Ecotourism or Greenwashing?

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The main drag of Chiang Mai—at least, the main drag for the 14 million tourists who visit the city in the north of Thailand every year—can feel like a modern-day Silk Road for travel services. Sandwich boards for zip-lining adventures, cooking classes, weeklong muay thai fighting camps and guided shopping excursions line the crowded sidewalks. One type of outing stands out amid the waves of advertising: “long-neck tour,” in which groups visit a village inhabited by the Karen ethnic minority, the star attraction being the women who famously have metal rings placed around their neck and collarbone, creating the appearance of an ultra-long neck.

But it’s not so much the photos of the long-necked women that grabbed me upon a recent visit to the city. What drew my attention was the term used to advertise the tour. Etched beneath a handful of laminated snapshots of various smiling women was the word ecotourism.

Ecotourism, or the practice of environmentally sustainable and culturally sensitive tourism, exploded in the 1990s along with general environmental awareness. Today, it’s the fastest growing segment of tourism worldwide, jumping 20 to 25 percent each year. (This month brought news that even Leonardo DiCaprio is getting in on the action.) It makes sense that ecotourism continues to grow in popularity: By marrying environmental awareness with international travel, it allows anyone with a passport to embody a certain kind of globalism. But it’s also particularly prone to greenwashing—the practice of exploiting now-popular environmentalist and sustainability concerns to sell products and services without actually contributing much to those causes.

Other industries have deflected some forms of greenwashing through the most obvious defense: regulation, which ensures that labels like ecotourism and organic actually mean something. Regulation also helps demystify goods for the average consumer. For example, organic was once an essentially meaningless term (legally speaking) that any company could use, regardless of its farming and production methods. (In that sense, it’s much like the word natural on packaging today; that term, unregulated by the USDA, legally means zilch.) Only after 22 states had developed their own ideas for what organic meant did the federal government create a standardized definition. Certification and oversight soon followed, and today when you see organic on a package, you have a basic assurance of what it means.

Ecotourism_connects_sideEcotourism has no such guidelines. It is most commonly understood as travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, includes an educational component and supports the well-being of local people. But even this raises questions. Can “natural areas” include urban locales? Must “conserves” mean low-impact forms of transport and accommodation, or can agencies simply make a donation to ecological societies and call it a day? What exactly constitutes “education”—are we talking about posting a flyer in the agency’s office, extensive training for staff members or supplying clients with local residents’ oral histories?

Lacking firmer definitions, oversight and regulation become difficult to navigate. How can best practices be enforced if nobody knows precisely what those practices are? One ecotourism firm may partner with accommodations using renewable energy and low-impact building methods, and meanwhile work closely with local residents to ensure visitors get a comprehensive view of their culture. Another may simply agree to pay a national park full-price entry fees instead of accepting group discounts. At this point, both firms can use the term ecotourism with impunity.

None of this, of course, has escaped the eye of good-faith workers in the industry, many of whom have attempted to self-regulate. A number of professional organizations, such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and International Ecotourism Society, have even drawn up criteria for membership. And some differentiate between ecotourism and sustainable tourism, which entails more comprehensive standards for conscious travel. If such standards were adopted throughout the industry, it could make the idea of ecotourism a lot more meaningful.

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Chiang Mai. Photo courtesy of aschaf/Flickr

As a visitor to Thailand, I was wary of joining a tour of the Karen people. It seemed more like a human zoo than a chance to understand the local beauty culture. But that handy buzzword—ecotourism—made me curious enough to walk into the agency. I looked at the poster featuring photos of beaming white folks like me standing next to petite, long-necked women. “Karen village?” I asked. The Thai travel agent, in fairly good English, launched into a description of the neck rings. I asked how it was ecotourism, hoping to hear something about support for the villagers, education for the women we’d be seeing or even something about the fuel mileage of the van we’d use to get there. Instead, all I received was the infamous Thai smile.

Feature photo courtesy of dgmckelvey/Flickr

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