Ecotourism has been touted as a way to limit the destruction of natural habitats caused by mass tourism, while supplementing income of local communities in developing nations. While good in theory, how successful has ecotourism been at empowering the people who live in the beautiful places ecotourists want to visit? In this podcast, Cindy Pan, Melissa Baldino, and Virginia Pan investigate the impacts of ecotourism initiatives on local communities, with the help of Duke University Marine Lab assistant professor Dr. David Gill.
Melissa Baldino graduated from Duke in May of 2020 with degrees in Biology and Environmental Science and Policy. She is spending her gap year as a field technician in many places. Her most recent position had her in Alaska working for a hatchery during the salmon run. Melissa hopes to attend grad school and pursue her PhD in a year or so.
Cindy Pan graduated from Duke in 2020 with a bachelor’s in Biology, concentrating in Anatomy, Physiology, and Biomechanics. She spend the spring of her junior year at the Marine Lab. She continues to call Durham ‘home’ as she pursues her doctorate in Physical Therapy and hopes to integrate her love of conservation into her future career.
Virginia Pan graduated from Duke in 2020 with a degree in electrical and computer engineering and certificate in marine science and conservation. She started a PhD program in ocean science and engineering at Georgia Tech in fall of 2020. She continues to enjoy podcasts and has been binge listening to during the pandemic.
David’s research centers on marine coupled human-natural systems, focusing predominantly on marine management and tropical coral reef systems. Overall, his research aims to provide evidence-based insights into how marine management and conservation can lead to equitable and sustainable outcomes. This work is by nature both interdisciplinary and collaborative, drawing on key theories and analytical approaches from disciplines such as economics, community ecology, and political science, and working alongside researchers and practitioners to co-develop salient research questions, approaches and dissemination pathways.
Dr. Lisa Campbell hosts the Conservation and Development series. The series showcases the work of students who produce podcasts as part of their term projects. Lisa introduced a podcast assignment after 16 years of teaching, in an effort to direct student energy and effort to a project that would enjoy a wider audience.
Supplemental material for this episode
Transcript: Local communities and ecotourism: Empowerment or disempowerment?
Theme song ‘Oyster Waltz’
Dr. Lisa Campbell: Welcome to Seas the Day. I’m Lisa Campbell, and today we bring you the second of three episodes on tourism, all part of our conservation and development series. In this episode, Melissa Baldino, Cindy Pan, and Virginia Pan tackle ecotourism, a popular form of tourism that ideally overcomes some of the negative impacts of mass tourism. Theyask under what conditions ecotourism can empower or disempower local host communities. Melissa, Cindy and Virginia all spent the spring semester of their junior year at the Duke Marine Lab, in 2019. They have since graduated –yay! –and one consequence of publishing these episodes two years later is that I often have to track students down. Sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s always fun to reconnect and learn what they’re up to. Visit the episode page on our website sites.nicholas.duke.edu/seastheday to see where these Duke alumni have ended up.
Ocean waves and seagulls in the background
Cindy Pan: Close your eyes and visualize the perfect tropical island where the sun shines all day and the temperature rarely drops below 70 degrees. You’re lying under the sun and the pure white sand is warm under your back. Far away you hear the faint beats of a steel drum. The light, smell, and touch of ocean breeze washes over you. A waiter, one of the locals, comes around with trays of fragrant plantains and asks you and the hundreds of tourists surrounding you, “If anyone would like anything to eat, anything to drink.”
Traffic and airplane noise in the background
You’re blissfully unaware that any food that the waiter will bring you might be imported from nearby countries. You didn’t think about the noise and air pollution, or carbon footprint, of the ship or airplane that brought you to this beautiful place. Open your eyes, not just to the impacts of your holiday, but to the variety of problems created by the mass tourism industry.
When mass tourism first began, most of the narrative surrounding tourism benefits focused on economic benefits to national governments, a source of valuable foreign exchange. Little consideration was given to its effects on the surrounding ecosystem and local people. In more recent years, tourists have become more environmentally conscious and advocates have spoken up on behalf of local communities. Because of these factors, there has been a shift away from mass tourism in favor of ecotourism and the alternative forms of sightseeing. Ecotourism still has the potential to be immensely beneficial to the economy, but unlike older versions of mass tourism, ecotourism also aims to protect the environment and enhance the livelihoods of local communities.
