"One of the gladdest moments in life is the departure into unknown lands, shaking with one vibrant step the irons of habit, the lead of routine, the cloak of care and the confinement of home.

The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood, with the thrill of touching the contours of undiscovered shorelines and the blue flames of distant mountains."

-Richard Bangs
Editor-in-Chief of Mungo Park
Founder of Sobek Expeditions

Western Society and Ecotourism: Traveling Companions?

by John D. Ivanko

Published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Vol. 16, Nos. 1-2, 1996. All Rights Reserved.

As the global census figures race toward 10 billion by the mid-30s of the next century and nano-seconds increasingly make the difference in stock market profits or losses, somewhere at least a few people are asking "how much is enough?" When do we have enough money, enough people, and enough "progress?" But to speak of curbing these without a thoughtful plan so others can understand the process, would seem as strange as the U.S. government paying furlowed "workers" for work they never did--unless, of course, you were one of them.

What does the above situation have to do with tourism? To most--especially those who mistakenly regard the petrochemical or automotive industries as the largest in the world--tourism probably means very little. But think again. According to the World Tourism Organization, tourism and travel are estimated to have grossed over $3.4 trillion in 1994, creating jobs for about 10% of the global work force. These figures might very well double in the next ten years.

Ecotourism (often including rural tourism, heritage/cultural tourism, nature-based tourism, and adventure/experience-based tourism) has demonstrated growth far in excess of the so-called "mass tourism" market by posting 30% annual increases between 1990 and 1995. This increase can be compared to a Stanford Research Institute forecast of 8% growth in mass tourism over the same period. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, over 50% of the U.S. adult traveling public--147 million people--have taken an "adventure" trip in their lifetime. Included on this "adventure" activity roster are camping, hiking and biking. Though a small segment of the overall tourism industry, ecotourism's profit margins tends to exceed that of mass tourism. In 1994, the average ecotourism two-week package cost between $2,000 and $3,500--depending on location and activity.

Ecotourism has both the potential to change the way we view travel and to provide the means to care for our diverse and rich resources. Western Society (about 1.1 billion people) cannot bring the remaining 4.4 billion people in less developed countries up to the Western consumptive "standard of living" without exhausting the earth's resources. Ecotourism„and the conservation ethic and ecological perspective embodied within--creates a situation where both the West and the less developed societies can converge toward the middle. Perhaps ecotourism is the elusive "common ground" because it fundamentally changes the economic dynamics of business. Ecotourism recognizes the ecological and cultural costs of doing business as well as champions what Wendell Berry calls "local economy" - i.e., the community becomes strong and cohesive by what's developed and sustainably managed on a local level.

Ecotourism might also offer the ability to circumnavigate that quagmire of ecological misunderstanding and ignorance which leads to environmental degradation as noted by David Orr in Ecological Literacy. One solution Orr mentions is "... a global catastrophe large enough to get our attention, but small enough to recover from. This prospect presumes that the causes of any such event would be correctly diagnosed, the proper conclusions drawn, and wise actions result. But it is not difficult to see this chain interrupted by the complexity of events, political pressures, shortsightedness, nationalism, and irrationality...we cannot count on having a catastrophe just the right size." (Orr, 1992, p. 61) Ecotourism might be but an avenue--a pathway--around Orr's insightful comment. More often than not, ecotourism's "technology" is process oriented and subtle in effect: localized and harmonized with nature and the surrounding community. Through successful ecotourism models, then, world attention and resources could be better directed toward conservation and preservation ends.

As a part of the service industry, ecotourism promotes what Alan During, in his important book How Much is Enough?, calls the "shift from material to non-material ends." This shift is the only viable way in which human demands made on the environment will not overrun the carrying capacity of the planet. Ecotourism is in fundamental opposition to consumption as a means to fulfillment; rather, the sense of place, the excitement of experience, and the opportunity of learning become the over-riding products "sold" to ecotourists. These ecotourism "products" are based upon preserving and protecting the original cultures and environments, not upon transforming them into some Disneyland-like fantasy-world.

