Ecotourism, a holy grail for development?
An interview with responsible tourism specialist Stasja Koot (Assistant Professor, Wageningen University) about trends and the history of tourism for development
Ecotourism and community-based tourism are often seen as a holy grail for development. They may help to preserve culture and conserve nature as well as promising to lift people out of poverty. But critics contests all of these promises as well. In our magazine we want to investigate the promises and perils of ecotourism. One of the ways to do this is to include the academic view on responsible tourism. We therefore interviewed Stasja Koot, a responsible tourism specialist from Wageningen University and discussed some of these issues with him.
In 1999 Stasja went to Tsintsabis, Namiba for his master thesis research about resettlement farms. After graduating he returned for five years and helped the local Hai//om Bushmen to establish Treesleeper camp.
You have worked for five years in Tsintsabis, Namibia, and worked as a project manager on Tsintsabis farm. In these years the Treesleeper Camp was established. What kind of accommodation is this and why was it established?
Treesleeper camp is a campsite at a resettlement farm in Tsintsabis in Namibia. I worked there to establish Treesleeper camp. This campsite was called Treesleeper because it refers to the local bushmen population.
The Treesleeper project was established as a community-based tourism project. During the nineties community-based tourism was extremely popular and there were several Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) projects (see box below). An example for a CBNRM project is the campfire project in Zimbabwe. In this project the Campfire Association helped local communities to develop communal areas by supporting them to utilize wildlife and other natural resources in a sustainable way. The aim of these projects was to combine natural resource management with development. These projects also support local communities and help them to participate in the economy. Often these projects are combined with investments in tourism. Community Based Tourism (CBT) is seen as an important part of CBNRM. Tsintsabis itself is not part of any CBNRM program. However, the idea of starting a community-based tourism project was widespread those days. The project at Tsintsabis embraced this idea.
What is the reason you thought that ecotourism could help this community?
Tsintsabis is a resettlement farm but the area is quite small. Therefore, the people living on Tsintsabis farm depend mostly on small-scale agriculture and governmental food supply. They want to become self-sufficient. The people themselves came up with the idea to start tourism. The main goal of the project was to create jobs. These new jobs then would lead to the development of this area. Also,, education was part of this project because the people at Tsintsabis have to learn how to be a tour guide.
‘’The culture of the bushmen often conflicts with what tourists want to see.’’
What did tourists expect at Treesleeper?
Based on marketing from tour operators and National Geographic and other popular media, tourists expect to see people in traditional clothes. They want to experience the culture of the Bushmen based on these images. During my time there once, a French tourist was very disappointed about Treesleeper camp. He expected the Bushmen to play the drums, but this is not part of their culture. The culture of the bushmen often conflicts with what tourists want to see. Traditional clothing is always an issue. Tourist do expect bushmen walking around with bow and arrow wearing a loincloth. I actually never have met bushmen who wore these clothes in their daily life. I mean they do wear it when they are working in tourism, for example at all the stalls in South-Africa but only for tourism purposes. The clothing is part of their costume. This could lead to some issues. At Tsintsabis we had three tour guides. After some time one of them did no longer feel comfortable wearing traditional clothes because his neighbors in the village would make fun of him. This tour guide came with a solution himself. During the bush walk he would wear normal clothing and tell the tourists that they would meet his ‘twin’ brother at the end of the walk. After the walk his ‘twin’ brother in traditional clothing would walk out of a hut so the tourists could take their pictures.
It is not all bad. Tourism can be an instigator of cultural changes. For example, in the area I worked people are not very proud of their culture, they look down on it. The tourists visiting Tsintsabis did enjoy their time there and gave a positive impulse. It made people in the area prouder of their culture. Tourism also gives some possibilities for development, at least for some. One of the guys who joined the cooking team now works as a cook in Luderitz, a city in the southwest of Namibia. Working at Treesleeper gave him some opportunities to follow some courses in cooking.
How does the Treesleeper camp look today?
