The Environmental Implications of Ecotourism

Yaeir Heber

The modern era has made the world an effectively smaller place.  Nearly every inch of our planet is easily accessible to those with adequate financial resources.  The wonders of the world, whose reality has in the past never exceeded legend or tale, can now be gazed upon first hand by the average vacationer.  Are planets biodiversity has come under much greater focus in this era of wide exposure.  People are often able to experience ecosystems that are quite different than those that they normally inhabit.  Yet, the luxuries of world travel or more particularly ecotourism are accompanied by a charged tradition—that it is the intention of this paper to explore—of a unique and unobvious form of environmental degradation.  Ecotourism is, in fact, the consumption of a commoditized nature and is a proponent of its objectification as a commensurable and utilizable spectacle rather than a living matrix in which all beings participate in an interdependent web of life.


Exotic natures exposed to the West during the age of exploration and soon after captured by colonial endeavors satisfied preconceptions of the Western imagination and were effectively framed in the Western mind as a new concept of nature: a spectacled and romanticized wilderness.  Perhaps by mere coincidence, much of the nature found in the new world was not only exotic and different, thus sparking curiosity from the western mind, but the tropical fertility also conjured up what Sheller calls “utopian fantasies of sustenance without labor…” (Sheller 2003: 42) which was to then be associated with religious symbols and other traditional Western myths.  The first, and possibly most obvious, of such associations was the Garden of Eden.  The conception of this garden was informed by the exotic nature of the east where it was biblically located.  The abundant fruit bearing plants of the Fertile Crescent a long with the symbolically potent palm trees which epitomized this mythical exotic eastern garden were shockingly redolent of the Caribbean wilderness. 


Mythical lands such as the medieval fantasy of Cockaigne, and the classical Hesperides or Elysium were evoked by the apparent ease of survival in this new resource abundant land (Sheller 2003: 42).  The fecundity and tame climate were probably the most direct resemblances to these mythical fantasylands.  But in addition, the rather leisurely hunter-gather way of procuring sustenance must have seemed virtually effortless compared to arduous European agricultural practices, fulfilling the ideal of survival sans labor.  Ponting explains that a relatively low percentage of time was spent ‘working’ in hunter-gatherer societies: “Obtaining food and other forms of work take up only a small proportion of the day, leaving a large amount of time free for leisure…” (Ponting 1993: 20).  It was not long before demand was high to view this object of human fascination, this paradise on earth.  In response to this demand the concept of ecotourism arose, an industry that brought vacationers to ‘experience’ these romantic wildernesses first hand.  The concern is that land was not being experienced as habitat, but rather as a distant and inanimate object.


Ecotourism further commensurated and made into spectacle the new world tropical wilderness in as far it commoditized the nature as an object for human enjoyment.  In fact, places were commensurated in entirely anthropocentric terms; value was attributed based upon the human encounter and enjoyment of such nature.  Rather than the nature being viewed as having an inherent value, it was esteemed based on its significance and meaning within humans’ symbolic framing of it.  While perhaps in a less tangible sense than deforestation or coal mining, ecotourism is a form of consuming nature.  Macnaghten and Urry explain this concept further in regards to ecotourism’s effects on the English countryside:

Such commodification of the countryside has far-reaching social effects. It implies that the countryside will be increasingly consumed as spectacle. Potent images and symbols become readily transformed into saleable commodities. One effect of this lies in the divorce of the saleable qualities from their social or historical context, and the subsequent general loss of the local distinctiveness of countryside places. (1991: 191)

Likewise, placing a set price on such an exposure solidifies the notion that these particular places are no more than purchasable experiences.  As humans are in fact the purchasers, we are established in a consumer-consumed relationship with this nature.


An objectifying relationship was present even before Crusoe-like tales of the virgin wilderness made it back to the mainland.  The explorers initial scientific approach to the land laid the groundwork for objectification that would later enable it to—spectacularly—be the subject of tourists’ enjoyment.  Explorers immediately framed new lands as specimens of human fascination, attempting to apprehend them with sophisticated tools and instruments.  Adas draws focus to these instruments as prime symbols of Europeans’ exploratory mindset:

“Smith’s instruments and his reason for taking them ashore convey both a sense of the curiosity that provided a major motivation for the Europeans’ overseas expansion and their compulsion to measure and catalogue the worlds they were ‘discovering.’” (Adas 1989:4)  

Landscape drawings and maps were the subsequent steps that effectively flattened the land to a one-dimensional entity.  They acted upon the misconception that the essence of a place could be captured by a structural representation of it—were the representation sufficiently accurate.  These false reductionistic apprehensions of place could supposedly be understood and conceptualized, and as such, were easily commoditizable.


Interestingly, the modern conversationalist environmental movement was born as an apparent need to preserve these wildernesses arose.  Because the new world’s nature was symbolically entrained in the European mind as virgin wilderness, and because of the fragility of these ecosystems, Westerners’ impacts on the environment were apparent and especially noticed by Europeans.  They were especially perceptive to any deviation from virginity as it undermined their symbolic understanding and the essential meaning of that nature to them for, unlike, the classical European forests that the Athenians had framed as yet-to-be-made ships, this nature was defined and marveled for its pristine: 


…the experience of encountering new lands, peoples, animals and plants helped to promote the attachment of a new kind of social significance to nature. (Grove 1995:24)

The available evidence shows that the seeds of modern conservationism developed as an integral part of the European encounter with the tropics and with local classifications and interpretations f the natural world and its symbolism. …the environmental experience of Europeans and indigenous peoples living at the colonial periphery play a steadily more dominant and dynamic part… in the growing awareness of the destructive impact of European economic activity… (Grove 1995: 24, 2-3 cited in Sheller 2003:45)

Likewise the Europeans technologies heightened their effective sensitivity to environmental changes that might have previously gone undetected: “…the growing interest in mechanistic analysis and comparison actually enables rational and measured observation of environmental change, as well as encouraging and organized conservationist response” (Grove 1995:51). 


The environmental conservation movement that stemmed to preserve the romanticized and commoditized wilderness is still today accused of the environmental objectification that was present at its inception.  The same ‘nature as other’ approach is attributed to current day preservationists.  DiChiro accuses the mainstream environmental movement of being concerned with preserving the “natural aesthetic” (DiChiro 1998: 123).  The implication that nature must be preserved as a spectacle for human enjoyment is still present in this form of environmentalism; the concerned conversationalist are still determining that a separate, non-human, nature ought to be preserved because of its sanctity, beauty, marvel or awesomeness—all of which are human evaluations of another object.  Deep Ecology claims to escape this fundamental flaw, distinguishing itself from by claiming not to objectify nature as other: “Shallow ecology is anthropocentric, or human-centered. It views humans as above or outside of nature, as the source of all value and ascribes only instrumental, or “use,” value to nature” (Capra 1996: 7).  So while the beneficial environmental conservation movement may have emerged from and quashed the potentially catastrophic colonial age, it carries with it a flaw that confines its ultimate potency as reconciler of human-to-nature relations.


Works Cited:

Adas, Michael. 1989. Machines as the Meaure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of

Western Dominance. Cornell Univ. Press.

Capra, Frijof. 1996. The Web of Life. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday.

Dichiro, G. 1998. Ch. 5 of Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons. New Brunswick: Rutgers University.

Grove, R. 1996. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 16001860 (Studies in Environment and History). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Macnaghten, P., & Urry, J. 1998. Contested Natures (Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd.

Ponting, Clive. 1991. A Green History of the World. St. Martins Press, NYC.

Sheller, Mimi. 2003. Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies. London: Routledge.

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last updated 1/25/07