In April of this year, The New York Times published “Vietnam’s Empty Forests” in the travel section of the newspaper. The article states that habitat destruction, corrupted officials, and greedy animal traffickers are major contributors to the destruction of Vietnam’s forests and wildlife. To ameliorate this ecological crisis and preserve the wild animals, the article proposes that environmental groups pay local people enough money to dissuade them from further violations. At first this solution may seem reasonable. But this economic logic of ecotourism is contradictory, exacerbates global inequality, and obscures the sources of demand for nature-based tourism.
Like any products sold on the market, there exists a demand for ecotourism. In wealthy industrial societies during the 1970s, urban dwellers living in crowded cities wanted to escape the concrete jungles and rediscover the bond between humans and nature, one that was severely damaged by the oppressive pursuit of profits. They started to look overseas for countries that they thought had local culture and nature untouched by Western modernity. The demand of the urban middle-class for nature-based tourism created the ecotourism industry that we know now. Ecotourism is a global business and it connects several industries together. Many tourist businesses, travel promoters, and international media jumped onto this opportunity to exploit the shift of consumer taste.
International organizations like UNESCO and the World Bank, often oriented within the global centers of accumulation, promote ecotourism as a nature-based activity that minimizes the impact of travel on the environment and local people. Like mass tourism, ecotourism sees visitors as consumers, though with different preferences and deeper pockets. For ecotourism to work, these ecotourists have to outbid mass tourists and those engaged in wildlife trafficking. The market solution is of an individualistic character, one that puts the responsibility of protecting nature on the individual consumers.
Western media outlets as The New York Times see ecotourism as protecting the Earth, making a difference, and a win-win situation for both the indulgent vacationer and local environment and people. To stop the destruction of wildlife in Vietnam, the author of the NYT’s “Vietnam’s Empty Forests” article writes:
That means, at least in part, creating economic incentives for local people to
preserve native species in their natural habitats. And it needs to start soon,
wildlife advocates say.
Although the article does not say, a major source of “economic incentives” is derived from ecotourists. The economic rationality seems to make sense because it is providing an alternative incentive for the locals to protect wild animals.
But ecotourism carries its own contradictory logic. The market logic asks that in order to save Vietnam’s wild animals we must rely on the same destructive mechanism that led to their current demise. Global tourism, animal trafficking, and economic development, driven by the imperative of profits, which is the logic conclusion stemming from the belief in economic incentives, are the major reasons for the threatened existence of wild animals and their habitat.
Another problem with the economic rationality of ecotourism is that it depends not just on the individuals to exert their economic power, but it exacerbates the global inequality between those in Western countries and the people in developing ones. If the economic logic allows people in wealthy industrial societies to exercise their economic power to save wildlife, the same logic also gives them the power to slaughter the wild animals.
Colonization has ended but global inequality persists; those hailing from the North with access to First World currencies and passports have more economic and political power than those outside this world. Rather than carrying high-powered cameras and memory cards like ecotourists, the so-called hunters arm with themselves high-powered rifles and ammunition. In 2015 when an American tourist in Zimbabwe killed a lion named Cecil, the event made global news. Many people expressed outrage. But more important, we were made aware of legalized, market-based offerings, which allow individual tourists to kill wild animals of the safari at a low cost, relatively, of a few thousand dollars.
Although marketed as being different from mass tourism, ecotourism promoters often conveniently ignore a few important complications: complications, if acknowledged, would be detrimental to their business operation. Nature observers, traveling thousands of miles to Africa, or to Vietnam, on aircraft fueled by petroleum derivatives, still contribute, like any other long-haul tourists, to the continued extraction of fossil fuels from the ground and the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. And like mass tourism, ecotourism engages the visitors as consumers, whose purpose of travel is to indulge. Hiding behind the positive marketing of ecotourism, investors and travel operators are simply exploiting the demand of wealthy but detached consumers from the North.
The potential to exploit the natural resources of Vietnam is enormous. The opening of Vietnam has seduced not only foreign speculators and investors, but also tourists. In the past ten years, the country has seen an unprecedented number of arrivals outside her borders. International tourists are flocking to Vietnam’s cities, beaches, and UNESCO-endorsed cultural and natural sites. While investors are primarily attracted to Vietnam for her cheap land and labor, many tourists seek out the country for a unique and authentic experience, preferably one that doesn’t break the bank.
If mass tourism is on the rise in Vietnam, so is ecotourism and so are the opportunities to profit from it. When I search for “ecolodge vietnam” on Google, the top result is Topas Ecolodge in Sapa, a popular tourist destination in northwest Vietnam. Topas Ecolodge is run by Topas Travel, a tourist operation, but describes itself as an “adventure” company. Topas Travel is owned by Topas Group, a Danish multinational corporate entity, which has 8 companies in 36 different countries. The ecolodges like Topas do say that they hire local workers and seem to care about protecting the environment. And yet the act of helping the locals and preserving the environment becomes a derivative of the main function, which is produce profits.
Ecotourist businesses might sing a different tune than the traditional five-star hotels, but the role they both play in global economy, one that favors those in North and with access to capital, is the same— a multinational corporation whose main objective is to generate profit for investors. And like the opulent hotels, Topas Ecolodge sells the nature-based experience at a premium cost — $300 to 420 for a one-night stay in August, which is as much as staying at the JW Marriott resort hotel in Phuc Quoc island.
The New York Times article tells us that the author stayed at an “ecolodge.” Ecolodges, not unlike hotel accommodations, require that investors and business finance the clearing of trees and the excavation of trenches for installing water and waste pipes. These actions, of course, contribute directly to the destruction of the habitat and wild animals, the consequence of which, contradictory with what ecotourism claims to prevent.
Ecotourism is a phenomenon originating from the North, but it is made possible and sustained by its unequal relation, put into place hundreds of years ago, with the South. Vietnam is no longer under the control of the French state or fighting against the Americans. But the economic rationality, one found in ecotourism, was also a belief that American planners had when they decided to occupy the southern half of Vietnam. Armed with not just guns and bombs but a market rationale that places capital above humans and nature, the American government attempted to create a new state in southern Vietnam by pumping billions of dollars into its economy.
The billions of dollars were intended to save Vietnam from Communism and to increase the standard of living of the Vietnamese people. The expenditure would also benefit the American economy, from military contractors to makers of Agent Orange— a win-win situation. But the new money torn asunder the fabric of the Vietnamese nation, one that was still in its infancy, having recently defeated the French colonizers and declared independent. The influx of money from the American state divided the country, creating those with access to American dollars and those without.
Ecotourism might look like a win-win solution for both the tourists and locals. It offers a temporary reprieve. For the tourist, ecotourism offers a short break from the drudgery, pointless, and arbitrary dictatorship of modern work. But a temporary getaway can only offer a band-aid solution to a much deeper problem. For the locals and their environment, ecotourism creates a divide between those who are educated and trained and have connections to ecotourist businesses and those that must rely on living off the land and hunting wild animals. They are excluded from a purposeful way to make a living. Ecotourism, then, is transforming locals into Western professional service workers, the whole effort contradicting the ostensible mission of limiting the impact of tourism on local culture and environment.