Before getting into the philosophical implications of this trendy niche and its embedded relationship with science, technology and society issues, let me attempt to engage your senses by describing a sojourn from my past eco-adventures; it is excerpted from The Least Imperfect Path: A Global Journal for the Future.

Excerpt: In Search of Dragons

The sputter of a weather-worn fishing boat droned on as it bobbed toward our group of twenty-five. We milled about restlessly on the ferry deck, having finally arrived to Komodo Island after a seemingly endless, steamy ferry ride across the Flores Sea. I had begun to wonder if this mysterious island with Dragons ever existed.

The approaching fishing boat acted as a makeshift shuttle--once a day, six days a week--to carry people (not the catch of the day) from the rendezvous with the big ferry to one of Indonesia's most isolated islands. The distant-sounding chug of the boat's engines teased our patience as it struggled against the hidden currents beneath the wide mouth of the bay.

Ten minutes later we were on board, heading to the island that I used to read about in my biology books. I stared, mesmerized, at the savanna-like island in the distance.

"Will be 1,000 rupiah," said one of the slender, dark-skinned Indonesians, jolting me alert as he nudged my leg with his flip-flop sandal. His dark, straight hair flowed in the wind as he squinted down at me. He wore a torn, faded sarong wrapped around his waist, a partly buttoned shirt revealed the shadow of a farmerÍs tan "v" leading to his neck.

I proffered up my cash, putting the stack of hundreds in his outreached hand and watched the forefinger with the characteristically long singular fingernail close quickly over the money. After he had collected all the passengers' money (25,000 rupiah), he contentedly, if not boastfully, took two smokes on the front deck before the boat completed the thirty minute final leg. I realized Marlboro Country included Komodo Island. Perhaps he should audition for a TV commercial: shot as he saddled the railing on the bow and puffed energetically. No American Marlboro Man could have done better at balancing with the rocking of the boat.

As I first learned in India and Nepal, the U.S. dollar was again king here. It could buy entire fruit salads for pennies and a night's stay for a couple of bucks. In this case the thirty minute ride cost a mere fifty cents. This tourist money seemed to mean a lot to the fisherman: more cigarettes or a new motor for the boat. In talking with a ranger in the seaside village of Sape the day before, I knew none of the money went to conservation of the island. I came across this practice in developing countries so often that I called it "nature profiteering." It usually ended in bankruptcy of both the resources and people for whom it provided nominal sustenance. Bukit Lawang on Sumatra Island was headed in this direction--fast. I remembered such developments in the Thar desert of India and along the mountain trails in Nepal. The local people could not see the long-term effects and impact, only the short-term profits collected from tourists eager to ogle nature or lead the way to Western "development."

During our long ferry ride, I had passed the hours discussing our global adventures with David. He was a simple man--a carpenter by trade--but held a zeal for living, for meeting new people, for exploring far off lands. Our common passion for the wild--our love of nature--cemented our friendship. By being in this environment, we both felt more alive and better connected with ourselves and the world around us. Immersion in nature reminded us of our origins, our place on this planet.

It shocked me to realize how far I had let myself slip away from this real world. Back in Chicago I had entered an environment-controlled, freon-cooled, elevator-automated, electronic-operated, and deadline-based life at the advertising agency. Time was of the essence--and valued only in dollars and cents. From the phone, fax, and file cabinets to the MSG-laden fast food, I was living not in the so-called "real world," but rather in an artificial one. I had become "un-natural" due to societal expectations. My direction had not been from within; there was no true purpose that I could call my own. I was asleep--unconscious--mentally and soulfully dead. There was no balance between nature and culture, just an obsession to produce the best advertising in the world, bar none! I remember many Chicago days when I arrived and left in the dark, never peeking out the window to appreciate the sun's warm glow.

