Responsible Ecotourism, the Death of the Ugly American

In the beginning, there was tourism. Thousands of Americans, Europeans and other inhabitants of Western nations would pay – sometimes dearly – to see the wonders of the Orient, the strange customs of tribal societies, the mystery that is India.

The “Ugly American” was not so much ugly as insensitive. Coming from a land that was only two centuries old in 1976, most travelers from the United States had grown up in an era when wildlife was a little livelier than today, and much wilder. Some of their parents had even witnessed the last great buffalo hunts.

By 2001, the United Nations World Tourism Organization noticed a change in demographics and attitude. Baby Boomers – 1946-1964 – were not only on the cusp of retirement, but held 70 to 80 percent of the nation’s wealth. They were also developing an environmental consciousness, a frame of mind gladly shared by Gen-Xers (1961-1981). This “conscientious consumerism” operated through a framework of spending discretionary income in ways that benefitted the earth and its non-human inhabitants.

The trend has only increased. Where once Americans (and other Westerners) had literally run roughshod over the Galapagos Islands, the new ethos sees 34 percent of the global population buying by brand (based on a corporation’s sustainability ratio).baobab trees, Madagascar

Buying a ticket on a tour ship, bus, or safari that donates part of its profits to preserving an ecology reflects this change in perception. Many travel companies now boast that a portion of their sales goes directly back into the environment and the endangered animals that are the focus of the tour. This new awareness also extends to lodging, dining and merchandising.

Even now, responsible ecotourism is far from perfect. Defined as “… including programs that minimize the adverse effects of traditional tourism on the natural environment, and enhance the cultural integrity of local people”, the industry will only attain perfection when no one sets foot on the endangered area in question. At least, that’s the way many conservation groups see it. In the interim, ensure your tourism benefits your destination by checking out travel and lodging businesses for their eco-IQ.

How does one identify an ecotourist opportunity? Postings on social media sites like Facebook offer advance notice about an upcoming tour to Africa, for example, to see some of the indigenous, nomadic tribes, or some of the magnificent animal species like elephants, lions, rhinos, and tigers. Sadly, both are endangered and rapidly disappearing, the former due to persistent, generational poverty, and the latter due to poaching.

One should not post on Facebook about an African safari that aims to hunt down and kill rare animals, as Kendall Jones, 19, did. Her ostensible reason was that she planned to host a television show about big game hunting. Jones calls her slaughter “conservation”. Clearly, she doesn’t know that – in any species – a minimum number of breeding pairs must survive in order to maintain sufficient genetic diversity to procreate.

A petition started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, garnered 40,000 signatures the first week. Jones’s site has since been taken down. This is not only very good news, but also an explicit warning to others who fail to “get with” the zeitgeist.

That defining moral climate, spanning three or more generations, is nothing to sneeze at. One can argue against anthropogenic climate change, but to suggest nowadays that killing endangered animals is conservationism might provoke more than heckling.


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