From the July 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
For those 'green consumers' who have adopted the principles of a green lifestyle eco-tourism fits neatly with the now familiar slogan to 'Think Globally – Act Locally' as a counter to environmental destruction. The adoption of a green lifestyle can include: Buying only organic food; keeping a record of your carbon footprint; using bio-degradable products; ensuring your savings and pension fund is 'ethically' invested in bio-diversity products or sustainable projects; supporting 'fair trading'; participating in recycling schemes; be sparing on the use of plastic bags; and even endorsing the Body Shop empire. The solution is presented as an individual act rather than the collective action of individuals struggling for social change to put a stop to environmental destruction. Of course you can do all of these, but you shouldn't think that such activities will necessarily lessen the impact on the environment.
For instance, despite the claims of the eco-tourism operators that their priority is sustainability and biodiversity, the green consumer lifestyle facilitates the opening up of a new market where environmental concern is transformed into a commodity. When the market is presented as the saviour of the environment then green consumers, and eco-tourists in particular, need to be aware that they cannot disregard the logic of production for profit. Nevertheless, for socialists the idea of adopting a green lifestyle is not to be derided, because – despite these shortcomings - it is a tentative step towards working with nature, rather than against it.
By increasing our understanding of the interaction between the natural environment and the impact of human activity society will be in a better position to minimise the damage on natural resources, and be able to arrive at rational judgements on whether or not any interference in the natural environment is justified and warranted. But be warned that such environmental concerns are not on the capitalist agenda. For the priority under capitalism is to make a profit by exploiting the environment through market forces.
We travel for relaxation. We travel for adventure. We travel to escape the familiar and venture into the unknown. Tourism brings in money and creates employment: one in 16 jobs worldwide is directly or indirectly related to tourism. In Thailand, tourism is the leading source of foreign exchange. And although tourism can help to maintain a country's interest in its own cultural and artistic heritage and, at it its best, can foster genuine friendships between different members of the human family this all comes with a price attached.
Increasingly, 'alternative travel' as eco-tourism is known in the tourist trade, is being marketed as the only way to see the world these days. And as more and more people venture off the beaten track to experience unique cultures and unspoiled nature, ecotourism is considered the fastest growing market in the tourism industry, with an annual growth rate of 5 percent worldwide. According to the World Tourism Organisation this represents 6 percent of the world gross domestic product and 11.4 percent of all consumer spending.
Whereas, previously, you enjoyed the values of the natural environment by joining the Ramblers or Youth Hostel Association, now its considered more adventurous (and expensive) to take part in white water rafting down remote rivers, or to go native in the Australian bush, stay with the indigenous people in the Amazonian rainforest, enjoy the delights of the local wildlife and the taste of organic food at an eco-lodge in India. These eco-travellers are setting out on foot safaris in Africa, camping in the Mexican rainforest, and trekking to hill tribe villages in Thailand. You can also have a holiday in a tree-house in Costa Rica and enjoy the delights of a ropeway through the jungle canopy. And if none of these at to your taste what about some whale watching in Victoria B.C. where you can disrupt the breeding habits of the grey whale and walrus?
There are many more such holidays on offer and they are increasing by the day. At the last
count taken in 2007 ten percent of the global travel market is now eco-tourism. And though the 21st century is considered an era of environmental sensitivity and climate change remains firmly on the global conscience, with remote locations becoming more and more accessible many countries are beginning to promote their natural wonders to bring in the eco-minded tourist. But in doing so the market system is faced with a conundrum of trying to preserve natural resources and also try to accommodate the vast numbers of tourists they will attract.
The ideal of eco-tourism, as defined by Martha Honey, the executive director of the International Ecotourism Society, reads like a travel agents dream:
"Travel to fragile, pristine and usually protected areas that strives to be low impact and usually small scale. It helps educate travelers; provides funds for conservation; directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of local communities; and fosters respect for different cultures and human rights."
However, this ideal in many instances fails miserably to achieve its aim and in fact contributes to environmental destruction. For the reality is that in terms of human impact eco-tourists are no different – other than in scale – to the everyday tourist on a package holiday to the Costa Bravo. This is what an official for the World Wildlife Fund told Leo Hickman about on the impact of tourism in Thailand:
"The tsunami was nothing compared to the impact of tourism. It is a much larger, long-term problem. . . . I was born in 1972 and when I was eight or nine it was still largely virgin rainforest here on the island. By the late 1980s, though, it was mostly developed. We have now lost so much of the biodiversity and primary forest and the soil is destabilising in many places. The construction of hotels upstream is creating a lot of sediment in the water and this causes damage to the coral reefs when it washes out to sea. It also affects the mangroves on the east coast. A lot of our waste water – about 40 per cent – is still being pumped out to sea on the west coast where all the resort areas are.
