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Ecotourism: Reframing Conservation or Creating Dangerous Markets?


Published by: Rosie Wright, and artwork by Ryan Ward.

It’s the first night of my honeymoon and I’m showering from a bucket of rainwater under the star-pricked darkness of the rainforest canopy. We’ve eschewed the traditional luxury resorts hotels and are instead staying at the Madidi Jungle Eco Lodge, a resort in the Bolivian Amazon which aims to minimise the environmental impact of its guests, in part through its water, electricity and waste management.

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We’re not alone in looking for alternative ways to travel. A 2018 study by the World Travel and Tourism Council suggest that almost 10% of travel-related revenue now comes from ecotourism – a powerful share of an industry that accounts for one in ten jobs across the globe. It’s part of a growing movement in reaction to a greater understanding of the negative impacts of travel, including environmental degradation, overcrowding and climate change. And, given the financial importance of tourism for many developing countries, it’s a potential bridge between economic and environmental concerns: two areas that are more often placed in opposition. Such is its potential that the Sustainable Development Goals reference tourism three times, highlighting the important role it could play in preserving livelihoods, cultures and the environment – if only it is done well.

Madidi offers an excellent example to follow. Given the vital significance of the Amazon in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases, environmental concerns are at the forefront. However, indigenous ownership and providing local skills training are another core part of the resort’s mission. Our guide, Raul sums up this balance, telling us that the ecolodge helps protect not just the land, by preventing it being used for logging and other damaging activity, but also their traditions of culture and custodianship. During our stay we get to learn a little of this as we are taught to make handicrafts and cook local dishes. 

It Madidi also offers a fairly representative sample of those who would dub themselves eco tourists: a combination of well-to-do vacationers who want to experience a unique environment with a personal touch and a younger ‘backpacking’ crowd who are keen to take up the more adventurous outdoor activities including trekking and river tubing. All eighteen guests are white and from the EU, UK or USA.  It is these demographics that have triggered some of the backlash against the ecotourist movement, with critics dubbing it a process of “greenwashing”: placating the consciences of wealthy travellers to keep tourist revenue coming in without challenging any of the power dynamics that underpin a lot of global poverty. 

In response to this Raul takes us to an abandoned banana farm, where the lodge team are contemplating building additional accommodation, to spot the Madidi titi. This monkey was only identified as a new species back in 2006 and originally named after a casino. The money that the casino spent on bidding to name the monkey has been given to a local organisation that protects Madidi from deforestation. His point seems clear: outsider intervention is inevitable and so it may as well be for the genuine benefit of local people and wildlife. I’m reminded of the words of river advocate Heather Hansmen: “we love what we know and we protect what we love”. Good ecotourism schemes hope to encourage people to act and advocate for a place after they return home. They seek to embed  embedby embedding a relationship with a destination that goes beyond a standard vacation, although perhaps only for those who can afford it.

However, not all ecotourism is created equal and some criticisms are justified. Two years later we are travelling across Botswana to experience the Okavango Delta, an oasis in the Kalahari Ddesert dubbed one of Africa’s ‘seven wonders’. It’s a unique ecosystem and one under threat from both climate change (, due to increased water loss), and political interests. The popularity of the region for tourism has helped stave off threats of damming in the area, since tourism is the second biggest contributor to Botswana’s economy. It also has provided economic opportunities for the local people to work as polers for the iconic makoro canoes which are the main transport in around the area. However the experience feels very different to our stay in Madidi, with less of a focus on protection.  Perhaps it’s the influx of greater numbers, around 50,000 tourists each year, to a smaller, more fragile area. We see litter floating in the delta as we glide past and when we arrive in our ‘eco camp’ I’m frustrated to note that we’re dependant on bottled water in plastic containers. 

Vocational opportunities have also encouraged large waves of migration to key access towns such as Maun, where we’ve come from, meaning that financial and cultural benefits are not so clearly realised as in more remote Madidi. Over a lethargic game of Uno in the blistering heat, a poler named David tells us that he’s not planning on staying in the job beyond the summer, talking of the fierce competition over tips and hoping that there are better prospects for him elsewhere.

