The Why Files The Why Files --

Ecotourism: Cure-all or false hope?


Nobel recognizes poor people's bank
This year's Nobel Peace Prize goes to Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and to its founder, the economist Muhammad Yunus. Yunus founded the bank after he realized that banks were not lending to poor people, Close-up of Muhammad Yunus' smailing faceforcing them to rely on usurious moneylenders. With his own money, Yunus started lending to poor people in 1976.

Today, Grameen has 6.6 million borrowers, many of whom are funding small businesses. Ninety-seven percent are women, and 99 percent of the loans are repaid. Here's how Yunus describes the system:

"Grameen Bank methodology is almost the reverse of the conventional banking methodology. Conventional banking is based on the principle that the more you have, the more you can get. In other words, if you have little or nothing, you get nothing. As a result, more than half the population of the world is deprived of the financial services of the conventional banks. Conventional banking is based on collateral, Grameen system is collateral-free. "Grameen Bank starts with the belief that credit should be accepted as a human right, and builds a system where one who does not possess anything gets the highest priority in getting a loan. Grameen methodology is not based on assessing the material possession of a person, it is based on the potential of a person."

Smiling, white-haired man mingles with women dressed in bright colors
Professor Muhammad Yunus visits some borrowers from the Grameen Bank. Photo: Grameen Bank

The noble Nobel decision recognized that so-called "microcredit" can reduce poverty and the waste of human potential, and the idea has been widely copied around the world.

Tourists carrying backpacks head into dense, green jungleWalking the trails in Kakum National Park, an ecotourism destination in Ghana. Courtesy Seth Appiah-Opoku, University of Alabama

But the microcredit Nobel got us Why Filers wondering about another novel development program: ecotourism.

"Ecotourism" was coined about 20 years ago to describe tourism that would transfer money from rich people to poor people and their countries. The International Ecotourism Society now defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."

If the slogan of nature tourism was, "Take only pictures, leave only footprints," ecotourism added "...and the almighty dollar."

A win-win solution?
Done right, ecotourism was supposed to preserve nature and improve societies in the planet's remote storehouses of biological, cultural and physical diversity. Ecotourism would make a standing tropical rain forest more valuable to local people than the lumber it contains. It would make an intact coral reef more valuable than a reef destroyed by overfishing. By guiding camera-toting tourists to see a leopard/orangutan/rare bird/bat cave, local people would come to appreciate the dollars-and-pesos side of nature conservation.

Man in full diving gear swims among bright underwater plant life
Scuba diving is a major draw for ecotourists. Photo: City of Shoalhaven, Australia

The potential of ecotourism stems partly from the mountain of money in play: at the end of the 20th century, travel and tourism (all forms) employed 200 million people. The travel and tourism industry handles U.S. $3.5 trillion each year, which is why it's called the world's largest industry.

Dramatic mountain looms in background of quaint village
Fish Tail Mountain overlooks a local village in Nepal. Tourists stay in the fancy lodge in foreground. Courtesy Sanjay Nepal

But cynics say the law of unintended consequences offers the only reliable prediction of what happens when a win-win proposal meets a stack of money. So here's our question:

After 20 years, is ecotourism meeting its social, environmental and economic objectives?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2018, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.