Is eco-tourism merely a rhetorical front for mass uncontrolled tourism? This is an age-old question for any one who works in the industry. Unfortunately the answer is ‘yes’ for many of the so called eco or green tourism products. However, there are solid eco-tourism or pro-poor sustainable tourism products that are impacting positively on people’s lives. An article in the Guardian highlights one eco-tourism project developed by a young English entrepreneur in Sierra Leone and Fiji called Tribewanted. Tribewanted was:
“designed to marry the powers of the internet and green tourism to set up an eco-community on the palm-fringed Fijian island of Vorovoro”. (Davies, Guardian)
This project seems to be a shining example of how eco-tourism should be done but what are the challenges projects such as Tribewanted face and it is really as good as it sounds?
There are, among many, three big issues or challenges related to successful eco-tourism. To determine whether or not Tribewanted is as good as it looks I have analysed it against these 3 points.
1. The benefits of eco-tourism are unequally distributed. People are often exploited and the power holders in a community can end up taking all the money
Tribewanted seems to be a highly engaged partnership between the community and local partnership organisations like Shine On Sierra Leone. They clearly outline on their website where the percentage of profit goes and how they engage the community. There is a diversity of people from inside and outside the community involved, this is an ideal model as it not only limits the amount of power one person can hold but it also builds the capacity and skills of more people.
However, I could find limited information about how the project in Fiji has been monitored and evaluated against its goals other than monetary input into the village. Although monetary input is important for communities it is definitely not the only factor that demonstrates the success of a project. Access to education and health as well as increased participation and decision-making for women are also important. All of these factors can be extremely difficult to measure but are key indicators of success.
2: There is limited long-term commitment by outside partner organisations
Exactly how long Tribewanted plan to stay in Sierra Leone and Fiji is unclear. Ideally, the aim would be for the villages of Vorovoro and John Obey Beach to eventually be able to run Tribewanted independently. However, the reality is that long-term engagement and commitment of over 5 years is often needed to build the capacity of villages to the level needed to run a program such as Tribewanted. Building capacity of communities to engage in industries like eco-tourism is a challenge faced across the board of community development and is also one of the hardest to achieve. If the founders and outside support were to withdraw from the villagers in the next year, what would happen? If this meant the project would cease to exist then the village may have been better off without the project. However, the online community Tribewanted has created will go a long way to ensuring the sustainability of the project and has a lot to offer to other eco-tourist projects in how to engage a wider audience.
3: Tourism can take away from other sustainable livelihoods
Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world and is also promoted by many governments as a key area of development, especially for less developed countries. The nature of eco-tourism and pro-poor sustainable tourism (if done correctly) means tourism is at a much smaller scale and other livelihoods such as food crops need to be maintained. Eco-tourism can often monopolise the time and resources of villages. In one village I visited in Lao a family had sacrificed their last chicken in order to feed the tourists this was also at a time they were working 10 hour days harvesting rice, a tall ask for anyone. It is not clear how Tribewanted in Vorovoro and John Obey Beach are approaching this issue or whether it is an issue at all. But maintaining other livelihoods to work alongside Tribewanted is key to minimising the risk to the community and achieving sustainability.
Overall Tribewanted is a significant step in the right direction when it comes to implementing sustainable eco-tourism and is streets ahead of other projects I have seen and evaluated. Their challenge lies in demonstrating the positive impact they are having through clear objectives that are measured every one to two years.