Komodo meant my escape from the modern, developed world and from the masses of humanity with whom I had moved among for the past few months. Perhaps here I could better understand the diversity of nature and its ecosystems in a place more remote than any other I had ever visited. Why should we care about the survival of the Dragons? ... or the preservation of rain forests? I intuitively thought it wise to care for that of which one is a part. Yet more of the planet around me was noticeably showing signs of unnatural decay, of misuse, and of waste. By visiting this island, I hoped to understand some of the roots of our global crisis from an ecological standpoint.

Silent--worn down from the ferry ride, the sun, and the heat--we patiently waited out our shuttled passage. Like the rest of the passengers, I too came to Komodo hoping to catch a glimpse of the "ora," the Indonesian name for the Dragons. The only survivor of carnivorous lizards that thrived in Asia 130 million years ago, the Dragons promised a sense of discovery, if not novelty. Neither David nor I had the slightest clue of what to expect. We had our old info sheets and guide books in case we'd be on our own as soon as setting foot on the island.

The boat swung around the point, over lucid blue-green water so clear it seemed we might be floating on a rare form of liquid oxygen. Who needs goggles, I thought, peering down like the rest of the passengers into the living world of color and coral. The Indonesians seemed either to stare off into nowhere, or steal glances at the women with bare shoulders, frazzled hair and fancy designer sunglasses.

I watched the glistening waters as the sea shelf appeared from the dark blue abyss. I looked up to the land of the lost--lost in a time when there were no power lines, smokestacks, automobiles, or high-rise beach resorts. Like stepping back in time to an age of dinosaurs and giant spiders, the island promised to fill a wild, untamed void in my life. The deep blue water of the bay calmly licked the rim of whiteness that nearly encircled us. Nature's womb warmed our spirits. A strip of palm forests met the beach. The parched hillsides steeply zigzagged up into the deep blue sky which served as a backdrop. Yellow-green grasses covered the distant mountains, interspersed with fan-leafed lontar palms. Except for the sections of green forest near the small dock, everything else was colored by burnt-brown grasses and thickets.

I discovered that in meeting the demand for smoking, the Indonesians adapted the lontar palm leaves, originally used for the ancient books on Bali, to roll cigarettes. Instead of reading from the leaves, they now smoked them. In a nation with an illiteracy rate of over 50%, the leaves, once used for writing, were now smoked thanks to innovation and economic forces. This was another mirage of progress, similar to the Indian and Nepalese use of old books to create envelopes or packages for fried bananas and spices. All I could do was wonder how humanity could be fooled so easily--myself included.

The wildness and remoteness of the place were awesome. I could see a few simple bamboo houses on stilts and the crisscross of paths to the cabins. It was as if our group had been invited to visit Robinson Crusoe's solitary island and stay in his bungalow. Despite being with my group, an incredible feeling of isolation briefly overtook me. At about the same time, however, nature seemed to draw me into one of its few remaining gardens unmarred by an adversarial and domination-bent human presence. A harmony and a natural peace existed on the island, even though the ecosystem was very different from the lush, tropical rain forests I hiked a week before. A natural communion replaced my feelings of isolation. The air buzzed with enthusiastic insects savoring my salty skin.

It didn't take long for our group to check into accommodations: wooden multi-room cabins on stilts. They reminded me of the crudely built barracks I had seen in the old black and white W.W. I movies when I was growing up. The walls and floors never fit together at right angles, thus leaving cracks of light or slivers of the ground below. My cabin, like a room in a funhouse, slanted more than twenty degrees downward. The comical design probably resulted from soil erosion and poorly conceived construction.

The cabins also included squat toilets and bucket-shower wash rooms. I learned that the luxury of full plumbing was recently made available by the rangers after they discovered a water source for the area and decided to pump the water into the cabins. The water still wasnÍt safe for drinking, but we all knew that before setting foot in Indonesia or, for that matter, anywhere else in South East Asia.

