living treasures and the role of tourism industry in safeguarding the biodiversity on the Earth was published by United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 2007).

2017 declared The Year of Sustainable Tourism

Several aspects of tourism are dealt with in daily news, and the role of travellers in maintaining and/or destroying the values of natural habitats and biota are one of the most important – and at the same time, one of the most controversial issues. The principle of avoiding any unnecessary harms is certainly universally accepted, but the forms of nature-respecting, as well as ways to respect indigenous people are more complicated and difficult to achieve. The general goals are, however, unanimously accepted, the general guidance for achieving the best practices were strengthened at the most prestigious level. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2017 The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The theme year will emphasize the role and possibilities of national and international tourism in building wealth for the natural biota and landscapes as well as human beings – in harmony and in ways that 17 universal Sustainable Development Goals are respected and forwarded (UNWTO, 2015a).

The key in achieving the goals in obtaining sustainability in tourism is the change in behavior of both the tourism industry and every individual participating any kinds of travelling. Far too often the values of nature and indigenous people are in conflict or competitors of resources. Confrontations are unnecessary, and narrow-minded interest seeking leads to both economic and immaterial losses for all parties. Respecting the natural values and the cultural traditions of local people can create forms of sustainable tourism where all parties gain advantage both at present, and in the future.

The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development will promote tourism’s role in the following five key areas, as summarized by Restanis (2016) website:

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The importance of understanding and respecting nature’s conditions and values was further emphasized by selecting the theme of annual World Environment Day (5 June). In 2017, the theme was Connecting People to Nature, urging people to get outdoors and into nature, to appreciate nature’s beauty and to think about how we are part of nature and how intimately we depend on it. The theme challenges us to find fun and exciting ways to experience and cherish this vital relationship (United Nations, 2017).

In the preset-day tourism, the decisions made by individual travellers or groups are mainly based on marketing, and this is the key to achieving sustainability. If the travel agencies and tour operators avoid destinations, where there are possibilities to harm natural biota or indigenous people, tours should not be organized. A few independent backpackers seldom cause huge problems, even if they invade into vulnerable habitats. The role of common understanding in selecting the targets for wildlife tourist attractions are presented and evaluated by Moorhouse et al. (2016).

Several aspects of sustainability

Among the hundreds of millions of people travelling yearly for leisure time holidays, growing number of tourists are seeking for thematic activities. Organized or self-planned travels for cultural treasures, sports, festivals or concerts, and even more for wildlife are a rising trend. Thus, the concept of Ecotourism is now used in marketing and managing activities for nature-admirers, organized all over the world. Under the umbrella of ecotourism, various activities and tours are organized, including hiking, canoeing, fishing, hunting and nature-photography safaris. The common feature for all the ecotourists’ activities is the desire and respect for wildlife and wilderness.

The trend towards spending time in remote natural environment is understandable for the rapidly urbanized population, but the pressure caused towards the nature is becoming hard. The term sustainability is the key element in all the activities within ecotourism. The requirement of respecting the intrinsic values of nature are included in the ethical codes of tourism, published by the UNWTO (Article 3: Tourism, a factor of sustainable development; UNWTO, 1999).

Sustainability should be defined in three dimensions: Ecological, Economic, and Social sustainability (Cook et al., 1999). In textbook level, the latter two are well presented. In the economy, the facilities needed for the travel, accommodation, restaurant supplies etc. are emphasized – and thoroughly studied and argued. The issues covering social sustainability are just rising on the agenda. Respecting the habits and traditions of local populations is a necessary prerequisite for every ecotraveller, and the more remote the location, the more important it is to orientate to the local traditions. Using local (and not multinational, often provided by the travel agencies) services is both economic and social co-operation with the local community.

Perhaps the most important – and certainly the most difficult – of the three levels of sustainability in ecotourism (green tourism) is the ecological aspect. The consideration of the values of natural conditions is a key element in any issue of sustainable tourism. Nature watching and/or utilization in any means essentially require understanding the basic values and needs of the biota. Ecotourism is only one component of the wide concept of sustainable tourism, but even within the branch there are more than enough definitions and practices. In the absence of unanimously accepted terminology, there are lots of projects in the tourism industry marketed as ecotourism – even though the eco-component is not always properly considered or respected (Donohoe and Needham, 2010). Incoherent descriptions can sustain improper practices, even precarious activities marked for unsuspecting, gullible customers.

