ecotourism vs climate change
February 23, 2024 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Ecotourism: Is the 'tourism' part sufficiently terrible for the environment that it outweighs the 'eco'?

My partner and I are temporarily obsessed with the idea of buying a specific tiny jungle preserve in Costa Rica. There are a million reasons why this might be a terrible idea for us personally, but today I'm interested in whether it will be bad for the world, in general.

This is a place with 6 apartments, on about 30 acres -- a couple acres are protected primary forest but most of it is 20-year-old restored secondary jungle. The apartments themselves have a tiny ecological footprint: they're small, energy-efficient, water is abundant, and most waste is handled on-site. Part of our motivation for buying would be to save the secondary forest from getting turned into pineapple fields.

It would feel nice to me, personally, to know that I was tending to a patch of carbon-hungry jungle, and Costa Rica has developed their economy around the idea that ecotourism is a profit center that can compete with jungle-demolishing bulldozers. I /want/ that to be the right decision.

And yet... tourists travel on airplanes. Even if we market the place for long stays, we'll still be part of an economy that's filling the sky with jets. Maybe that's worse than pineapple fields!

I'm interested in y'all's random intuition about this, and also any articles or research tackling the idea of ecotourism in general.
posted by eraserbones to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I doubt there’s any way to be sure in a specific case, but in my own experience I would lean towards getting people out into nature. A single Fortune 500 company board member who connects with the land can accomplish far more than 100,000 signatures on a petition can.

But making it a preserve isn’t enough on its own. You’ve got to make it a gateway drug for people who live in concrete canyons.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:45 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]

My take is that there are still economies that rely on tourism to survive, and that survival of those economies is better in the long run than the chaos of collapse. Eco-tourism, especially run by locals, and with heavy permit fees to restrict access to overburdened areas (think everest, Machu Picchu , et al) seems to me better n the long run than a free-for-all alternative.
If your plan accounts for hiring locals and bolstering the economy in the area you are inhabiting in a sustainable way, it's probably a net good.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:48 AM on February 23 [10 favorites]

You cannot do all the things. No climate solution is a single thing that single people can do. This internet stranger thinks that saving Some Land is very important. It's hard work to rewild land, and it's better to start with saving current wild areas (the adage "The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago, but the second best time is right now?" or something rings true here, to me at least).

People traveling on airplanes might not be your fight. Air travel is, unfortunately, a very large issue that likely isn't going to be solved on a person-by-person business-by-business level, but on a systemic level.

But hey, you call the shots in your business. Are you able to maybe get creative and offer wild ass discounts or incentives to folks who arrive by alternate means? If folks came by boat/rail/bus/bike, would you be able to offer them something like half their stay for free or extra free days to stay? Even if this means inflating the price overall?

I don't have any answers for you, but loads more questions. Does your entire business model need to be completely based on ecotourism? Are there other things you can do with the land that are responsible? Lower impact non-plantation food production? How can you insert yourself into the local economy just as much as the global economy?
posted by furnace.heart at 10:19 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]

There is a certain portion of the population who wants to travel and will take an annual trip no matter what, but who wants (and is willing to pay a bit more) to support economies built around preserving the environment vs. unrestrained growth. If eco-tourism didn't exist, this demographic would mostly still travel, just to non-eco tourist locations. While I don't have data on this, I imagine the number of people who only engage in international travel because eco-tourism fools them into thinking it's good for the environment is relatively small. The place you describe sounds relatively low-impact, which is the sort of eco-tourism that is actually sustainable (vs. the myriad of hotels that call themselves "eco" simply because they have a lot of plants on the hotel grounds).

I agree that the best eco-tourist places I've encountered tend to partner up with universities as a way to get funding so they don't have to rely only on tourists to function.

This isn't what you asked, but there is a larger ethical question over who should profit from a country's natural beauty - it's also a legal question.
posted by coffeecat at 10:42 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Pineapple plantations clear land for monocropping, because that maximizes yield and profits. This displaces or eliminates native species.

In a way, reduced biological diversity is worse than climate change, because while we might one day eventually engineer solutions to remove carbon from the atmosphere, once species are extinct, they are gone forever.

One benefit of the option you are pursuing is that you can help maintain a small, localized pocket of biodiversity, and protect it from development.

There are others who are doing similar things in Costa Rica, albeit with more specific conservation and scientific research goals, and on a larger scale. For instance, perhaps what Janzen and Hallwachs are doing might provide more focus for ecological goals you could have with the land you are looking at, or collaboration with other ecologists in the region.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:46 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I visited southern Africa in the 1990's, it was very clear that none of the animals would be alive if the tourists weren't there.

I don't travel by airplane for leisure anymore. But many people still do, and if they are going to be tourists, it's better for them to be eco-tourists.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:51 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]

The old economist's joke applies strongly here: "How's your wife?" "Compared to what?"

The most environmentally friendly approach would be for people to live in cities and to take vacations to other cities nearby or to small towns nearby to experience nature. If an American wants to travel to the beach in Mexico, it's better to go to Cancun than to a small ecoresort nearby, because the infrastructure in a big resort is already present, so the extra cost of one more visitor is tiny.

But as Winnie the Proust and coffeecat point out, many people want to travel to small-scale resorts in nature no matter what, so it's better to have ones that are less damaging to the surroundings. I doubt that the presence of your resort will induce many people who otherwise would have stayed home to fly, though there will be some. Also, if the resort is already built, people will be going there no matter what, so it would be best to have a good steward.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:02 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]

My random two cents: people are going to go on vacation anyway. Obviously there are a ton of variables, but it’s probably better on average for them to go to a sustainable place.

