Head Trip

Vacationers escaping bleak northern winters often know little about who owns the beach on which they're tanning their hides. Many could care less, of course, but if they did ponder the deeper significance their brief sojourn had for the local reef or the chamber maid who changed their bed linens ... well, it just might spoil their holiday. For the privileged, travel serves as an escape. For much of the Third World, tourism is a vital means of survival that often carries with it the heavy price of environmental and cultural degradation. In Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? (Island Press; $25), author Martha Honey argues that travel consumers can make choices that help save the world -- leaf by leaf, rainforest by rainforest, village by village. It's perhaps the first volume to tackle the inextricably interrelated issues of travel, environment, and development issues, one that it would behoove concerned travel agents, tour operators, and world travelers to read.This is no dry armchair dissertation. Martha Honey, an award-winning journalist who worked for 20 years in Central America and Africa, enlivens her research and data with colorful anecdotes from her globetrotting experiences. Substantiated by extensive footnotes, the first three chapters of Ecotourism and Sustainable Development explore the mechanics of the tourism industry, the evolution of ecotourism, and its appropriation by conventional tours. The later chapters present engaging case studies of seven popular ecotourism destinations, including the Gal‡pagos, Costa Rica, and Kenya. Then it gives each location an ecotourism scorecard.Tourism, the world's largest legitimate business, accounts for about 10 percent of global jobs. It was once envisioned as a non-polluting industry that would foster employment, but it soon became apparent that mass visitation encouraged environmental decline, cultural invasion, prostitution, and low-paying service jobs. In 1980, a conference of religious leaders in Manila went so far as to draw up a statement arguing that tourism does more harm than good to people and societies in the Third World. In response to those concerns, the concept of ecotourism evolved simultaneously in Latin America and Africa, cross-fertilized, and is now utilized as a tool for benefiting fragile ecosystems and local communities. The benefits have been real. For example, in Kenya's Mara Game Reserve the "preservationist" method of separating the Masai from their native lands was a failure. A new "stakeholders" theory posited that ecosystems would be best protected if indigenous peoples benefited economically from parklands, and the Masai now successfully manage the area.But soon enough, "eco" became a corporate buzzword, and we were assailed with a green-washed version of the former panacea. When it comes to providing examples of this phenomenon, the book does not shy away from citing names and organizations. Honey details one shameful case of ecotourism exploitation: The president of the World Travel and Tourism Council instigated the "Green Globe" program, whereby a travel company sending a statement of their commitment to environmental improvement -- along with a $200 check -- received the right to use the Green Globe logo in promotional materials. To test this procedure, a television company in London simply sent in an application (and a check) from "Greenman Travel." Without further fuss, they promptly received a Green Globe certificate.To counter this pervasive green-washing, the Ecotourism Society devised a seven-point definition of ecotourism in 1991. These rules included some obvious notions -- that ecotourism must involve travel to natural destinations, minimize impact, and build environmental awareness. But the definition also called for such programs to foster respect for local cultures and support human rights and democratic movements. These latter points are often neglected in the ecotourism equation.Honey concludes that it's not enough to identify "ecotourism lite." We must also, she says, discover ways in which authentic ecotourism can move from being simply a niche market to become a broad set of principles and practices that transform the way we travel and the way the tourism industry functions. For those who dearly love the earth's natural glories and diverse peoples, one only hopes Honey's sentiments are not a pipe dream. Indeed, the earth's survival may depend on ecotourism. Ecotourism and Sustainable Development reminds the travel consumer that discriminating choices can keep ecotourism from simply becoming a passing trend.

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