The grass isn't always greener

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 April, 2005, 12:00am

It sounds like the perfect way for conscientious travellers to conserve the planet while on holiday, but ecotourism is big business and comprises a forest of contradictions.

Ecotourism has come a long way since its beginnings. Ecotourism began 30 years ago, in northwest England. It occurred thenceforward every two years or so, when my father would drive the family to Knowsley Safari Park, near Liverpool.

Knowsley was an impossibly exotic adventure: an 8km, second-gear crawl through displaced African/Indian, plains/jungle territory, starring lions and their unnatural neighbours, tigers, plus baboons, rhinoceroses, zebras and elephants. We visitors were in moving cages, while the 'exhibits' roamed free; one thrilling consequence of that was the habitual attack on the car by the baboons, which would try to prise off the windscreen wipers and snap the radio aerial, perhaps for use as currency in some after-hours primate souk. Or maybe it was because they were shiny.

Despite my robust claims, it could be that the world's first ecotourist was really elusive Scottish missionary Dr David Livingstone, who in 1860 christened Victoria Falls, which now stands between Zimbabwe and Zambia, and who has been inspiring goggle-eyed imitators ever since. The thundering falls and surrounding area constitute a Unesco World Heritage site, sparing them the curse of too much commerce.

But there's the rub: who's to say when development should stop and visitor numbers be restricted? Does the growing practice of keeping the hordes out of Bhutan by charging entrants a minimum of US$200 a day, for example, really address the sort of concerns raised by the trampling of Angkor Wat, or is it just extortion and a means of introducing snobbery in travel? And does 'responsible' travel necessarily go hand in hand with ecotourism?

And what is an ecotourist anyway? The term could have been invented by the industry to give people fond of mountains and reefs big ideas about themselves. Does an ecotourist travel without detriment to the environment? That definition rules out anyone who boards a plane to go on holiday. Is it someone careful not to touch or stand on coral? That dispenses with half the scuba-divers. Or is it someone who travels further than anyone else, perennially seeking the next big thing in remote corners, for the sake of office bragging rights, expending more fossil fuel than anyone else in the process? Is it someone calling himself an 'extreme' traveller who spends his vacations tearing through jungles on a mountain-bike in the name of 'adventure racing'?

These days, you can get your ecotourism kicks just about anywhere. Contributors to's latest poll put the mass-market destinations Spain, Greece and Cyprus, all offering growing numbers of 'special interest' vacations, in their top 20.

Africa, however, land of the Big Five game beasts (lion, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard) remains ecotourism's spiritual home.

But it's not just about safaris - on which you now shoot with a camera, not a rifle - anymore. Rafting the rapids below Victoria Falls makes for a thrilling sideshow to your main trip; kayaking, canoeing, fishing, lunching on Livingstone's Island and skimming the Falls on the Flight of Angels in a light plane, helicopter or microlight are among the organised commercial activities spawned by tour operators trying to outdo the competition.

The erstwhile visitor to Knowsley Safari Park can now pitch up at Zululand Safari Lodge, which lies 'deep in the heart of the African bush', according to the promotional material. Its 'fully appointed lodges [are] furnished in an ethnic wildlife theme' and the place has a 'swimming pool for those sweltering Zululand days and full conference facilities for up to 60 delegates'.

And what about the 11-day Big Five Safari and Beach Honeymoon package in Kruger National park, offered by Siyabona Africa Travel? Thatched cottages, sunken baths, private gardens and discreet personal service come as standard, calling to mind hotels in Mayfair or Manhattan.

But however anodyne it may be, is this sort of beat-around-the-bush-with-the-nasty-bits-taken-out type of holiday good for the planet? Tour operators operate tours to make money, not make visitors aware of the Earth's fragility. How many sundowner cocktail-sippers reclining in their luxury lodges stop to think how much petrol is required to run their fleets of Land-Rovers? With a butler in the bush, why should they have to think at all?

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as 'responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people'. To be an ecotourist, says TIES, you must: minimise your impact on your holiday environment; provide positive experiences (whatever they may be) for visitors and hosts; build environmental and cultural awareness and respect; provide direct financial benefits for conservation; provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people; raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental and social climates; and support international human rights and labour agreements. It's a tall, if not impossible, order, and sounds like a job for an international political taskforce rather than a tourist more interested in knocking back a few beers on a crisp, white seashore.

And where does ecotourism end and conservation begin? One is often dressed up as the other. As package tourism expands and turns Africa, for example, into a showcase, controlling access to reserves and establishing game-park rules may protect ecosystems while dismissing the rights

of people whose survival depends on land now considered a playground for holidaymakers. Botswana bushmen and the Maasai of East Africa have found themselves evicted from national parks because their lifestyles were suddenly declared 'incompatible' with the environment.

Ecotourism is, largely, a myth. The ecotourist, burning a day's worth of aircraft fuel on the way to Patagonia is, perhaps, nothing more than a better class of ecovandal than the Hainan or Phuket package tourist who at least hires a beach umbrella and contributes to the local economy.

As the old travel-industry joke goes: 'What's the difference between ecotourism and ordinary tourism?' Answer: 'About 20 per cent.'