This reflects another concern cited by critics, which is that ecotourism may unwittingly trap people into unsustainable paths of development. There’s a gloomy consensus amongst our guides that the animals are “moving on” from the areas most easily accessible from Maun, their migration habits affected by the water loss. This is borne out by patchy sightings – we spot only a few straggling giraffes and a distant wildebeest in our three- day trip – and our fellow travellers are vocal about their disappointment. In a business dependant on both tips and favourable reviews from tourists this may well translate into future reductions in visitors and revenue undermining the hopes of sustainability that ecotourism claims to offers.

A Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) report links this to the rise of ‘last chance tourism’ where tourists create spikes of resource demand on places and species that people think won’t exist for much longer. Not only does this risk hastening their demise but it creates short term infrastructure needs which, rather than become a useful investment for a community, end up being abandoned when interest dies down. This also raises the concern of what  the philosopher Michael Sandel calls the ‘moral limits of markets’: or the concern that once an action has been given a financial incentive it erodes the moral imperative that preceded it. If environmental protection becomes profitable but only for a brief time will it risk undermining previous motivations?

A few days after we leave Okavango I find myself discussing this issue with our ranger, Cedric, at the Stanley & Livingstone reserve and rhino sanctuary across the border in Zimbabwe. As part of the park’s anti-poaching training programme, he is gently dismissive of this perspective, reminding me that ecotourism operates alongside many other markets which impact local perceptions about conservation. He opines that no amount of tourist tips will compensate, for example, a poacher who could expect to net up to USD$60,000 dollars for a a single rhino horn. For him , and his colleagues, their work is about making Zimbabwe, and the world, a better place; and the benefit of ecotourism is simply to cover the costs, in this case paying for better security than can be afforded in the state-owned parks. He tells us enthusiastically about local campaigns and innovations being developed to protect the region’s national parks, reminding me again about ecotourism’s opportunity to teach and inspire. 

So, faced with the full complexities of the situation, how do we make sure that we support the full potential of ecotourism and avoid being part of its problems? I’m still left with more questions than answers.  reviewing the different arguments explored in this article. Ecotourism is a young enterprise, though, and will likely continue growing and adapting, with new variations and a push towards greater legitimacy. Perhaps there are still solutions waiting to be found that will help resolve some of these dilemmas. 

Another cautionary note from the GSTC paper was the risk of tourists wanting to become ‘short term locals’, wherein a genuine desire to see ‘behind the scenes’ of glossy travel brochures risks commodifying ways of life in a way that fossilises people. Instead we should remember the agency and ingenuity of the individuals creating and running ecotourism ventures and look to support where we think it’s being done well.

For us, the key to that has been becoming ever more informed. There’s a plethora of different schemes springing up to help the perplexed traveller such as the Green Tourism Business Scheme or the Eco Hotels Certified mark. However the lack of clarity or monitoring of such labels has also led to criticisms of greenwashing.  This has prompted a further layer of oversight from organisations like the Ecolabel Index and the European Ecotourism Labelling Standard, which have arisen to assess the relative values of different certifications and bring a level of standardisation. Yet the current situation is that there is still no single regulatory body nor any real restriction on using the term ‘eco-travel’ or related claims such as ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘pro-poor’ tourism. Furthermore, even legitimate schemes can charge fees which some travel providers can’t or don’t choose to pay. So whilst they are a starting point, any conscientious ecotraveller must take the time to do further research. Now Duduring our planning we speak with other travellers and locals where we can, look for resorts backed up by other charities and try to read impact reports, always knowing that everything comes with bias. For those to whom that sounds a little too much like ‘revising for your holidays’, there’s also travel agents who will undertake this for you if you trust them to be sufficiently critical on your behalf.

There’s also no consensus on exactly what the focus of ecotourism should be and whether climate change, habitat conservation or other environmental concerns should be prioritised, making this another instance in whichere individual decisions can influence further developments. For those who consider climate to be the ultimate consideration it’s possible that even the best resorts or tours still won’t provide sufficient balance. A 2012 European Environment Agency  (EEA) report held tourism to be the fourth highest contributor to pollution amongst the world’s industries, with travel (mostly flights) constituting 75% of this total. Given that many ecotourist resorts are in further-flung destinations than many ‘standard’ hotels, due to the rare ecosystems they are trying to protect and promote, there may often be no way for their target audience to fully forgo flights and other carbon-emitting transport to get there.

