Is Eco-tourism good for the environment?

This piece was prompted by a brief debate on the Facebook Group of “Terra Incognita” an organisation promoting eco-tourism.

This is from Meike Becker.

. . . . I really found it hard to justify the passion for traveling at all while explaining how it is important to lower your impact on the environment.

I thought about how I could make my travels a greater good for environmental protection and so the idea is now, to collect examples of people and projects I meet on the road who are already doing great work in sustainability. I started to write articles about people who make an example and publish them on the blog to inspire people back home or elsewhere who are maybe still finding it hard to just start making a difference. This can be very small stuff, for example one story I am currently writing down is about a couple who built a fully (tiny) home just doing upcycling, means using things they found somewhere which got thrown away.

I still think about how to fully deal with this difficult topic of “sustainable travel” . . .

It could be the cynicism of old age, but I no longer believe that there are positive choices we can make in how we live which will have any noticeable effect on the climate/ecological crisis. I do scrupulously recycle everything I can and live in an almost carbon-neutral house but I don’t really think these choices will disturb the ever rising curve of fossil fuel emissions which is pushing us remorselessly towards an almost uninhabitable earth within the lifetime of my grandchildren.

If you are one of the rapidly growing minority able and willing to look clearly at what is happening to our world, and if you live in the so-called developed or Western world you will find yourself living parallel and incompatible lives. One side of your brain lives and works in the “normal” world of conventional economics where we measure our wellbeing by how much we consume and judge our future by how much economic growth we can achieve. The other side sees a world on the brink of collapse in which some form of severe hardship looks inevitable.

Those of us with a life expectancy of less than 20 years have a get out clause – “not in my lifetime”. We can be forgiven for continuing to live and think as we have done for most of our adult lives. This doesn’t work for me though. As the natural world retreats from the human onslaught, I seek ways of getting closer to it. If I can deepen my understanding of the living world, perhaps I may find a way to reconcile these parallel worlds in my head.

To that end I have spent the last 5 years trying to find places where I can get close enough to the remnants of Britain’s wildlife to photograph and record them. For various reasons I am not comfortable in groups – especially groups of people like me – and prefer to travel alone, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to find places where I am not jostled and disturbed by the ever-rising numbers of people seeking the same thing. We are all inspired by the astounding images of wild creatures shown on our screens and we all want to get out there and be with them. In the “normal” world we are part of a large and growing business.

An astonishing 75% of British households are reported to feed birds in our gardens, spending an estimated £200 million to do so! Not quite in the same league as the £1.2 billion we spend on crisps, but you get the picture.

The RSPB claims that the re-introduction of the White Tailed Sea Eagle is worth £5 million in tourist spending per annum to the Isle of Mull alone, and generates 110 local jobs there.

Nature Reserves are hugely popular. The reserves managed by English Nature for example are estimated to generate £22 million in economic activity. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in 2018 had 200,000 members, attracted just over a million visitors and generated an income of £21.8 million.

We are generally encouraged to see figures like this as a good thing. They show that there is real concern for the future of the non-human life that shares our living space.

I’m not so sure.

It can also be seen as an abusive cycle: we use the fabulous incomes that economic growth has given us to buy more and more stuff and travel ever further and more often. Then we spend more of this fossil fuel-driven income on things that make us feel better about it – Nature Conservation for example. We drive our high emitting cars or fly in even higher emitting planes to special places where we pay a whole army of professional conservationists to repair some of the damage we have done.

It could even be argued that all this activity serves no better function than to ease our consciences and allow us to continue with our comfortable and exciting lives.

I think most of us who care about the natural world would agree that a much better approach would have been not to have done so much damage in the first place. We all want to find ways to reverse the damage, and there is an appealing logic in bringing tourist income to places where, to feed their families humans are driven to destroy the environment. The flaw with this argument is that it involves even more economic activity, namely travel, by the wealthy countries; more of that very consumer spending which has caused most of the damage.

There is an alternative, and it’s one which may be forced on us anyway: pull back, do less. This is at the heart of the now fashionable concept of “Rewilding” – the restoration of pre-farming landscapes by, in particular, the re-introduction of ancestral grazing animals and their predators.