There may be a small amount of people who would only get on a plane for ecotourism, and wouldn’t otherwise go on vacation, but I’d think that’s the minority. There isn’t ANYONE who wouldn’t get on a plane except to go to your specific preserve. They will decide to go on ecotourism, and then pick your place. So you aren’t really increasing the number of people flying.
posted by sillysally at 11:19 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]

I agree with Tell Me No Lies. More people having transformational experiences in/with nature leads to more people who will fight to protect it. Sometimes those transformational nature experiences come from ecotourism
posted by mjcon at 12:59 PM on February 23

My intuition is that if you are going to invest in Costa Rica's jungles, you should consult local indigenous organizations to see what their opinion is. A good starting point would be the organizations and individuals in this article.

Based on that article, I'd say you should also see if you're buying land in a territory that's supposed to be returned to indigenous people.
posted by mistersix at 12:59 PM on February 23 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, I hear your nagging conscience here. It doesn't seem quite right, does it?

I think the way to muddle through this is to understand you have many desires that may be in conflict:
-To travel to and spend time in a truly incredible place
-To own (control?) something wonderful and perhaps even exotic
-To reduce your negative impact on the environment
-To actively make the world, or a small patch of it, better

Buying a patch of land in Costa Rica checks some of these boxes for sure. But does it check all of them? What if it's not possible to check all the boxes? That's the real question here: what if you find out that buying this land gives you something wonderful that you own but actually exacerbates harm? Do you still want to do it? Or is the lure that this is good for the world part of the appeal?

My take, not surprisingly: I think these things are in inherent conflict that we can't fully resolve. I do think the whole notion of ecotourism is a creation to help us rationalize our participation in things we know can exploit local communities and cause harm. We all cause harm, but I am a big believer in harm reduction. Traveling to other places can grow our minds and empathy and be part of us helping us relax, rest, learn, and even be better people. But it seems like it would be better for slow travel, which is to say, taking big trips for longer stretches every five or ten years (a trip to Costa Rica is a once a lifetime trip for some). But also, being a financial beneficiary of any kind of tourism on land stolen from indigenous folks seems bad. It also seems at a scale worse than simply just being an ecotourist or traveling to places owned by local folks.

I'm not suggesting there's a way to have everything you want, but a harm reduction model can be helpful in making choices.

Here are some articles that might be helpful:
"Is ecotourism a ‘magic bullet’ for sustainable development? "
This one has lots of theory. Good stuff here.
Contrary to its grand aims, ecotourism has been shown to contribute to environmental degradation, a breakdown of local social and cultural relations (both between people and between them and their environment), and deepened economic inequalities in situ.

Outrage: the ecotourism hoax
Shorter and punchier
For the ecotourism movement to make a real difference to the communities and environments decimated by mass tourism, we’d need to replace traditional tourism with responsible ecotourism. But of course, we don’t see other forms of tourism shut down as ecotourism grows. We see the opposite: traditional tourism intensifying around the extremities of ecotourism sites.

Here's a scholarly review article: Ecotourism for Conservation?
We conducted a review of 30 years of ecotourism research, looking for empirical evidence of successes and failures. We found the following trends: Ecotourism is often conflated with outdoor recreation and other forms of conventional tourism; impact studies tend to focus on either ecological or social impacts, but rarely both; and research tends to lack time series data, precluding authors from discerning effects over time, either on conservation, levels of biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, local governance, or other indicators. Given increasing pressures on wild lands and wildlife, we see a need to add rigor to analyses of ecotourism.

And just the title of this academic research article might help you think through some of what's going on:
What drives ecotourism: environmental values or symbolic conspicuous consumption?
Despite an influx of ecotourism research since the term was first coined, it is still not entirely clear why tourists choose ecotourism over other tourism experiences. While most of the previous literature assumes that ecotourism is preferred by travelers for moral reasons, emerging evidence suggests that opportunities to project one’s social status are increasingly salient factors in decision-making about travel. This article compares the relative influence of two possible predictors of ecotourism intention: environmental values (measured through the value-belief-norm theory) and symbolic conspicuous consumption (measured through expected social return). ... These results suggest that environmental values are not the sole reason for travelers’ choice of ecotourism alternatives, and that ego-enforcing motives play an important role.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:27 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]

Truly sustainable tourism is owned by the locals. Continuously taking profits out of a local economy is unsustainable. It’s tough to come in as an outsider and say that you know better than the locals about how to preserve the forests. Tread lightly. This ecotourism vs deforestation discussion is a false dichotomy, there’s probably another way.
posted by shock muppet at 2:47 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all! There have been some changes on the ground which may result in this whole project being shelved but in the meantime now I have lots to read and think about.

Regarding taking profits out of the local economy: mercifully, there's no danger of that in this case! This is more of a 'would be lucky to break even over the course of several years" situation.

The issue of being an outsider (and, obviously, non-indigenous) does indeed concern me. My only consolation there is 1) the property is /already/ owned by a european, and if sold for ag use would likely wind up held by a US-backed shell company and 2) at least one naturalist living in the area is actively in favor of the project. But, I dunno, money poisons everything and I'm sure this is no exception.
posted by eraserbones at 11:44 AM on February 26

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