Ocean, birds, and people sounds in the background
This podcast focuses on the effects of ecotourism on local communities. We decided to look at ecotourism from a lens of empowerment in hopes to give you, a future tourist, a broader sense of what it means to visit a place that is home to people and their livelihoods.
Virginia Pan: So, what exactly is ecotourism? Ecotourism can take many forms, but it began as an alternative to mass tourism in the early 1970s. Some of the main concerns with mass tourism where that local communities suffered low economic gains and high environmental and social costs. In response to these failures, small-scale ecotourism was established to protect nature, preserve culture, enhance the local economy, and educate tourists. In theory, ecotourism has the potential to solve two major problems: the destruction of natural habitats by intrusive tourism, and the need for income in developing countries. With the growth of green consciousness, people are drawn to ecotourism and its intended benefits for the environment. Tourists are becoming greener and demanding environmentally appropriate tourism experiences, although it’s arguable whether or not ecotourism actually satisfies these requirements. So far, ecotourism has been applied with varying levels of success.
Melissa Baldino: Ecotourism has been studied in many forms by the scientific community for the most part ecotourism analyses have been driven by economic impacts rather than sociocultural ones. Because of this, the goal of our podcast is to shed light on the social impacts of ecotourism on local peoples, specifically the potential implications of ecotourism on communities and how the process empowers or further marginalizes these populations. Throughout the podcast our main focus will be on elaborating the direct consequences of ecotourism on local populations through the discourse of empowerment and/or disempowerment of local people.
Cindy: As we move forward, we will use a framework for analyzing the impacts of ecotourism initiatives on the empowerment of local communities developed by Dr. Regina Scheyvens during her study of ecotourism. According to the World Bank, empowerment must include access to information inclusion or participation, accountability, and local organizational capacity. Dr. Scheyvens relates these four elements to ecotourism, finding that empowerment can take many forms for local peoples including economic, psychological, social, and political empowerment.
Melissa: In our discussion of these forms of empowerment, we will provide various case studies to illustrate how ecotourism impacts local communities for better or for worse. First, we will delve into the economic impacts of ecotourism. Now, economic empowerment occurs when ecotourism brings lasting economic gains to a local community. In this case, the money made from ecotourism goes directly to the locals, who then put the money into visible improvements such as permanent housing and improved sanitation. However, locals could be economically disempowered by ecotourism just as easily when profits go to outside agencies. Individuals outside the dominant ecotourism agencies can’t share those economic benefits because they lack the appropriate skills or the capital. This analysis is important because the tourism industry, which includes ecotourism, has taken over some communities and countries in recent years.
Dr. David Gill: Because we don’t have many natural resources as in extracted natural resources, and so all of our cards are basically in the tourism basket.
Melissa: That’s Dr. David Gill, an assistant professor at the Duke University Marine Lab. He grew up in Barbados and studies the impacts of tourism in the Caribbean.
Dr. Gill: Since the 70s, Barbados shifted from being an agricultural economy over into a tourism economy, so the majority of our GDP comes from tourism. And so, a lot of the economic policies, a lot of the land use planning as well as other legal frameworks are centered around protecting and growing the tourism industry and so that has shaped the development of the country. It’s also made it one of the more expensive islands in the Caribbean to live just because it targets high-end tourism and bringing in products.
Melissa: As Dr. Gill alludes, ecotourism is empowering to those who reap the benefits. For the sake of this podcast, we will define economic benefits as not just total revenue, but in terms of how many people the wealth is distributed to and whether or not local communities are included in that wealth distribution. The best examples of ecotourism include communities that earn direct revenue from their ecotourism ventures or have money reinvested in their town directly. One example of this can be found in Jiuzhaigou, an area in western Sichuan, China between 1984 and 1999 the number of tourists increased from 30,000 to 408,000 as the infrastructure for ecotourism was developed. In this economy previously dominated by logging, ecotourism has allowed for the income of the local community to increase by forty times what it used to be over the past 14 years.
