Issues in Economic Expansion: Ecotourism in Developing Nations

Eagle Island, a remote safari camp in Botswana

Ecotourism is a growing industry in many developing countries.  As an alternative to mining, hunting or farming, it seems more sustainable.  It preserves the rainforests, the rivers, and the savannas, but what does ecotourism mean for economic development in these countries?  In many countries that formerly relied on colonial plantations for income, ecotourism is an industry that makes a lot of sense.  It preserves natural ecosystems, making it more sustainable than agricultural expansion, and it provides a venue for unskilled laborers to work without the input of capital necessary for industrialization.  It seems like a perfect solution.

In my travels, the people I spoke to often praised their governments’ support of ecotourism and nature preservation. In Botswana, the alternative had been hunting reserves as a supplement to the mining industry. Photographic safari reserves provide a sustainable and more fashionable alternative.  Costa Rica, the poster-child for ecotourism, have made a name for themselves as the adventurous, grittier alternative to Mexico for American tourists. It leads me to wonder what will happen if the success of this product is based on its novelty?

The underlying framework of this argument lies in the theory behind the position of developing nations vis-à-vis globalization.  Developing nations enter the global market at a distinct disadvantage. They lack the capital for heavy industry and large-scale agriculture, mining, and tourism are often funded by foreign multi-nationals.  Tourism creates jobs, but it does not necessarily lead to development. Most jobs in tourism are menial and provide little upward mobility, creating a conundrum.  On one hand, ecotourism creates jobs and provides a growing and sustainable industry relative to farming, hunting, or mining in countries with growing populations and shrinking wild lands.  On the other hand, relying on tourism traps these countries in a cycle of dependency on the countries that provide the tourists. This leaves them vulnerable to the whims of those people and the fluctuations in their markets.  Obviously, recessions in developed countries can wreak havoc on developing countries if they become reliant on something as transient as tourism.

The problem with ecotourism is that while it is sustainable, it is also exclusive. It excludes mining and agricultural expansion and precludes the development of industry by putting high demands on land conservation and pollution control.   I don’t know the answer to this problem, but it seems to be the dilemma of all “latecomers” to the global economy: how to overcome dependency without isolating themselves.  Further, in ecotourism, like many other industries often run remotely by foreign companies, how do you ensure that the country making the product reaps the benefits?  The second question is easier to remedy than the first, but in either case economic diversification remains a difficult issue, especially in developing nations. I just wonder if the move toward ecotourism is sustainable in the economic sense rather than just the environmental sense.

Obviously the counterexample would be a fast-growing, developing economy such as India or China that has taken to heart internationally decided pollution exemptions for industrial expansion in developing countries. While this leads to a larger, more diversified economy, and faster growth, some countries that have followed this model, most notably China, are beginning to see the repercussions of fast economic growth without regard for the environment.  Many of China’s rivers and natural places are hopelessly polluted, and its cities are plagued by thick smog from burning coal, which is the cheapest fossil fuel, to meet the giant populations ever-increasing energy demands. All of this environmental destruction is finally affecting their ability to grow food as well as people’s health.  In contrast to ecotourism, this model does better people’s quality of life much faster, the economy becomes more diversified, and there is more upward mobility. However, it leads to health, food and sustainability problems in the long run.  I am not sure which model is better because you don’t see the China/India model in places with small populations, and you don’t see the ecotourism model in densely populated countries because that would imply that the natural areas were already encroached upon.  I wonder if there is a way to reconcile both economic and environmental interests in developing countries when they seem so far in opposition under most definitions of development.