Bottled water, imported Coca-Cola, and beer were the potable beverages for Western tastes and therefore, costly. I cheated by using my Katadyn Water Filter to safely create drinking water for myself, my budget leaving me little choice to do otherwise. The Indonesians, Indians, Egyptians, and Thai have all received the short end of the stick by not having the plentiful supply of drinkable water that we have, even in most of the poorest parts of the United States.

The cost of our rustic cabin lodging was a government controlled 5,500 rupiah, about $3.00--a token payment to sleep on nature's doorstep. The door to our cabin led directly up the hillside and supposedly to 2,500 Dragons.

While checking in, we had also registered to see the Komodo Dragon feeding the following morning. I signed up for the 6:30 a.m. feeding, the later one already full. My anticipation had been fueled over the past few days by the incessant shouts of "Hey mister! You see Komodo Dragon?! You see Ora?" by hoards of Indonesians that often crowded around me at markets or restaurants. They had grown accustomed to Westerners venturing off the beaten path to see the prehistoric-like reptiles.

When the Dragons were first introduced to the world in P.A. Owens' book, On A Large Varanus Species From The Island Of Komodo, in 1912, I doubt that many of the scientific community showed real interest. These Dragons were so far away and unrelated to the lives of most people. The Dragons existed merely as myth until the turn of the century when pearl fishermen made a forced landing during a storm only to discover other dangers awaited them on the island. But times have changed; in 1991, the island hosted 13,269 recorded visitors. The government refused to turn any fee-paying visitors away--only to restrict the number of tourists per feeding to thirty. Considering the island's remoteness, this count was indeed significant, given the limited resources to handle the increasing flow of tourists. To complicate matters, I learned that the extra cost of the guide fee was apparently a levy for President Suharto and the Department of Tourism. This, even though it was a governmental body completely separate from the Department of Forestry (so-called P.H.P.A. in Indonesian) which tried to protect and preserve the park.

The only park regulations were for the tourists to remain near the camp boundaries or on the beach due to the danger of the Dragons. If we wanted to go hiking, we had to hire a ranger guide to take us into the back country. Curious and slightly concerned about the Dragon danger, I asked the ranger at the check-in office if anyone had ever been attacked and killed.

"We had this man in 1976, from Denmark. He disappeared without any trace." His English came slowly, but with confidence.

"But do you think the dragons got him?" I pressed--remembering all the warnings I read about the strait's current and undertow, and wondering if the man decided to go for a swim.

He sternly replied, "Tourism is very important business to us and our government. We are responsible for your safety, otherwise we get in trouble." His voice lightened slightly. He smiled, "The Dragons are very big and have been known to swipe goats from under people's homes in the fishing village. As for me, I don't go out without one of those." He pointed to large, thick sticks in a rack beside the trail on which we first approached the settlement.

I noticed that he skirted my question and decided right then and there that I would not go out without one of the "Dragon sticks." Satisfied, not with his answer but with the solution to a potential problem, I headed off to the beach with the spirit of a child. I was only aware of being alive--that was all that seemed to matter. Just nature and I....

A Marketing Gimmick

The cultural and environmental damage caused by mass tourism--whether from ignorance or jumping on the bandwagon to lure tourists dollars--is found, sadly, throughout the world. As previously described in my journey, the political, economic or developmental interests often over-ride ecological or community needs. After talking with the local village chief, I discovered that the village was barred by the government from operating anything more than the boat shuttle service to the island. The government didn't want competition which would lessen the steady stream of cash pouring into Komodo Island National Park coffers--coffers which emptied hundreds of miles away in Jakarta, the nation's capitol.

Other exotic places like Jaisalmer, India, have also enticed increasing numbers of travelers who search for remote destinations unmarred by modernity and so-called "progress." Many adventurers search for nature or cultures lost in time--forgotten--and seek to live the pages of a National Geographic magazine. Discovery is the prize for which many people are willing to pay a premium. So the camel safaris leaving from the desert outpost city of Jaisalmer have mushroomed. On the roads one can now see trails of dust from the jeep 4x4s tracking their way into their touted "exclusive special places" in the desert. The night before, the travelers might have slept in a Maharaja's palace turned four-star hotel. Hot showers, imported Western foods and other Western "needs" stress already fragile local infrastructure and resources.