Dr. Gill: There is definitely an increasing market for ecotourism products.
Melissa: Again, here’s Dr. David Gill with an example of beneficial economic schemes applied alongside tourism.
Dr. Gill: And if we define ecotourism, which is a kind of a loose term, as tourism that is focused on environmental quality or amenities, I would say it definitely has taken off in the Caribbean, internationally as well. Belize is one example, and they have been able to both market their ecotourism products really well to be able to sustain really well through user fees, access fees, exit fees at the airport.
Melissa: Another example of a beneficial economic scheme comes from Dr. Sanjay K. Nepal, in his paper ‘Mountain Ecotourism and Sustainable Development’. In developed nations such as the US and the UK, mountain and wilderness centered ecotourism have formed a new sector of the economy for local communities, as well as travel agents and ecotourism businesses. Because of the high volume of visitors combined with the high value of these trips, wilderness ecotourism can provide the economic benefits of mass tourism in these developed nations, but without the harmful by-products associated with the over consumption of mass tourism. Our next case study follows the Wakatobi Marine National Park in Indonesia, which is home to many different ecotours adventures.
The first of those ventures that we will focus on is a research-based ecotourism business in this community that has directly employed twenty-nine local workers. In 2000 it paid 20,000 US dollars back into the community, an equivalent of the monthly wage of 520 people in the area. This reinvestment comes from proactive policies imposed by the research company. Their customers rent rooms and local houses, which provides income for land owners. And the company relies on the community for local food items and services. This company has also provided other valuable benefits to the local community outside of direct revenue. For example, this research company provides community development activities, including English classes, and they also distribute birth control services for women. This particular example seems to exemplify how foreign ecotourism businesses can partner with local communities to allow for ecotourism to be mutually beneficial.
However, ecotourism ventures are not always designed to return revenue to the local communities in which this profit is made. In the same National Park in Indonesia, a dive company operates. Now, they employ twenty-two local people, but they only put back 11,000 US dollars into the community in 2000. This company has more yearly visitors and operates for seven more months of the year than the research company. However, it spent half as much on the community as the research company. Well, this may seem overtly negative, it may be a necessary precaution. The over reliance of ecotourism businesses on local communities may not be financially stable as each business is only open seasonally and could cause unnecessary and dramatic fluctuations in the need for certain goods and services.
In some countries, locals see little to no benefits from ecotourism business. In developing areas like the Himalayas, ecotourism brings high volumes of tourists but with low returns. The small amount of income that is earned is not likely to be reinvested in the local communities. And ecotourism has historically created a low retention of benefits and a lack of economic stability due to the seasonality of the ecotourism businesses themselves. These unfair distributions of economic benefits in local communities can occur at exaggerated rates when larger foreign companies engage in ecotourism. Ecotourism has the potential to provide additional income and employment opportunities for locals, therefore empowering them economically. This industry can pay back to the local economy, allow for local people to start successful businesses, and provide new services for the community. However, it can also be used by large companies to extract profits from tourism without paying anything back to the local communities. Even if the profit stays in the area, it is not guaranteed that the benefits will be distributed equally between community members.
Cindy: In general, local empowerment is so important because one form often leads to another. As researchers Gyan Nyaupane and Surya Poudel of Arizona State University explain, women who are socially empowered are released from their non-economic, yet challenging housework, freeing their time to earn income and providing them with economic empowerment. Similar forms of economic empowerment allow other members of local communities to shift their lifestyles in ways that promote psychosocial empowerment in the form of self-confidence and even political empowerment. Because they are closely intertwined, we will jointly discuss psychological and social empowerment.
Dr. Scheyvens defines psychological empowerment as raising the self-esteem of community members because outside parties recognize the uniqueness and value of their culture, natural resources, and local knowledge. She claims that this rise in self-esteem may lead community members to seek further educational opportunities, at least seeking training that wi ll support ecotourism. On the other hand, psychological disempowerment may also occur as a result of ecotourism. If traditionally used resources are taken away by the creation of protected areas, local people who are used to accessing these local resources may feel frustrated or disillusioned with ecotourism. In the context of ecotourism, social empowerment occurs when individuals work together to build ecotourism in their home country, thus improving community cohesion. Additionally, funds raised through ecotourism may go towards community development, such as building schools.