It is some years ago that I worked there. It has led to development for some, but others have been stuck in local political struggles and have been excluded from the project because it is simply impossible to include everybody. The project does still exist, but it does not run that well anymore. During the soccer World Cup in 2010 in South-Africa the European Union gave several grants for the development of tourism in southern Africa. The people of Tsintsabis did apply for this subsidy themselves. They wanted to upgrade the Treesleeper project and expand it by building several bungalows. Before that, there was only a campsite at Tsintsabis. However, this project did change Treesleeper camp into a construction site. One of the reasons for this are the complex politics in Namibia. The national government did get the money. They decided that the people of Tsintsabis could design their lodges themselves, but the government was responsible for all the expenditures of the project. The government did not trust the people of Tsintsabis to spend the money themselves. They might have had good reasons for that. One of the causes the project did fail was that family ties played a big role during the construction. For example, the owner of the construction company was a son of the minister responsible for the project. Having any critiques on the quality of construction was impossible.The project ran out of money before proper bungalows were built. At the end the fund they had successfully applied for did lead to the destruction of the campsite because the money was not well spent. Until that time the project did work quite well. Now the people of Tsintsabis do not know how to go on and change the situation.
At the end the Treesleeper project did not work out as planned. Is this representative for this kind of projects?
This project definitely has had some positive effects for some. What we often see is that community-based tourism projects only enlarge local power relations. This means that people who already have power, gain more power and that the powerless and often poor stay poor and do not get any profit from the project. These power struggles often limit the possibilities for development for the poor. In the case of Tsintsabis local politics did have a negative impact on the project. In this village there is a culture of accusations. People are often criticized when they are doing well. Also, the very complex politics in Tsintsabis did play a role. There is a culture of people bringing down each other. The local customs and culture are rather complex. As a consequence, it is quite difficult to makes these kinds of projects successful and have a big impact on the lives of these marginalized groups. This is the case for more of these locally set-up campsites in rural areas.
Are there examples of other forms of these campsites that work more effectively?
A new trend in ecotourism is joint ventures. Private sector parties work together with the local community. For example, they set up a lodge and employ local people. This often works better from a tourism point of view. If it leads to development is an interesting question. Often the local community is dissatisfied. Often it requires a change in livelihood strategies, for example people used to be pastoralist and are now working in tourism. The community is presented as a homogeneous but is very heterogeneous in reality. Actually, the idea of community-based tourism implies the existence of a homogenous, unchanging entity. Anthropologic research teaches us that these communities and their behavior change over time due to migration or other developments. Also, the fact that communities consist of different individuals who have different values, norms and beliefs is often overlooked. I personally think that communities as defined in the context of ecotourism do not exist.
“Far destinations are by definition not green because travelling by plane is unavoidable”
Do you think that ecotourism is a responsible way of traveling?
Sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not. Far destinations are by definition not green because travelling by plane is unavoidable. This is one of the contradictions of ecotourism. Something that is very popular nowadays is voluntourism in which people want to volunteer in a country far away. I have my doubts about the way this is presented because traveling by plane is stimulated. Sometimes projects are presented in a way that they seem to be good for the environment but in reality, it is not (see box “The fourfold economic value of a lion - an extreme example”). On the other hand, some cases are truly green. It really depends on the projects. An example of a green trip is camping somewhere nearby. It may not be that spectacular or adventurous, but it is definitely greener in comparison with flying to southern Africa.
In other words, a responsible holiday is primarily nearby, and it is also important to think about the ethical aspects of an activity?
Yes, indeed. The problem is that most of the tourists do not really pay a lot of attention to that. People do have certain expectations and a limited amount of time, so they do not want to investigate everything. Even if there are problems, like the example with Treesleeper, most of the time there are positive aspects as well.
Is ecotourism getting more popular because the grown attention and awareness for sustainability?
Yes, I do think that is true. I know that tourism is exploding worldwide. When I was young, I worked a whole year, so I could buy a ticket to Thailand, which was very adventurous at that time. Nowadays you go to Thailand to relax by the beach. Tourism is getting more accessible now. New countries are rising like Colombia. Currently, only a few places on earth exist that are not visited by tourists. People even go to Antarctica or other places to see endangered animals. Tourism is growing in different ways.
The essential characteristic of tourism is that everything has an economic value. This has consequences. One of them is ‘over-tourism’ or overcrowding, which you see in Amsterdam or Barcelona but also nearby and inside national parks. This has at times led to ‘tourismphobia’ which means that local people are protesting against tourism. The fact that there are too many tourists is relatively new, but the protesting response of locals is something that is decades old.