The novelty of these trips, however, have become an illusion, like a mirage in the desert. Villages have been overrun by camera-toting tourists and Rajput snake-charmers have sold-out to the profit--sharing plan. Some "unique" safaris are so well known and their routes so familiar that local villagers visit the resting points to sell imported Coca-Cola and British biscuits. And the garbage--plastic bottles and all--go up with the flames before the open pit fire is stamped out.

As fewer rocks remain unturned and cultures begin to trade their traditional kurta for a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, many of the more exotic destinations will lose their initial attractiveness as a tourist destination. For economies rooted in tourism, this spells no uncertain demise for tourism and for the quality of life among indigenous generations.

Paradoxically, the parts of the world most sought for ecotourism adventures are exactly those nations most in need of foreign currency, infrastructure development, and employment opportunities. More often than not, tourism is seen as less damaging than the alternatives of mining, logging, or intensive large-scale farming. However, unmanaged tourism development and cultural backlash have caused havoc as tourists probe into even the most remote jungle domains in search of Shaman wisdom or a glimpse of the nearly extinct Orangutans.

A Conservation Ethic

All is not doom and gloom. Compared to the ravaging effects of posh high-rise resorts, lavish buffets, and the amenity-plus features of mass tourism, ecotourism is by far the lesser of the evils. For example, Cancun is one of the more widely recognized destinations of conspicuous-consumption tourism; whereas Harmony (A Center for the Study of Sustainable Resort Design on St. John's in the U.S. Virgin Islands) is heralded as an example of sound ecotourism development. Harmony, as well as other ecotourism destinations, has spread the conservation movement by providing an experience in which Western tourists become more sensitive to local and environmental issues. Happily, their spending bankrolls restoration and preservation projects so that the ecological draws remain for future visitors to experience. Echoing this trend, Dr. Stephen McCool of the University of Montana's Institute for Tourism and Recreation Resources states "American travel consumers are more discerning and sensitive than ever about ecological issues and the impact their recreation activities have on the environment." (McCool in Going Green, 1993, p. 36)

Increasingly, a conservation ethic and a viable process of development have emerged from the ecotourism movement, or perhaps visa versa. The ecotourism ethic has been defined by The Ecotourism Society to mean: "responsible travel that conserves the natural environs and sustains the well-being of local people. Ecotourism offers travelers the means to assist personally and locally in the conservation of threatened environments and to support communities directly that are seeking viable economic alternatives to cycles of poverty and environmental destruction" (The Ecotourism Society). This non-profit organization is working to raise public support for implementing ecotourism principles and practices around the world.

Mirroring The Ecotourism Society's initiatives is work advanced by The Nature Conservancy in the Podocarpus National Park in southern Ecuador. A cloud forest lodge was opened as a haven for researchers, tourists, and international bird-watchers alike in a park known for more varied species of birds than any other protected area in the world. Use of the multi-room facility is included with the $10 admission to the park; the majority of the fee is then pumped back into the park and its preservation. The Nature Conservancy, INEFAN (the Ecuador park management department), ARCOIRIS (a local conservation organization), World Wildlife Fund, and the U.S. Peace Corps all had a hand in developing self-guided walking trails and the facilities.

The completion of the lodge highlights a shift from past thinking about nature conservation. No longer are the important ecological areas, animal species or threatened indigenous cultures to be saved in isolation. Rather, economic and social considerations--alternatives in development--are being explored and remarkably, partnerships formed from previously adversarial foes. These programs work more in sync with conservation and recognize the needs of the communities surrounding the threatened areas. This same approach is being used in The Nature Conservancy's collaborative and community-wide development of ecotourism opportunities along Virginia's Eastern Shore.