For absolute purists that may mean staycations are their only answer. But does that come at the expense of the opportunities of exploring new cultures, or simply provide the chance for different communities to better appreciate what they have locally? Should we, for example,  be teaching more about the climate change-related loss of the European hedgehog rather than relying on exotic locales to motivate us? Or are new innovations likely to provide an answer here too? One promising experience we had recently was in previewing a virtual reality travel experience which aims to recreate a snow leopard encounter coupled with narratives from local guides. Given that their Himalayan territories are fragile and not easily accessible,  could this could be an alternative that still enables local people to share their stories and be paid for conserving the animals.? Or perhaps it is a warning that if we do not get ecotourism (and our overall climate change strategy) right, these cultures , animals and habitats may soon only remain in a virtual world.  

Trump’s Wildfire Policy Overlooks Climate, Fans Political Flames, Lets Economy Burn


Published: Timothy Arvan, and artwork by Ryan Ward.

President Donald Trump has been known to fight fire with fire, aggressively countering his detractors on issues from border security to the economy with trademark firestorms of charged and often fallacious tweeting. The Administration’s response to last fall’s catastrophic California wildfires has been no exception to this pattern. In the wake of blazes which claimed 98 civilian lives, an inflammatory Executive Order has ignited a fiery debate over the efficacy of California’s forestry strategies. Ultimately, the policy amounts to little more than political blame-shifting and dangerously misguides the public on effective fire management. Most consequentially, the federal government has eschewed both economic logic and moral duty by failing to address escalating climate change costs to the region.


The Executive Order in question is clear in its objectives to promote “active management” of federal forests and rangelands, reduce wildfire risk and protect public safety. Cloaked in the lofty language of a federal wildfire strategy, however, the Order lays out a series of illogical and ignorant policy prescriptions that align with the president’s equally head-scratching claims blaming the state’s fire problem on insufficient “raking and cleaning […] like they do in Finland” and “bad environmental laws” causing local water shortages. To be clear, Finns do not rake their forests and California has no such water scarcity. 


Based on a prolific body of misinformation, the Executive Order directs Trump’s Interior and Agriculture departments to dramatically upscale brush and dead tree removal on federal lands, prescribing the extraction of 4.4 billion board feet of timber across 4.25 million acres in the coming year. While the efficacy of efforts to lower fire-causing fuel buildup has long been debated, the Trump Administration’s “strategy” to increase logging by 31 percent since 2017 has been roundly condemned by fire ecologists as ineffective. Unmoved by logic as ever, the president compounded a cause for political uproar with the suggestion that he will withhold millions of dollars in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster aid to California unless local officials “get their act together.” This attempt to hold the state’s feet to the fire is, of course, an unethical intimidation tactic beneath the dignity of the Chief Executive.


As the government plays politics with critical funding, efforts to quantify the damage of California’s fires have recently yielded the startling estimate that 2018’s blazes could become the most expensive natural disaster in US history. In the face of multi-billion dollar costs, California’s major insurance providers have scrambled to rethink the risks and associated coverage for wildfire protection in vulnerable areas of the state. However, losses extend far beyond the scope of traditional insurance-based estimates accounting for destroyed property, foregone business income, and public health impacts from hazardous smoke-related particulate matter. For instance, lost employment opportunities and declining tourism are expected to create severe declines in tax revenue for local and state governments. Additionally, factors including mudslides, exacerbated by heavy rains in areas uprooted in the fires, increase the costs of restoration and further drive down regional property values as fire-wary residents debate whether to rebuild or move out. Considering the full breadth of impacts, AccuWeather places total economic losses at $400 billion, or roughly two percent of the 2018 American GDP. 


Notably, economic losses from wildfires are inequitably distributed, disproportionately burdening low-income minority residents whose tighter budgets mean relatively high transition costs of relocating and finding new jobs. These populations may additionally experience a higher incidence of respiratory diseases and deterioration of pre-existing health conditions as low socioeconomic status has been identified as a principal indicator of health risk. As such, long-term wellness outcomes for the poor are unduly harmed by exposure to fire-induced particulate pollution. Indeed, municipalities across the state must grapple with broad public health repercussions from fire-induced urban air pollution episodes, while rural regions face innumerable agricultural and land management challenges, demanding innovative adaptation strategies. 