Somewhere in the heated debate this movement has generated is a way forward which might offer a better solution than the half-century old “Conservation”. I have just ordered EO Wilson’s “Half-Earth” to learn more about an idea which, when I first came across it seemed ridiculously unattainable. What these three concepts share is the idea of setting aside land where non-human species can flourish. The big difference between Conservation and the others is the point I am trying to get to with this piece:

Conservation involves intensive human management from engineering through to captive feeding. The others promote the opposite – a retreat, a deliberate neglect. There is of course an element of overlap. For any tract of land which has been under human management for many years, a rapid return to bio-diversity can be greatly assisted by, for example, controlled tree planting, or managed introduction of grazing animals.

Even if we agree about what we should be doing, we are still faced with the impossibly enormous question, the super-sized elephant in the room, possibly the greatest challenge humans have ever faced;


More specifically, how can we make space for nature and the climate to recover without condemning at least half our population to a nasty, brutish and above all, short life.

In the worst case scenario that will happen anyway.





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3 Responses to Is Eco-tourism good for the environment?

  1. Peter Twyman says:

    ‘How can we make space for nature and the climate to recover without condemning at least half our population to a nasty, brutish and above all, short life.’

    So that’s your specific question.

    An interesting post. Your specific question as above is clearly influenced by E O Wilson, as he suggests making space. To my mind the answer to that question is that we can’t.

    We can’t even stop hundreds of thousands of acres of Amazonian rain forest being burnt, because that’s how many thousands of people are expecting to make a living – and who are we to say that they should sacrifice their well being to assuage our conservationist instincts.

    You talk about a rapidly growing minority who are concerned about the deleterious impact that the human race is having on the ability of our planet to sustain our living neighbours, both fauna and flora; let alone the human race itself. I’m not sure who’s counting but I’d lay a bet that global population growth far outstrips the growth of that concerned minority.

    We are certainly facing big and growing problems. And big problems need big solutions. And global problems need global solutions. And global solutions require international co-operation. Actually I can’t think what a ‘solution’ would look like. What’s required is continuing ‘management’ of change to conserve and promote what is good and stifle that which is bad.

    In the interest of brevity I’ll give you one example which should give you hope, and then emphasise the parallel need for international co-operation.

    Everyone who gives the matter any thought at all is aware that the time is fast coming when the amount of oil we are discovering and exploiting will no longer match increasing consumption. The response of the human race is to look for alternative energy sources. Battery technology is advancing at a slow rate but enormous resources are being devoted to battery research. That begs the question of where the power to charge the batteries is going to come from but enormous resources are also being devoted to the development of alternative energy sources.

    You must be aware that telling people to stop travelling isn’t going to work. What will stop people travelling is if it becomes too expensive for them to travel – which might happen. Then we will need to develop a different way of living. (A weekend in Blackpool rather than eco-tourism for example. That would be good.)

    So to conclude, I see two different ways of managing change positively, which, if they happen, should give us hope.

    The first is human ingenuity in the face of need. What I say above about alternative energy is an example of that. And that is ‘bottom up’; like evolution. It’s going to happen even without government intervention.

    The second is ‘top down’, rather more like intelligent design. This will require global co-operation at government level. The climate accord from which Donald Trump withdrew the USA is an example of that. We can influence this by the way we vote. We’ve got a general election coming up. Use your vote wisely. And campaign.


    • twynog1 says:

      Thanks for this thoughtful response Peter. I was thinking about a sensible reply when Thelma’s 6 year old grandson, who is here for half term, reminded me that I promised to kill and eat him in 5 minutes. How on earth do parents cope with young children and climate change? Full reply later.

  2. Hannah Jenkins says:

    Hi Dad
    Interesting read, just about sums up what’s going on in my head a lot of the time. We could all do with some guidance. I also like what Peter wrote about top down and bottom up somehow meeting what is needed. I have to seek out positive articles to counter it all and have found a website established by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is good for some positivity
    I’m off tree planting in November hoping that at least helps to offset my carbon a bit…..

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