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The Good, The Bad, and the Tourist

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
August 20, 1998


I write this column as I prepare to take off on my summer vacation, which will include white-water rafting on the Tuolumne River, and a week in Boston at an environmental conference. Famed writer and naturalist Edward Abbey once wrote that "The developers and entrepreneurs must somehow be taught a new vocabulary of values", nothing could be closer to the truth as we approach the 21st century. There is no reason to expect that knowledge gathered can't be used to benefit the planet. The tourism industry is no different.

As you can imagine I worry about my travel choices. It is important for me to know that my pleasure is not at the expense of others, and that impact is kept at a minimum. It's a shame those wishing to attract visitors do not share my views. On the surface tourism is good for local economies. I don't need to tell you that places with the the biggest draw, such as coastal communities and wilderness areas, are often overwhelmed by tourists.

Precedent has shown that economics always wins out over biology and restraint. All over the world fragile costal habitats are destroyed to make room for resorts and visiting tourists. Adding insult to injury, these tourist traps introduce a variety of non-native species. In developing nations this sort of build now, ask questions later development goes on unchecked. Money is needed, the rest of the planet be damned. Here in the states things are a little better. Yet an environmental impact report is easily ignored when money is waved in the face of local policy makers.

From the Bahamas to Belize, most beach resorts include a swimming pool. Why is that? Is the ocean to intimidating? Are people afraid of sharks, pollution or both? Tourists from industrial nations demand creature comforts, and tourists from developing nations don't exist. The amenities that we require take a toll the local environment. Visitors generate trash, and sewage. The more visitors the more sewage, the bigger the impact on the surrounding environments.

All to often vacations are just trading one city for another, and when people want to get away from it all they usually expect to find the comfortable parts waiting for them. Labeling itself an eco-tourist destination, the Five Sisters Falls Lodge boasts hot and cold baths, full dining facilities, and an in-house bar in the middle of the Belize's most pristine rainforest. So much for getting close to nature. In Japan, ecology minded vacations include baseball, swimming pools and log playgrounds. If that all it takes Carlsbad is the perfect eco-tourist destination.

Three years ago my partner and I spent two weeks river rafting in Idaho with a top rate rafting company, the experience was eco-tourism at it's finest. The flight into the mountains gave us a birds-eye view of way too many clear-cut. On the river we traveled light, and carried enough provisions for a week. We also carried everything out with us, even our waste. Very environmental.

The first week we drifted down the Middle fork river, listening to stories about the federal governments campaign to eradicate the Shoshone nation. Mixed with tales of Native America, we also heard stories of brave pioneer women and men mad with greed, and others just mad. Our river guides had degrees in anthropology, botany and psychology, it was a stimulating experience.

The second week was spent on the Salmon River, with a new group of rafters. The irony that salmon no longer swim in the Salmon River was always with us. John Muir and like minded people started the Sierra Club when salmon were still a common sight. For the salmon, eco-tourism came too late. Yosemite, the place where American environmentalism was born, is so over run that the place is being trampled by people who want to experience nature only if it is within a short walking distance from their car. If individuals want to see the true state of nature maybe they can plan a winter vacation around the annual slaughter of buffalo as they leave Yellowstone National Park in search of winter fodder.

In Cozumel, Mexico a person can vacation by volunteering to assist biologists in their work to protect endangered sea turtles. WorldWatch Institute offers a myriad of similar opportunities where people work towards restoring nature. Depending who you ask, eco-tourism can mean many things. Some happy campers feel that eco-tourism is anything with nature involved. Others, like myself, feel that eco-tourism should be low impact vacationing. Every trip can be ecologically minded if people are willing to demand that their destinations act in an environmentally sensitive way.

With that in mind I guess any seaside resort that boasts swimming pools, ice rinks and a golf course can in no way be considered as anything other than live and let die consumption.

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