02 October 2007

East Africa: Ecotourism, Suicide Or Development


East African Business Week (Kampala)

1 October 2007

Ole Kamuaro

The trend towards the commercialisation of tourism schemes disguised as sustainable, nature-based, environmentally friendly ecotourism ventures has become the subject of considerable public controversy and concern. These schemes may have serious impacts on nature and society, particularly in the South.

This so-called ecotourism has become the fastest growing sub-sector of the tourist industry, with an annual growth rate of 10-15% worldwide. At the same time, international tourism to the Third World is rapidly increasing by 6% per year, compared to growth in developed countries of only 3.5%. At present, 20% of international tourists travel to southern countries.

Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa reap significant economic benefits from these commercial ventures. But the negative psycho-social impact of this type of tourism, including physical displacement of persons and gross violation of fundamental rights, far outweigh its intended medium-term economic benefits.

East Africa provides excellent examples of the disastrous nature of these activities. Mass tourism was first introduced to these regions in the 1950s with the legalisation of hunting and culling of wild game by the then "white settlers," the British colonial masters who controlled Kenya and Tanzania.

The need for exclusive hunting and recreational zones inaccessible to "natives" led to the creation of protected areas, national parks and game reserves. These areas became very important revenue-earning ventures with the establishment of lodges and tourist campsites.

But 70% of national parks and game reserves in East Africa are on pastoralist lands, particularly Masai land. The first undesirable impact of tourism on the Masai of both these countries was massive loss of land. Parks and game reserves require considerable space and investment.

Local and national governments in these countries took unfair advantage of the ignorance of the Masai and robbed them of huge chunks of grazing land, in most cases the best pasture areas, putting to risk their only socioeconomic livelihood, pastoralism.

The fierce loyalty of these people to their traditions had soured their relations with their colonial rulers.

They were provided with few or no social and infrastructure services; as post-independence governments did little to improve their literacy rate, few acquired a formal education. While others adapted to modern ways of life the Masai pursued traditional pastoralism, which has unfairly been considered backward and wasteful as an economic activity.

Ironically, pastoralism and conservation of nature go hand in hand. Given the Masai"s large open tracts of land, abundant plant and animal wildlife, and their rich and much-romanticised culture, it was almost inevitable that they would be targeted by large-scale tourism.

In Kenya, tourism has not brought any tangible economic benefits to the Masai people. Despite their loss of land, employment favours better-educated workers from other parts of the country. Investors in the tourism industry are not local and so have not ploughed back their profits into the local economy.

Traditionally, land was not a commodity for exchange like money or livestock. With the introduction of tourism it has become possible to trade land for money and this has created destitution and poverty, pitting members of the same clan against one another.

In Tanzania, the picture is similar and in some cases even worse. In Mkomazi, a game reserve was designated without informing or consulting local people, who simply received an eviction order from their own government.

In Ngorongoro district, the Sultan of the United Arab Emirates was allocated a hunting corridor through vast grazing land, with no limit set on hunting. The Masai were never informed of the development. When they reacted with indignation, grazing restrictions were imposed on their herds. Tourism and hunting always take the best land.

Clearly, tourism as a trade does not empower those who make it rich and satisfying. It simply exploits and depletes, particularly in the Third World. It has to be redefined and reoriented if it is ever to become sustainable. Biodiversity and environmentally intact lands form the basis of ecological stability. But this has already been severely affected by industrialisation, urbanisation, unsustainable agricultural practices and mass tourism.

While ecotourism sounds comparatively benign, one of its most serious impacts is usurpation of "virgin" territories;national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other wilderness areas;which are then packaged as green products for ecotourists.

With the tremendous expansion of commercialised ecotourism, environmental degradation, including deforestation, disruption of ecological life systems and various forms of pollution, has in fact increased. Even its proponents concede that ecotourism is far from a panacea for environmental destruction


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