Social disempowerment is possible with ecotourism as well, leading to social disharmony. This might occur when tourists bring in outside values which are reinforced for local children and end up moving children away from traditional cultural values. Locals may also feel a negative social impact from ecotourism due to lifestyle changes brought by the introduction of new foods and long working hours of ecotourism. When asked how tourism, including ecotourism, has been perceived by local communities, Dr. Gill reflects that it has had mixed reviews.
Dr. Gill: It’s a mix, because a lot of people depend on it for revenue directly, so they have perceived it as highly valuable, something that should be protected at all costs. Then on the other side, some are a little bit disillusioned with the focus on tourism. They see certain decisions made by government and policies as being pro-tourism to the disadvantage of the locals who live there.
Cindy: Social disempowerment was also studied by social scientists Amanda Stronza from Texas A&M in the United States and Javier Gordillo from Posada Amazonas in Peru. Their work was similarly focused on community views of ecotourism. Overall research finds that one of the main complaints of ecotourism from local communities was the loss of communal and familial relations. The collaborative environment was replaced with one filled with business and hierarchy, which disempowered locals.
Another form of social disempowerment lies in the imbalance between different socioeconomic classes, which is further exacerbated through ecotourism. In order to create positive partnerships and empower locals, many researchers advocate for capacity building which is a method that increases the assets that a community can rely on to improve their lives. Through capacity building, a community should be able to define, evaluate, analyze, and act on important community concerns. Capacity building for the community is often a goal of ecotourism, shifting benefits to local populations from primarily economic benefits to positive indicators of empowerment such as new local jobs and higher education standards.
One example of success lies in Nepal at the Sahara National Park, studied by researchers Nyaupane and Poudel. The main reason for their success is the presence of strong civil society organizations that advocate for the local people and provide them with input in policy formation. Capacity building activities have also occurred, such as skill development and increased schooling, which are tied directly to increase revenue from increased ecotourism ventures.
Virginia: The last branch of Dr. Scheyvens model focuses on local political empowerment from ecotourism. Political empowerment relies on a community’s government structure to represent the needs and interests of all those in the community. Outside agencies who want to lead the establishment of ecotourism, must seek out opinions of community members to make sure locals can participate in meaningful ways. Otherwise, political disempowerment may occur if the national government, a NGO, or private business has full control of the ecotourism and fails to involve local communities in decision making. Alternatively, even within local communities, self-interested leadership can hijack ecotourism to benefit a selected portion of residents. The level of local political empowerment may be established from the beginning of ecotourism initiatives. Ecotourism may be initiated by local communities, NGOs, the national government, or the private sector.
A literature review conducted by Tania Romero-Brito from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, looked at 214 ecotourism case studies from around the world and categorized them based on who initiated the project and what role NGOs played. They found that more ecotourism in Latin America and Asia is started by NGOs and local communities, while more cases in Africa are started by the private sector. This may be because some African nations have a long history of safari ecotourism and game watching, allowing tourism operators to form partnerships directly with local communities. With regard to local communities, they found that 79% of these cases involve local based ecotourism, but only 27% of the cases were initiated by local communities. Romero Brito also found that NGO involvement was highly flexible, depending on the roles played by other parties.
The study compared the success of ecotourism ventures as measured by profits, visitation rates, social benefits, conservation consequences, and changes in environmental policies. The results showed that ecotourism projects run by private groups did not do better than those without private groups. Interestingly, they found ecotourism was more successful when there was either local or national NGO involvement as Dr. Gill describes.
Dr. Gill: You will have the fees then being used and disbursed either nationally, and then these are able to capture a portion of that. Or if there is some mechanism that is set up to keep the funding local and having a local management body. I believe it may happen in Belize where there are some Marine Protected Areas are co-managed by government and non-government bodies, and then the local NGO is able to access and use some of the fees.