Another trend which is a consequence of tourism nowadays are the emerging luxury lodges around National Parks in African countries like South Africa and Namibia. If you would ask the people who run these lodges, they would say that this is a form of ecofriendly tourism.Today, everything that is linked to nature is called ecotourism, which is not always correct. Ecotourism is much more than just nature.
Ecotourism is often focused on high educated well earning western people that can travel everywhere. Are there also ecotourist projects for the lower educated or students?
The difference between higher and lower educated people is not that sharp and easy. Ecotourism is indeed very focused on cosmopolitans and less focused on lower educated people at the moment, but it is getting easier and cheaper to travel and therefore ecotourism becomes more accessible to other target groups. Less wealthy groups are getting involved by for example volunteer tourism.
How can you stimulate people to choose responsible tourism?
I think that the tourist industry could play a crucial role in stimulating people but after all their goal is often simply profit. I think that most of the eco-tour operators want to stimulate people, but the marketing system just does not work that way. They have to stop if they lose money, more profit is better. It is contradictory and very hard.
At the end of the interview Stasja tells us about a new concept called philanthro-tourism:
Philanthro-tourism is based on traveling donors that are actively involved with projects, such as the preservation of rhinos and elephants. NGOs like the WWF are offering trips on their website for donors that donate an amount of money. They do not have to be the super richest people of the planet but a big group of wealthy people with similar ideas are involved during their holidays. This is something new and I hope that I can make this better known in the world.
In conclusion, ecotourism is expanding and getting more accessible in many different ways. For some, ecotourism can create opportunities but the benefits are often spread unequally. Cultural conflicts and political struggles make development complicated and sometimes projects are described better than it truly is. On the other hand, we must not forget that projects exist that contribute to development.
References and further reading:
Goodwin, H., & Santilli, R. (2009). Community-based tourism: A success. ICRT Occasional paper, 11(1), 37.
Sebele, L. S. (2010). Community-based tourism ventures, benefits and challenges: Khama rhino sanctuary trust, central district, Botswana. Tourism
management, 31(1), 136-146..Retrieved from:
by Mariëlle & Roos
CV Stasja Koot
1993 - 2000 Master of Arts Cultural Anthropology at the University of Utrecht
1999 - 2001 Master of Arts Environmental Sciences at the University of Utrecht
2003 - 2007 Founder and project manager Treesleeper Camp in Namibia
2007 - 2012 Large Grants Fundraiser at the Edukans Foundation in the Netherlands
2009 - 2013 Doctor of Philosophy, Anthropology at the University of Tilburg
2012 - 2013 Tourism and Research Lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam
2013 - 2015 Postdoctoral Researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies at the Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Since 2015 Stasja is a lecturer and researcher at the Wageningen University
Read more at https://stasjakoot.com/
CBNRM and CBT
Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) and Community Based Tourism (CBT) are two interrelated concepts. These concepts are often used in development projects.
CBNRM can be defined as: ‘A project or activity where a community (one village or a group of villages) organize themselves in such a way that they derive benefits from the utilization of local natural resources and are actively involved in their use and conservation. Often (but not always), communities will receive exclusive rights and responsibilities from government. (Sebele, 2010)
CBT is seen as “Tourism that takes environmental, social and cultural sustainability into account. It is managed and owned by the community, for the community, with the purpose of enabling visitors to increase their awareness and learn about the community and local ways of life.”(Goodwin & Santilli, 2009)
The fourfold economic value of a lion - an extreme example
Owners of lions born in captivity in South Arfica can profit four ways during the lion’s lifespan. First of all, tourist can cuddle cubs and make photos of them. Secondly when the lions are a bit older, tourist can take a walk with the lions. Thirdly, the lions are used for trophy hunting. The tourist can hunt on lions that are often drugged. Lastly, when the lions are dead their bones, skins and teeth are traded. These kind of lion farms are often presented as ecofriendly because they would contribute to the lion population. This is an example of a form of tourism that is often presented ‘ecofriendly’, but many tourists are getting fooled. This is an extreme negative example and is not always the case on every lion farm.