Ecotourism: Green or Opaque?

It’s Thursday, and the color of the day is green, so I thought I would write a bit more on ecotourism — my focus for the summer. Yingluck Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand, is proposing to model Thai islands after the Maldives. She was impressed by the cleanliness of Maldives beaches on a recent visit. The Ministry of Tourism is considering luxury ecolodges to draw in a better class of tourists, and clean up the islands. Rapid development of high-end “ecotourism” is a mistake for several reasons. First, high end tourists might spend more money, but backpackers inject more money into local economies. Backpackers stay in the country longer and spend more money at local establishments than international hotel chains. Also, infrastructure is lacking on many islands. New infusions of tourism will do more harm than good if facilities, such as wastewater treatment, are not developed synchronously. I will talk more about one of my favorite developing world issues – toilets – later.

The beautiful Ao Tonsai of Koh Phi Phi, a view that conveniently omits certain details…
The less pretty side of island tourism. Insufficient (or nonexistent) waste water treatment means waste goes directly into the ocean.

In my mind, the largest issue with Yingluck’s proposal is the enormous risk of gaining large new greenwashed hotels. Ecotourism is a highly precise, and frequently abused, term. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as: as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”


Trekking and home stays are great, low impact, ways to interact with local people and get out to natural areas.

Tourism that should really fall into the categories of adventure, nature, or cultural tourism is frequently called ecotourism. Visiting a natural area is easy, but that visit does not guarantee that local communities are helped, or conservation aims are furthered. TIES expands upon their brief ecotourism definition with the following principles for true ecotourism:

  • Minimize impact.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
  • Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate.


Learning going both ways.

Meeting all of these principles is difficult. Calling a resort an ecolodge is easy. Ecotourism certification and labeling schemes aim

Recognize this label from any of your paper or wood products?

to reduce confusion, and ensure validity of the ecotourism brand, but certification is plagued with its own problems. Similar to other sustainability labeling schemes, there are issues with multiple ecotourism certifiers using widely varying criteria. Many ecotourism certifications are blind to important regional variation. Becoming certified can also be hugely expensive and time consuming. When true ecotourism operators struggle to ensure a locally sponsored school has a roof capable of withstanding the monsoon, they are not going to spend thousands of dollars, and days of staff labor, on becoming certified.

The emerging Global Sustainable Tourism Council hopes to implement a system similar to that used by the Forestry Stewardship Council. Such a system would provide a universally recognizable seal of approval, and also allow for regional specificity in certification. This plan is laudable, but still nascent.

This summer I am working with Andaman Discoveries, a community-based ecotourism enterprise. Income from local ecotourism funds local schools, community groups, and conservation projects. Community members, and some volunteer tourists (or voluntourists), work on turtle, seagrass, orchid, water lily conservation projects.


Who doesn’t love turtles?

I am spending my summer consulting with local Thai, Burmese, and Moken stakeholders on sustainability in local tourism. A few farang ecolodge owners and voluntourists will provide supplementary information. AD wishes to create a protocol that will ensure the sustainability of regional ecotourism. My formative evaluation will asses local ecotourism sustainability. The plan is to identify benefits AD’s programs have upon the area, and also find opportunities for improvement.