In recent years tourism has been promoted heavily as an alternative source of income for many remote mountain communities, especially in the Himalayan/Tibetan Plateau region. Tourism offers an alternative source of income, which is critical in years of drought or heavy snowstorms, which can decimate a family’s income for any given year. However, tourism can be a dangerous tool as it has the potential to reshape local culture and have negative impacts on the environment. Eco-tourism, as a subset of tourism, is highly regarded among development professionals as it promotes environmental sustainability and improvement to indigenous social structures. However, a clear definition of ‘ecotourism’ has yet to be established among practitioners, opening the door to much ‘green washing’. So what is ‘ecotourism’? I believe it consists of three key areas:
- Environmental Protection – tourism should be applied in a way that the local environment does not suffer/degrade, rather is improved somehow through active efforts in conservation
- Improving Local Livelihoods – tourism should benefit locals. Local communities are largely dependent on the very resources that make an area attractive (beautiful forests, mountains ecosystems, etc). So visitors to the area should somehow improve local communities through income generation, improving resources, and promoting cultural/social structures in place.
- Education – visitors do not only come to lay on a beach and read a book, but interact in a meaningful way with the surroundings. They learn about the environment, the culture, and the aspects of that location that make it special.
Ecotourism doesn’t just concentrate on one of these aspects, each one is critical and one should not be stressed at the expense of the other. Without a balance of these three, in my opinion, we are not talking about ecotourism, but rather another subset of tourism. In which case, responsible tourism has not been fully actualized.
Recently I was part of a study tour to Nepal, with the purpose of gaining key insights from the tour industry so that lessons learned could be applied to the Qinghai context. As a volunteer with Plateau Perspectives, a Canadian based non-profit organization working in Qinghai, we have been working with a number of rural communities to establish an ecotourism network, with the purpose of poverty alleviation. And key to this is not only the establishment of tourism, but responsible tourism that promotes livelihood needs, conservation efforts and environmental protection. Nepal has a large history of tourism, not all good, but we wanted to see firsthand what some of the positive and negative effects of the industry were, specifically looking at the local community context.
Our study tour team was made up of invitees from academia, private sector, local NGO’s, as well as government staff. It was our hope that such a tour would serve as a foundation for further discussion and partnership in Qinghai. In our tour we visited a range of establishments from high-end to budget tourist destinations and met with key organizations in Nepal responsible for the industry including WWF, SNV, Nepal Tourism Board, the Department of National Parks & Wildlife, and ICIMOD. Key to many of our discussions was how communities were involved in planning. Do communities have the capacity for management? If not, how are they being trained? As a key stakeholder, what decision-making power do they have? How do they access the benefits of tourism, which largely depends on land/resources they use to meet basic livelihood needs? How are they involved in conservation efforts? Are their opportunities for co-management in conservation areas/national parks?
Overall, I feel the tour was very successful. We gained much insight to the tourism planning process and I believe we will learn greatly from the successes and failures of Nepal. However, in our western China context, we are only a small voice that influences policy and regulations surrounding this industry. It is our hope that the communities we work with will be a shining example of successful tourism that improves local livelihoods and environmental protection. As such an example, it may help promote responsible tourism in other regions.