Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Dirty Side of Ecotourism

I graduate in a month from today. Needless to say, I'm scared. My classmates and I are entering one of the most difficult job markets since, well, since...

But, like many of my classmates - before we think about loans, or homes, or children - we will venture out in May or June to see the world. Some will go to learn about themselves (the now cliche but equally alluring European backpack/hostel trip). Some will go to see sights (in Europe, or Egypt, or Japan). But, more and more, students and adults are traveling to Latin America to take part in a growing industry (no, not Guerrilla Ecotourism!) but regular ecotourism that uses the environment as a backdrop to a beautiful vacation.

I am saving for a trip that will take me through Mexico into Guatemala, El Salvador through Nicaragua and ending in Costa Rica, where my girlfriend and I will fly back to Norfolk. Unlike (probably) every other tourist going to Central and South America this summer, we will actually go to see the people, landmarks and generally avoid the resorts and rely on hostels, much like my European explorers, for rest and sleep. Why do I hate the environment, one may ask. Why do I hate the crystal blue oceans, the wildlife, the lush tropical forests? The answer is, I don't. And you don't either. But the merits of "ecotourism" have been straining since it was coined only a few years ago.

In an amazing, groundbreaking work by Shawn William Miller, An Environmental History of Latin America (Oxford Press, 2005), he lays down the gauntlet for "ecotourists" and is often quite scathing.

For one, he contemplates how interconnected our worlds truly are. How he eats grapes, bananas, and meat from Chile, Honduras, and Argentina; gives his wife roses from El Salvador; writes on a desk fashioned out of Brazilian timber. It is this connectedness that we take for granted, and in our guilt, we assume "ecotourism" is more beneficial than stomping through Europe or Asia. It is not.

The resorts that tourists stay in often have problems with human waste and keeping the beaches clean - in addition to siphoning off land that is designed for tourists instead of its own citizens. He cites his visit to Cancun where he saw shit floating in the water. While the resorts preach "green" to attract customers, in reality, according to Miller, foreign resorts just exploit the environment then move further do the coast when times get tough - a forth of Cancun visitors say they will not come back.

Cruises are often the most popular form of transportation to the Caribbean and Central America. Cruise ships contribute to the problem more than help. There is lax regulations on how to get rid of waste (human and otherwise). It is often dumped into the sea (side note: our dumping of nuclear waste into the waters outside of Somalia led to pirate attacks) and is carried by waves to the shore.

View Scavenger Hunt in a larger map

Finally we get to Costa Rica, the darling of ecotourism, who by 2020 wish to be "carbon-neutral." There is not doubt that Costa Rica is the most stable of the countries of Central America, and that it's forests are lush and real. But, often, this is not why "ecotourists" come. First, they want culture. Tourists get vaguely Costa Rican proletariat's (I say this because there are no Indians in Costa Rica, they killed them all as did we in the US) dancing as if a part of an ancient ritual the tourist is oh so lucky to happen upon. Then the tourist expects animals, and when one does not see them, they go away disappointed. To ensure that the tourist does not feel cheated, Costa Rica and others bring the wildlife to the tourist in updates of a regular zoo taken to another level.

Miller is speaking at the end of a park in the Yucatan, in Mexico, where Cancun is, but it speaks to the general issues involved.
"The park[s] concentrated abundance gives the impression that all is well with nature. Visitors, most of themshisked to the park from swank hotels and posh cruise ships, do not see the damaged reefs; they do not see the limestone chasms quarried to build tourist facilities, now converted to landfills of plastic margarita glasses and dead, rental car batteries; they will not see the leeching cesspits just beneath the public restrooms; and they will not understand that it is tourists and the very resorts in which they luxuriate that have driven [animals away from nesting or mating grounds]. A virtual nature obscures nature's tattered reality. It is little surprising then that for many visitors the cunning replication is more appealing and more pleasurable than the degraded reality. Guests leave the park[s] only with the impression that all is well with nature...For the price of admission, the myth of tropical America as an unsullied Eden is persuasively substantiated (226-7)."
This is not to say one is a horrible human for going on a cruise or to the tropics of Costa Rica. But I do mention this to keep you informed about what you are doing - so you can make the choice in full disclosure. Let's, as college students and graduates, use our noggin's and travel safe and keep the world clean, despite our thirst for fun and adventure.

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