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How Ecotourism Can Harm Indigenous Communities

Members of the Maasai tribe dressed in traditional clothes posing for an advertisement
Members of the Maasai tribe dressed in traditional clothes posing for an advertisement. Via Financial Times

Let’s time travel to the post-COVID future. It’s almost time for summer vacation and you’re scrolling on your laptop looking for vacation ideas. Suddenly, an ad pops up from a travel agency: Join the environmentally conscious community and invest in ecotourism!

Ecotourism. That sounds pretty sustainable, doesn’t it? The prefix “eco” perhaps makes you believe this alternative vacation may be better than a regular vacation. But before you pack your bags and head out on an ecotour, you may want to consider how ecotourism actually impacts the local communities where ecotours take place.

Arooba Ahmed
Arooba Ahmed is a freshman in Columbia College studying Biochemistry and Psychology. She is originally from New York, and in her free time she likes to explore the museums and restaurants of the city.

Ecotourism is defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as environmentally responsible travel that prioritizes conservation, leaves low visitor impact, and allows for socio-economic involvement of local peoples. The potential benefits of this sound great. You leave a lower footprint on the environment, financially support the local peoples, and best of all, become more culturally aware. It’s unfortunate then that only the first out of these three things have the potential to occur. Although there are select ecotours run by natives (such as Narlijia Cultural Tours) that accomplish the last two goals, in general they are difficult to achieve. In practice, many ecotours perpetuate the exact opposite: they deny support to local people and also create a culture that fetishizes them.

The problem arises because the vague nature of the rules that define what ecotourism is and who regulates the industry prevent it from being successfully monitored globally. A study by Bakar et al 2018 noted that ecotourism has the potential to solve many problems that regular tourism causes, but only if meticulous planning and effective management are practiced. Currently, international regulation and accreditation have remained ambiguous on which vacations can be classified as ecotours. The word “ecotourism” was created to foster awareness about the environment, but without specific guidelines on what an ecotour is, any type of vacation can potentially be labelled as an “ecotour” if it simply claims to be more sustainable than regular tours. This allows companies to create tours that do not necessarily follow the ideals of the IUCN and instead prioritize the motive of making extra profit. The method by which they make profit comes from a tactic we know all too well: appealing to the consumer. But in this case the appeal may stem from a bias that we may not recognize but has a huge impact – our view of indigenous communities.

We all have been bombarded with images of what indigenous communities look like through media platforms and historical studies. Many times these are inaccurate, stereotypical representations that depict the communities as ancient, simple, and incapable of incorporating so-called modern practices such as agriculture into their ways of life. This in turn has built an implicit bias of what we expect to see in the indigenous community that is used by the tourism industry to build the ecotour instead of actual facts about what the community looks like. In the Bakar et al study of an ecotourism hub called Tun Sakaran Marine Park in Sabah, Malaysia, the authors found that ecotourism does not at all involve the local people who depend on the local land for their resources. Essentially, companies refuse to coordinate with local communities and instead capitalize on our preconceived notions of what the natural world looks like to create a tourist-centered ecotourism experience.

This tourist-centered ecotourism experience can also be found in Kenya, where the economy is driven by tourist dollars. Seventy percent of the nation’s tourist parks are located on indigenous Maasai land, and images of the Maasai warriors are often used in international advertising campaigns. The Maasai receive no financial benefits from this industry, and other communities receive very little, if at all any. Beyond this, the stereotypical representation of this indigenous community is completely regressive. The Maasai people have begun to incorporate business and commerce into their lives, and the depiction of them solely as warriors is not nearly the full picture of a group that has a wealth of other practices and traditions.

Lack of direct communication with the local communities furthers an obsession with the vision that indigenous groups are completely separate from our so-called sophisticated style of living. Rob Nixon, in his 2011 book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, goes into depth on this issue and comments on game lodges (spaces where mainly Western tourists come to stay during tours). He argues that such spaces have created an environment that is detached from the rest of the world by denying the existence of modernity. His argument hones in on our problem: we are so encased in what we think is our own understanding of the local community that we have forgotten that times have changed. Our denial of the transformation of the indigenous community has created a huge problem where our obsession with all things “natural,” or removed from modern civilization, has made us fetishize and orientalize the indigenous community. This, then, is utilized to build the ecotour as an escape from civilization fashioned not from real-life scenarios, but from our own desires. And the worst part is that ecotours are advertised as beneficial to the indigenous community when in reality, they are manipulated to have very little say in their creation. How can they receive any benefit when they have little contribution to the creation of ecotours?

In order to break this cycle of profit and abuse of the local community at the hands of the local people, we must change our views. We cannot accept the portrait painted by ecotourism companies of what native people look like. By educating ourselves before blindly submitting to this propaganda, we can force companies to confer with the local communities on what actually should go into the ecotour. This will incorporate them into the industry and is a step towards giving them the benefits they deserve.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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3 years ago

Thanks for bringing awareness to this issue! I am the co-founder of a nonprofit and a social enterprise established to leverage tourism for Maasai empowerment and community conservation. We are responding to how tourism has posed a crisis for Maasai and other Indigenous in the region, but also how it poses an opportunity for local communities to be the primary beneficiaries of tourism. We call it “equitable ecotourism”. We have big plans to restore thousands of acres of Maasailand to Maasai through tourism. If you would like to learn more, please contact me!