Virginia: Interested in how Belize handles ecotourism, I started to do some digging. I found that some of the stated strategies used by the Belize Department of the Environment include strengthening the coordination of environmental activities between government and non-government organizations and facilitating public participation in environmental issues through public education campaigns and district outreach activities in order to encourage community based environmental planning and enforcement of regulations. Utilization of these strategies can be seen by looking at the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment, also known as TIDE, one of the leading conservation NGOs in Belize. TIDE works in partnership with the government of Belize to co-manage the Port of Honduras Marine Reserve and two terrestrial protected areas in the Mayan Mountain Marine Corridor. TIDE’s approach to conservation is characterized by two key features: (1) community involvement in environmental stewardship and (2) integrated land and seascape management from ridge to reef. TIDE engages local stakeholders including fishers, indigenous community groups, farmers, logging commissioners, tour guides, and schoolchildren, and stewardship through a number of innovative programs such as the Freshwater Cup environmental soccer competition.
In other cases, ecotourism regions are planned, initiated, and completely run by the government. For example, researchers from the Seoul National University followed a case study in PyeongChang, South Korea. They found that the transition from government led ecotourism to resident led ecotourism was disastrous. They recognize that while government led ecotourism was advantageous because of its clear vision and quick outcomes, the government focused too much on building physical facilities and failed to provide education about ecotourism to local communities. This led to conflicts over environmental degradation, stringent regulations, and operating deficits. Residents wanted more education about ecotourism so that they could better run businesses. They also wanted knowledge of operating rates and direction for development from the government. When the government put locals in charge of running ecotourism, there was chaos due to conflicting interests held by different stakeholders in the community and insufficient knowledge about ecotourism as a whole.
This case study illustrates how government and residents cannot successfully manage ecotourism alone, but rather they must work together to manage public resources. Moreover, it is important that local communities, NGOs, and the government are on the same page and have the same definition of ecotourism and its goals for their area of interest. These events highlight the need to consider local communities in ecotourism planning and illustrates the widening gap between ecotourism theory and practice.
Cindy: Before we conclude, it’s important to bring to light one major part of this analysis of empowerment that is not been explicitly addressed by Dr. Scheyvens’s model. Specifically, the connection between ecotourism and environmental conservation seems to be underlying all other forms of empowerment. So how does environmental conservation fit inside a discourse about the empowerment of local communities? In the discussion of mass tourism, ecological preservation or protection often conflicts with economic success. So how does ecotourism try to bridge this gap?
On one hand, as we illustrated in our discussion of economic empowerment, economic independence seems to be vital for a community to experience empowerment. On the other hand, the tenants of ecotourism require ecotourism to be environmentally conscious as well as economically successful. To bridge this gap, ecotourism moves away from top-down exclusionary or fences-and-fines approaches that exclude traditional livelihood activities from protected areas. Instead, local communities are linked to their surrounding environments. This linkage helps communities see how environmental protection can empower their citizens on all levels psychosocially, economically, and politically.
Research by Das and Chatterjee finds that the influx of money from ecotourism could be beneficial for biodiversity conservation because locals see that their natural resources are valuable without being extracted. However, ecotourism must be managed properly so that communities are benefiting economically, or else people can still become disillusioned with the conservation process.
Melissa: As you’ve heard throughout the podcast, ecotourism can serve as an agent for economic success, livelihood improvement, and biodiversity conservation if it is applied properly. A common metaphor to illustrate this is that ecotourism can be used as a key to open the lock of a door. This metaphor is relevant to the discourse surrounding ecotourism, in that it emphasizes how ecotourism can be used as a method to return power and control to local communities through ecotourism opportunities.
Virginia: However, ecotourism on its own cannot be given a broad title of good or bad. Its success depends on the implementation and involvement of each individual community. Researchers predict that by 2024, ecotourism is expected to represent 5% of global holiday market. If you plan to be a tourist, do your research and be aware of the impacts of your tourism on the local communities.
Cindy: So where are you going on vacation next?