Tools to measure, define and evaluate the rate of sustainability in various sectors of tourism are available, but lack of adequate information still seems to be dire. In a comprehensive review of tourism-based scientific publications, Buckley (2012) presented the social and environmental impacts, responses and indicators of mainstream international tourism in five categories, i.e. population, peace, prosperity, pollution, and protection. Among some 5’000 published works, the sustainability sector is seriously under-represented. In the words by Buckley: “The tourism industry is not yet even close to sustainability”.

The wide variation in definitions of sustainability in the tourism industry makes it impossible to evaluate the quality of tours as well as the quality of individual tourist’s or tourist group’s behavior in destinations. When asked the tourists themselves, rather few visitors can assure that they have respected the nature’s values. The proportion of positive responses could be as low as 0‒44 percent (Jurvan and Dolnicar, 2016).

In evaluations of sustainability of tourist operations, the definitions and formations of questions can markedly influence the results – and hence the wrong setting out a problem can lead to serious misinterpretations. When the true sustainability of tourisms is studied, the travellers should be directly observed, because in questionnaires most participants give answers that are expected and/or hoped (Jurvan and Dolnicar, 2016).

Limits of Nature

The important issue is, whether the nature can withstand outside visitors. There are far too many examples of the over-exploitation of wildlife by people who call themselves ecotourists. Erosion of the ground easily destroys the values, by which the tourists have chosen the destination. This happens in habitats, where the number of visitors exceeds the natural carrying capacity of soils or vegetation, and also where reckless visitors pollute the nature with waste. The hiking trails can be strengthened to sustain masses of visitors – although some of the “pristine virginity” of the wilderness is lost. Similarly, many tour organizers believe – or at least they are trying to convince the customers – that the fauna and flora can also be “hardened” to withstand the ever-increasing number of people viewing and photographing them.

To reach and maintain sustainability in tourism destinations, appropriate behavior of the visitors is a vital prerequisite. National parks and other protected areas are often considered as habitats established to wildlife conservation. These sites are, however, also destinations for masses, and several intentions and expectations have to be considered. Visitors’ preferences and wishes largely determine, whether or not the destination fulfils pre-established expectations. Knowing the hopes and motives of visitors is thus vital in managing both the sites’ infrastructure and the subject matter of organized nature tours/excursions.

Values of pristine nature are highly appreciated by the nature-oriented tourists, even though the main purpose of visit were physical exercise in hiking streaks. In a questionnaire of visitors of natural parks and other protected areas in Portugal, Marques et al. (2017) revealed three principal background motives for travel: outdoor recreation participation, expectancy-value, and environmental attitudes. For many visitors, being part of a group is highly valued, even in admiring special wildlife targets. On the other hand, even when visiting parks for adventurous exercises, the aesthetic values of nature and landscapes are important motivators to travel into nature reserves.

Success in organizing and participating sustainable tourism largely depends on the basic knowledge on the requirements to fulfil the demands of all the interest parties. Questionnaires by Oviedo-García et al. (2017) at the Natural Park Saltos de la Damajagua in the Dominican Republic confirmed that knowledge provided to visitors largely determined the level of satisfaction of the travellers. The need of accurate and relevant knowledge of the destination’s supply and needs are highly valued by travellers who head their trips into ecotourism destinations.

Close relationships between basic background knowledge and satisfaction of customers (tourists) in experience-seeking nature tourism were described by Kruger and Saayman (2017) while analysing the expectations and experiences of visitors at a wild salmon run in Canada. The typology of nature viewers was categorized in four groups – selective experience seekers, tranquil experience seekers, comprehensive experience seekers, and casual experience seekers. Recognizing the potential visitors’ experience profiles in advance makes it possible to target specific background knowledge for each visitor or tourist group – thus ensuring a maximal satisfaction and probably also proper behavior at the nature attraction (Kruger and Saayman, 2017).


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Problems in Ecotourism. More Knowledge is Needed to Understand and Respect Wildlife
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This overview is based (but markedly extended and up-dated) on essays written for the course "Nature, Environment, and Tourism", with the Open University, University of Turku, Finland.
tourism, ecotourism, sustainable tourism, wildlife, animal rights, animal welfare, wildlife tourism
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PhD Kai Aulio (Author), 2017, Problems in Ecotourism. More Knowledge is Needed to Understand and Respect Wildlife, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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