Ecotourism: Green, or Green-washed?

by Ian Austin on August 30th, 2011

Part 2 of a three part series
Part 1Part 3 / Part 4

It is easy to say that your product, or project, is “green” but the statement is meaningless, or even damaging, if nothing is being done to substantiate the claim.  Declaring something “green” when it’s actually business-as-usual is “green-washing”.  Without some sort of certification or label that you trust, how can you tell if a product, or an eco-lodge, really deserves the “green” label?

Martha Honey’s book Ecotourism and Sustainable Development (2nd Edition, 2008, Island Press) provides guidelines by which to recognize and measure true ecotourism.  Honey has studied countries where ecotourism makes a major contribution to a country’s national business to see what is working, and what is not working.  In the Galapagos, the original ecotourism paradise, too many people are moving to the islands for menial jobs, degrading the environment.  Costa Rica too is struggling to find a balance between the growing luxury beach tourism sector and true ecotourism.

Honey has identified seven key characteristics (in quotes below); seven questions to weigh up when assessing an ecotourism scorecard.  Would an ecolodge in Bislig or Kitanglad stack up well enough against these factors to earn a world-class eco ranking?

1) “Involves travel to natural destinations:  This should be an easy one. The attractions in both Bislig and Kitanglad are natural areas with preserves of first-growth rainforest habitat.  A longer-term question is what is being done to ensure continued protection of the habitat and species in the preserves?

Photo 1. Travel to Natural Destination . Rainforest at Kitanglad

“Travel to Natural Destination” – Rainforest at Kitanglad

2) “Minimizes impacts:  The big and complicated factor; the 800-lb Philippine macaque. No matter how “gentle on the earth” it is, tourism causes impacts to the environment from construction and operations. The lodges would need to be constructed from local renewable building materials (such as giant bamboo), in locations where they cause minimum damage to habitat and blend in with the natural surroundings.  Then there is the human business; from the supply of water and food, and more challenging, to the recycling and disposal of waste; dirty water to empty bottles.  And finally, impacts to the very habitat that is the attraction, from overused trails, to noise and light pollution.  To minimize all forms of impacts, planning guidelines, such as those by the Center on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development and the Rainforest Alliance should be applied to ensure a lodge’s footprint is as gentle as possible.

Photo 2. Minimize impacts, lodge and trail

“Minimize impacts”; lodge and trail

3) “Builds environmental awareness.  This characteristic’s measure of success is that both tourists and the local residents learn about the natural environment, the wildlife and why it’s there.  Awareness also includes sensitivity to the history and culture of the local peoples.   Education is definitely a part of Conrad Cejoco’s program for Bislig (see previous post, Can Ecotourism save the Philippine Eagle?) and would need to be included in a Kitanglad lodge.

4) “Provides direct financial benefits for conservation: Countries such as Costa Rica and Ecuador use park entrance fees and tourism taxes to contribute to resource protection, research, and education.  At a Mindanao eco-lodge, the government contribution could be supplemented by requests for personal donations from international visitors to aid in local efforts towards protection of key species and habitat or contributions in return for useful items (need an umbrella!) that help fund these efforts.

Photo 3. Financial benefits for local people, cabbages or…

“Financial benefits for local people”; cabbages or…

5) “Provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people: This will be another key measure: does the eco-lodge provide jobs for local residents?  International chains tend to bring in a high percentage of foreign staff to manage and run facilities, which does nothing for the local people.  The objective for a Mindanao project should be to hire and train people from the local communities, which brings them financial and experience benefits.

6) “Respects local culture: Ecotourism tries to be more aware of local culture and less exploitative than traditional tourism, mainly through education and thoughtful consideration of local customs and community.  Respect is a challenging behavior to measure, particularly given that like all tourism, ecotourism involves paying for local goods and services.  However, it is easy to recognize when present, and most easily established by example.

Photo 4. Financial benefits for local people …  field guides!

“Financial benefits for local people” … field guides!

7) “Supports human rights and democratic movements:  Ideally, ecotourism should advance the United Nations goal of peace, prosperity and universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.  This characteristic can be challenged by lack of political openness and transparency.

The potential of ecotourism is clear; “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people”.  The bar is high, and measuring up will take careful planning.



3 Responses

  1. Peter Barto says:

    Excellent summary, Ian.

  2. Teresita Bastides-Heron says:

    It is a very good article but as Ecuadorian I have to tell you that I have learned that you need a visa to go to the Galapagos regardless. My niece got a job in Sta. Isabela Island, she got a working permit to go there but at the end of the contract. The people that have hired her wanted her to stay and continued working for them–she did not got the resident visa she needed it to be able to stay in Sta. Isabela and continue working. It is true that lots of people visit the island and they are destroying the eco systems there. It is going to take a lot of education to make sure people understand the need to preserve nature.

  3. Ian says:

    Thank you. I think you put your finger on one of the most important, and maybe the most difficult challenge, which is turning education into understanding, and caring for the eco-system that is providing the jobs. We just heard from a woman in Papau who is also facing the challenge of how do you educate and get people to really understand that unless the environment is protected in the short-term, in the long-term the eco system (which took 100s of thousands of years to develop) is gone and won’t be coming back.