We’re drawn to off-the-beaten path locations because they’re remote and unspoiled—but is our presence there ruining them?
By Jayme Otto
Ecotourism noun \’e-ko-’tur-i-zem\ 1. Responsible travel to natural or wilderness areas that is centered on conserving the environment and improving the well-being of local people.
For the sake of full disclosure, I am a hypocrite. I just became the first American woman to trek across the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories, literally stomping all over a place where no tourist had been before. For nearly 90 miles through shepherd singletrack, from the city of Nablus in the north, down to Hebron in the south, there was no tourism infrastructure—no hotels, souvenir shops, ATMs, or McDonalds. And I loved every gritty, outside-of-your-comfort-zone moment.
But—and here’s the rub—I wouldn’t recommend it. Not because the experience didn’t change my life, but because I don’t want other tourists going there. I don’t want to see a drive-through Starbucks accessible by donkey in the middle of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Or a “Guns ’n Moses” T-shirt cart outside of the monastery housing the tomb of Moses. And that’s the issue with us wanderlust types: we think everyone else is a tourist. Not us. No, no, we’re explorers. Or travelers. People who trod lightly, who blend in, who give back to the places we visit, who want to preserve the places we discover. But this is the mindset of everyone lured by unchartered waters—the world’s 5 million eco-tourists. In reality, whether you’re the first person to visit a place or the last, you’re still a tourist.
Along with tourists comes money and develop-ment. That $20 I gave Nahla Awwad, a 36-year-old teacher in a tiny West Bank town, to feed me dinner and let me sleep on her living room floor… Well, it’s got her thinking. What if she opened a little bed and breakfast in her village? Pilgrims passing through on their way to visit the Abrahamic sites in the area might then stay the night instead of booking a hotel in the major city nearby. Next thing you know, some olive trees get cut down to make room for a scenic entry road, and busloads of tourists can stay right there in the village. And then a restaurant or two goes up.
So, why not? Advocates of ecotourism would argue that the hypothetical development I’ve initiated in the Palestinian village of Awarta is organic growth based on demand. It’s creating cultural understanding between Americans and Muslims. It’s generating income in an economically suppressed area. Ecotourism is benefitting everyone, right?
Maybe not. I think this perspective is mis-leading. This on-demand growth isn’t organic growth—it’s opportunistic and fickle growth. An illusion that lures locals away from, in Nahla’s case, her teaching job. One skirmish between the Palestinians in her village and the Jewish Orthodox settlers just three kilometers away, and the tourists will stop coming. Nahla’s bed and breakfast stops making money. Meanwhile she’s already stepped away from her more stable career as a teacher and has now lost all sources of income.
Well, maybe that’s a worst-case scenario. But what’s the best-case scenario? Palestinian-Israeli relations remain stable enough to encourage a surge of tourists and her bed and breakfast hits capacity every weekend? Giant desert eco-lodges go up, roads go in, camels are fed all-natural diets, and the area’s first Ironman triathlon is held at the River Jordan? Are those results “best case”?
The metrics for determining the positive benefits or negative effects of eco tourism may never present a clear-cut net impact. There’s economic growth on the scale of GDP, but as an eco-tourist, the growth I care about is tied to the way my own money contributes to the well-being of this new place. I don’t want my $20 payment to Nahla to build an infrastructure of traveler-packed internet cafes; I want it to help her send her daughters to college. I definitely don’t want my story—the story of the first American woman trekker in the West Bank—to result in the pollution of a culture, over-development of a landscape I want to protect, and overpricing Nahla out of her hometown. Is it better if I stay away? If we all stay away from the truly authentic places left in the world? I’m not sure I can recommend that either.
The Other Side
“We don’t have all the answers,” says Kate Webb, “but we can’t stop people from coming to off-the-beaten track locations.” The 30-year-old Brit and co-owner of the Malawi-based Responsible Safari Company recently finished her Master’s thesis about the impacts of ecotourism on individual communities. Her attitude toward the topic is “based on realism,” she says, “but there’s a middle ground that can turn tourism into a positive.” Read Kate’s essay and response this story.
Category: Making a Difference