An Elusive Solution to Global Issues

Because tourism is like a chameleon, it is increasingly important to understand this industry's role in preserving our planet and peoples. The practice of stewardship through community-initiated and collaborative partnerships is in recognition that we are a part of--not apart from--the natural ecosystems which sustain all life. An ecotourism enterprise, then, protects and preserves the cultural and biological diversity of the planet while benefiting the local community and the tourists.

As one well publicized example, consider "the only luxury resort in the world operating exclusively on sun and wind power" on St. John's called Harmony. It's creator, Stanley Selengut (who first created a sustainable, ecologically sensitive campground in the 1970's) has recently completed this luxury resort made from garbage and environmentally sensitive materials. Even the decorative artwork on the walls came from Costa Rica's Center for the Preservation of Indigenous Art. It's an "ecotourist" base from which to explore the natural beauty of the tropical forests bustling with wildlife, immaculate beaches, and vibrant coral reefs--an adventure made possible without plunder and detrimental ecological impact. What he has done is successfully apply stewardship to the economic laws of supply and demand.

In a less capitalistic variation to this strategy, The Conservation Lodge Foundation, a non-profit organization established by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is also developing effective ways to use ecotourism as a means for protecting critical ecosystems and the unique biological and cultural resources they sustain. The objectives of the ecolodges created will be environmental protection and public education. What is common among both efforts is their non-consumptive approach to development.


The ideas behind ecotourism are not new. Rooted in the conservation and environmental movements in the United States over the past 150 years--spurred by the writings of Thoreau, Muir, and before them, Buddhist and other philosophical ideologies--ecotourism is a new application for an age-old concept of stewardship. It recognizes the interconnections of all life and the importance of maintaining a balance between human needs and those of existing ecosystems. Perhaps Aldo Leopold's famous "Land Ethic" best captures the philosophical essence of stewardship: "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community...it is wrong if it does otherwise." In diversity there is stability. Ecotourism is really nothing more than the application of this philosophy to the self-enriching discovery made possible through travel. It is a process and an ethic, not an end in itself.

The concerted effort which I have discussed (by policy makers, businesses, recreation managers and organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International) to define and make ecotourism a mainstream practice is promising. We in the Western industrialized nations have an incredible opportunity for restorative and regenerative change through ecotourism. There seem little doubt that tourism will continue to grow; the most important question remains: Will it be ecologically responsible and sustainable?

The responsibility clearly rests with ourselves to care for an environmental and cultural diversity which historically we have used merely to serve our needs--and our needs only. Ecotourism, as a model, process and ethic, offers an opportunity to put respect for our earth into practice in a way that all people can enjoy its beauty and benefits. That's my dream; and this dream will not die!

End Notes

  • Ivanko, J. D. (1996). The Least Imperfect Path--A Global Journal for the Future. Paradigm Press Ltd.
  • Ecotourism Society. P.O. Box 755, N. Bennington VT 05257.
  • Going green: the ecotourism resource for travel agents. (1993, October). Tour & Travel News.
  • Leopold, A. (1966). A sand county almanac. New York: Ballantine.
  • Orr, D. W. (1992). Ecological literacy: Education and the transition to a postmodern world. Albany: State University of New York.
  • Boo, E. (1990). Ecotourism: the potentials and pitfalls. (Vols. 1 & 2). Washington DC: World Wildlife Fund.
  • Motavalli, J., & Ivanko, J. D. (1995, April/May). Transforming travel: "eco-tourism" is more than a buzzword; it's a seismic shift in a trillion-dollar industry. E-The Environmental Magazine, 38-45.
  • Palmer, C. (producer). (1992). The environmental tourist [videotape], National Audubon Society Specials, Washington DC: Public Broadcasting Service.
  • Ziffer, K. (1989). Ecotourism: The uneasy alliance. Washington DC: Conservation International.

John D. Ivanko may be contacted at:
Globetrotter Photography
7843 County P
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E-mail: john@innserendipity.com
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