The sheer magnitude of California’s damages, combined with the weight of distributional injustice, underscores the economic and social case for urgent federal policy to combat climate-related threats. However, while a chorus of fire experts have called for comprehensive measures that incorporate adaptation plans and employ controlled burns to prevent massive, destructive blazes, the Trump Administration is content to distract, deflect, and demur. Speaking to California reporters at the height of twelve active fires, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke falsely maintained that “this has nothing to do with climate change,” preferring to blame “environmental terrorists” for obstructing management efforts. The objective reality is that climate change is already here, imposing an ever-diversifying array of threats to human-natural systems. Indeed, wildfire risk projections predict a significant intensification of the frequency and scale of catastrophic fires in California through 2100, all while population growth and continuous development of the state’s economic centers will magnify threats to local communities. In light of this dire outlook, misconceived policies like Trump’s abdicate federal leadership, renounce science and ignore the obvious humanitarian and economic imperative of addressing climate change, all in the interest of political expediency. 


Ultimately, Trump’s federal wildfire plan amounts to firing politically-tinged insults at California’s progressive institutions and should remain in the Twittersphere where it belongs. Meanwhile, in states like California, unmitigated climate change is sure to produce an outcome with which Trump is already intimately familiar: “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.

[1] “All False Statements Involving Donald Trump.” Edited by Angie Drobnic Holan, PolitiFact, Nov. 2019.

[2]  Executive Order. No. 13855, 2019, pp. 45-48.

[3] Reidmiller, David. “Fourth National Climate Assessment: Summary Findings.” U.S. Global Change Research

  Program, 23 Nov. 2018.

[4] Boyer, Dave. “Trump Signs Executive Order to Create Federal Wildfire Strategy.” Associated Press News, 21 Dec.


[5] “California Wildfires: Finland Bemused by Trump Raking Comment.” BBC News, BBC, 19 Nov. 2018.

[6] Kelly, Caroline. “’Make America Rake Again’: Confusion in Finland over Trump’s Wildfire Comments.” CNN,

Cable News Network, 20 Nov. 2018.

[7] Friedman, Lisa. “Trump Inaccurately Claims California Is Wasting Water as Fires Burn.” The New York Times,

The New York Times, 6 Aug. 2018.

[8] Fears, Darryl, and Juliet Eilperin. “Trump’s Executive Order Will Cut More Forest Trees; CU Boulder Professor

Says ‘We Can’t Log Our Way out of the Fire Problem.’” The Denver Post, 14 Jan. 2019.

[9] Siegler, Kirk. “Will More Logging Save Western Forests From Wildfires?” NPR, 29 Aug. 2018.

[10] Hanson, Chad. “More Logging in California’s Forests Won’t Prevent Wildfires, No Matter What the Trump

Administration Says.” The Sacramento Bee, 14 Sept. 2018.

[11] Fears, Darryl. “Trump Quietly Issues Executive Order during Shutdown to Increase Logging and

Deforestation.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 15 Jan. 2019.

[12] Daniels, Jeff. “Trump Threatens to Cut off Federal Funding for California Wildfire Relief.” CNBC, 9 Jan. 2019.

[13] Myers, Joel N. “AccuWeather Predicts 2018 Wildfires Will Cost California Total Economic Losses of $400

Billion.” AccuWeather, 8 July 2019.

[14] DaSilva, Richard. “Latest Estimates of Insured Losses from California Wildfires at $9B to $13B.” Insurance

   Journal, 20 Nov. 2018.

[15] Stein, Vicky. “8 Numbers That Tell the Grim Story of California’s Wildfires.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

30 Nov. 2018.

[16] See footnote 13.

[17] Dowd, Jennifer Beam, and Allison E. Aiello. “Socioeconomic Differentials in Immune Response.” Epidemiology,

vol. 20, no. 6, 2009, pp. 902–908.

[18] Culver, Nina. “U.S. Forest Service Ecologist Says Mega Wildfires Require More than Suppression, Urging 3-Step Solution.” The Spokesman-Review, 17 Oct. 2018.

[19] Luery, Mike. “Environmentalists Partially to Blame for Severity of CA’s Wildfires, Interior Chief Says.” KCRA, 13 Aug. 2018.

[20] Hurteau, Matthew D., et al. “Projected Effects of Climate and Development on California Wildfire Emissions

through 2100.” Environmental Science & Technology, 2014, pp. 2298–2304.

[21] Bierman, Noah. “Trump on His Threat to North Korea: ‘Maybe It Wasn’t Tough Enough.’” Los Angeles Times, 10 Aug. 2017.