Land is now so expensive here due to tourism; the cost of living is even higher than Bangkok – it has meant that many local people have been forced to sell off their ancestral home and have now lost their only real asset. There is even competition for schools here for the first time. And there is a lot of overfishing here; this is for export rather than for the tourists per se, but lobsters are now being brought in from Burma to meet the tourists' appetite for these vulnerable creatures. The corals are also damaged by tourism. Snorkellers actually cause more damage than divers because they touch the coral more often…." (Leo Hickman, The Final Call – In Search of the True Cost of our Holidays, 2007).
In Costa Rica, whose parks are wildly popular with the millions of people who visit the country each year, the behaviour of some wild animals has been altered - some monkeys attack and bite tourists when not fed. Along the trail to the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal, deforestation is getting worse as locals cut down trees to heat meals and to provide hot showers for foreign eco-trekkers. And Mount Everest itself is becoming infamous for the amount of discarded rubbish left on the routes towards the summit. Some estimates put it at over 2000 tons which don't include the remains of a helicopter. And in the lower regions of the Himalayan foothills the popularity of backpacking is not only causing serious soil erosion but water pollution.
And what has happened in Nepal is only one example where eco-tourism is becoming transformed into eco-vandalism through the insanity of the profit system. Another example is what is happening in Kerala in India which is marketed either as, 'God's own country', or as, the 'Gateway to Paradise'. Kerala is a unique water region famous for its lakes, rivers and back waters and distinct wildlife and fauna and is also an attractive stopover or base for the eco-tourists who visit the nearby National Reserve. However, what is not marketed by the Kerala Tourist Board is the lack of sewerage facilities and rubbish collection for its thousands upon thousands of houseboats and hotels and so called eco-lodges. Before Kerala became invaded by tourists the indigenous population ensured their impact on the natural environment was sustainable or recyclable. Now water courses are becoming heavily polluted with sewerage and the plastic debris of a throwaway society.
Besides environmental damage there can be profound social and cultural consequences to travel as well. For example, what is occurring in Northern Thailand, home to many different 'hill tribes,' is a case in point. Uniquely individual in language, customs and dress, these semi-nomadic peoples share a history of ancestor worship and a close relationship with the land. However, with the introduction of eco-tourism they also share the experience of being in something akin to a human zoo. Hill tribe trekking operations sell 'authentic visits' to see 'primitive peoples... But what the eco-tourists are not told is that much of the so called culture on show has a tenuous relationship with the actual culture of the people they are visiting, for in actual fact the 'traditional' culture has been transformed into a commodity to meet the demands of the tourist market. In short the eco-tourist is being sold an illusion that the culture on display is 'authentic'.
The ravages of eco-tourism and tourism in general are becoming so self-evident it raises the question what can we do to lessen the impact of human activity but nevertheless still enjoy a holiday – both at home and overseas? Firstly, it is essential to acknowledge that when market forces literally encourage an irrational human impact on the environment and natural resources, how can you also realistically expect those self-same forces to solve the environmental problems they created in the first place? Therefore, in the search for solutions it's become vital that we look outside of the capitalist box where the social relationships of private ownership of the means of living constrain and restrict our constructive abilities to remedy environmental destruction.
In socialism where the principle of free access underpins the common ownership of the means of living our options and choices on travel and holidays would be extended and influenced by what positive contribution we can make to the country we are visiting. And with package holidays and mass tourism a thing of the past it is most likely holidays in socialism would not be restricted within a timescale of 10 to 14 days of hectic hedonism but transformed into an unique opportunity to stay in a particular location for as long as it takes to understand the history and culture of that region. In effect the transformation in the social relationships from private property ownership to common ownership will radically alter our perception of travel.
Under such conditions eco-tourism will come into its own with visits to particular regions becoming combined with studies on the wildlife, fauna and local culture. On the other hand you may wish to take part in making housing improvements by demolishing shanty towns or transforming a former holiday hotel into flats for the local population. Alternatively you could help out in a health clinic, or even give a hand to clean up polluted waterways. In effect whatever your particular choice of holiday the aim will be to combine it with an understanding that the framework of socialism will assist everybody on the globe in meeting their needs for shelter, food, clothing, education and health. Indeed it's time to start thinking of trashing capitalism not the planet.