Ecotourism Travel With An Ethic

Ecotourism Travel With An Ethic

The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda survived a horrific war that killed an estimated 750,000 people. In the midst of chaos and catastrophe that affected every family in this small and impoverished African nation, one of the world's most endangered primates was considered important enough to protect.

Such an incomprehensible accomplishment is best understood in the context of creative conservation work that preceded the outbreak of Rwanda's human disaster. A key part of this success story is ecotourism, a natural-history approach to travel that generates money to support conservation, allowing wildlife and habitats to pay their own way. This, in turn, convinces governments and local people to develop well-designed protection programs.

Ecotourism encompasses a commitment to preserving natural resources and a sense of social responsibility toward local communities. It is a relatively new concept now embraced by most major wildlife and habitat conservation organizations throughout the world. The ultimate objective of ecotourism, unlike more traditional types of tourism, is to explore wild and sometimes exotic places while protecting, threatened and endangered habitats, wildlife and cultures. Travel programs are founded on sound scientific and anthropological knowledge, and visits to our last great wild places are carefully controlled.

If approached wisely, ecotourism can be a reasonable antidote to population and economic pressures exerted on the earth's natural resources. It can be constructive conservation, involving local residents and enabling them to realize the economic benefits of dealing with the realities of finding sometimes large, dangerous and destructive wild animals literally in their backyards.

Ecotourism that's misused can also be destructive. It's sometimes used as a buzzword to market trips by those with little understanding of the concept. For them ecotourism may be a golden goose, another popular travel trend. But unregulated tourism can kill that golden goose by harming natural resources.

What are the essential ingredients of sound ecotourism? They are as much a philosophy as a methodology:

The top priority of an ecotour is to safeguard wild habitats and fragile cultures. Participants do not impose themselves on places and people they visit; they do not disturb normal animal behaviors and cultural patterns.

Ecotourism is travel with an ethic. It is sensitive to host countries, with policies and regulations about how developing nations, "primitive cultures" and endangered wildlife are perceived and treated.

Ecotours are based on careful field research and coordinated with local governments and people. Ongoing tourism results in mutual rewards that justify conservation efforts. Local people benefit from increased tourism revenue and jobs; trip participants benefit from their experiences and the satisfaction of knowing they are part of conservation.

Ecotourism is sustainable, with programs, accommodations, transportation and other components responsibly developed for the long term. This also means training governments and local people who will ultimately run the programs.

Ecotours are educational, led by experienced conservationists, scientists, and experienced naturalists. Participants ideally conclude their travels with a greater appreciation and understanding of the places they have encountered.

Whether ecotourism is participatory, with the travelers involved in a project to enhance knowledge and/or conservation efforts, or simply observational, the goal is to leave each destination unscathed.

It was ecotourism and its regard for conservation that ultimately helped the mountain gorillas. Throughout the 1980s well-regulated gorilla tourism provided Rwanda with foreign currency and a rationale for forest and gorilla protection. Receipts from Volcano National Park, Rwanda's gorilla sanctuary (a one-hour experience with the mountain gorillas cost an average of $150 during this period) and additional tourism profits rocketed past more traditional Rwandan money earners to make tourism in 1990 - just before the war began - the country's second-most important source of foreign exchange.

By the end of the 1980s the mountain gorillas were considered a national treasure well worthy of protection. This attitude, coupled with a display of tremendous courage and devotion by many Rwandans, helped the great apes survive.

Based on the success of the African Wildlife Foundation's leadership role in the Mountain Gorilla Project (and subsequently the International Gorilla Conservation Program - IGCP) and its utilization of tourism as a conservation strategy in Rwanda, AWF has consciously continued to use this concept elsewhere in its Heartlands Programs in east and southern Africa. Generally, the strategy has been molded into AWF's Conservation Service Centers (CSC) programs. The CSCs help people get value from wildlife, both within and outside African Heartlands. CSCs offer expertise in business planning, law, entrepreneurship, and community economic development as well as wildlife ecology and land-use planning. Working with many partners, CSCs help create profitable ventures based on the sustainable use of local wildlife and wild lands. They help communities figure out what environmentally friendly business options they may have and how to develop a sustainable business plan or work with private corporations in a mutually beneficial manner. AWF CSC offices are based close to wildlife, tourists, and communities. They are located in Nairobi, Kenya, Arusha, Tanzania, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and White River, South Africa. At each location, collaboration between AWF, local communities, and wildlife authorities are working to ensure the survival of African wildlife and the future prosperity of African peoples.

Craig Sholley directed AWF's Mountain Gorilla Project in Rwanda from 1987 to 1990. He then joined International Expeditions, an organization widely known for its ecotourism programming. Craig was a board member of The International Ecotourism Society, and remains on the Society's Scientific Advisory Board. He recently rejoined AWF as a full-time staff member.