Melissa: And now time for the credits. Virginia Pan was our lit researcher. The director of enthusiasm for this awesome podcast is Cindy Pan and our Audio Magician is Melissa Baldino. We’d like to say a huge thank you to Dr. David Gill for sitting down with us in this interview, and I thank you to you for listening.
Theme song ‘Oyster Waltz’
Dr. Lisa Campbell: We hope you enjoyed today’s episode of Seas the Day. We’ll be back in two weeks with the third of these three tourism themed installments.
This episode was written and produced by Melissa Baldino, Cindy Pan, and Virginia Pan.
Rafa Lobo and Bo Baney edited the podcast.
Our theme music was written and recorded by Joe Morton.
Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @seasthedaypod.
Visit our website at sites.nicholas.duke.edu/seastheday
If you enjoy Seas the Day, please leave us a review in Apple podcasts.
END OF TRANSCRIPT
Clifton, Julian. 2004. “Evaluating Contrasting Approaches to Marine Ecotourism: ‘Dive Tourism’ and ‘Research Tourism’ in the Wakatobi Marine National Park, Indonesia.” In, Contesting the Foreshore: Tourism, Society and Politics on the Coast, Jeremy Boissevain and Tom Selwyn (eds) , Amsterdam University Press, 2004.
Cornwall, Andrea. 2008. “Unpacking ‘Participation’: Models, Meanings, and Practices.” Community Development Journal, 43:3: 269-283. doi: 10.1093/cdj/bsn010.
Das, Madhumita, and Bani Chatterjee. 2015. “Ecotourism: A Panacea or a Predicament?” Tourism Management Perspectives,. 14: 3–16. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.tmp.2015.01.002.
“Department of the Environment.” Belize – The Department of Environment (DOE), Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries & Sustainable Development, 2013, www.doe.gov.bz/index.php/about-us/objectives.
Fang, Yiping. 2002 “Ecotourism in Western Sichuan, China: Replacing the Forestry-Based Economy.” Mountain Research and Development, 22:2: 113–115.
Lee, Jae-hyuck, Son, Yoon-hoon. 2017. Government-led Ecotourism and Resident-led Ecotourism. International Review for Spatial Planning and Sustainable Development, 5:2: 47-59, Online, https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/irspsd/5/2/5_47/_article/-char/en.
Nepal, Sanjay K. 2002. “Mountain Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Ecology, Economics, and Ethics.” Mountain Research and Development, 22:2: 104–109.
Nyaupane, Gyan P., and Surya Poudel. 2011. “Linkages among Biodiversity, Livelihood, and Tourism.” Annals of Tourism Research,. 38:4: 1344–66. doi:10.1016/j.annals.2011.03.006.
O’Neill, Alexander C. 2002. “What Globalization Means for Ecotourism: Managing Globalization’s Impacts on Ecotourism in Developing Countries.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 9:2: 501–528.
Romero-Brito, Tania P., Buckley, Ralf C., & Byrne, Jason. 2016. NGO partnerships in using ecotourism for conservation: Systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One, 11:11. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/10.1371/journal.pone.0166919.
Salafsky, Nick and Eva Woolenberg. 2000. “Linking Livelihoods and Conservation: A Conceptual Framework and Scale for Assessing the Integration of Human Needs and Biodiversity.” World Development, 8:8: 1421-1438.
Scheyvens, Regina.1999. “Case Study: Ecotourism and the Empowerment of Local Communities.” Tourism Management, 20:2: 245-249. doi:10.1016/S0261-5177(98)00069-7.
Starmer-Smith, Charles. 2004. “Eco-Friendly Tourism on the Rise.” The Telegraph, 6 Nov. 2004, www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/731611/Eco-friendly-tourism-on-the-rise.html.
Stronza, Amanda, and Javier Gordillo. 2008. “Community Views of Ecotourism.” Annals of Tourism Research, 35:2: 448–68. doi:10.1016/j.annals.2008.01.002.
Tracey, Dieter. 2012. “Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE).” Climate and Reefs, 2012, climateandreefs.org/tide/.
*Many of the sounds used in the sound mixing came from Zapsplat.com