INTERVIEW: Dr. Martha Honey on
Ecotourism, Dolphin Tours & Travel Bloggers
It might sound like hyperbole to say that Dr. Martha Honey wrote the book on Ecotourism, but it’s true. Ecotourism & Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? is literally the most authoritative tome on the topic, providing a comprehensive overview of the myriad complexities involved in responsible travel.
An award-winning investigative journalist with over 20 years in the field (Costa Rica and Tanzania), Dr. Honey has gone on to become one of the world’s most respected thought leaders on Ecotourism trends. She served as Executive Director of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) from 2003 to 2006, and co-founded both the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and its non-profit charitable program, Travelers’ Philanthropy.
It was an honor to be involved in landing Dr. Honey as the Opening Keynote Speaker for the TBEX Travel Blogging Conference in Cancun last week, and an even greater honor to be asked to interview her onstage for the Keynote session. But perhaps the greatest honor of all was the quality time Mary and I got spend with Martha and CREST’s Washington Program Associate, Samantha Hogenson, during our four days in Cancun.
In preparation for the conference, Dr. Honey and I conducted a telephone issue to discuss topics ranging from the evolution of Ecotourism and why she feels it’s the best form of travel to the TBEX Dolphin Tour controversy and the role she sees travel bloggers playing in the future of responsible travel.
Let’s start off talking about your early interest in ecotourism. What inspired it?
I lived in Tanzania, where I went to do my PhD thesis in African History, and then my husband and I started working as journalists. We lived there for 10 years, and our kids were born there. Tanzania is an incredible country in terms of its people and nature, but it’s also one of the world’s poorest nations. When we were there, it was a socialist country.
There was a very lively debate at the university on whether a country that’s trying to develop in a way that supports the majority of its people should be involved in high-end tourism. I felt torn: I loved looking at the wildlife on safari and felt that tourism could bring in hard cash the country desperately needed, but it needed to be done in a way that left money in the country and was not exploiting the people and the resources. Tanzania tried to have the government fund tourism, which didn’t work very well at bringing money into the country, or as a development tool.
Then I spent 10 years living in Costa Rica, during which Costa Rica moved into ecotourism. I started out as a skeptic: I felt that the term was being way too widely used, and there was a lot of green-washing scams going on. Eventually I moved back to the US and decided to raise some money and do a book on the subject.
I thought I was going to do an exposé and blow this concept out of the water. In fact, what I found is that ecotourism, for many parts of the world, appears to be the most internationally viable product they have that would not exploit their people or destroy the environment. I found an incredible amount of people, communities, and businesses trying to do a kind of tourism that left more money in the country. It was built on local resources, both human and natural. It was done in a way where there were real exchanges between visitors and the locals.
One of the great things about ecotourism and all of its permutations is that it’s a very dynamic field, with constant experimentation and innovation over the past 25 years.
How do you feel that field has evolved since you wrote your first book back in 1999?
I was pushed by my publisher to write an updated edition, which I didn’t think would be difficult. But I found that I had to write a whole new book because of all of the changes, mostly of which were positive.
It hadn’t lost or changed its core values, which are essentially that tourism should be done in a way that’s beneficial to environmental conservation and local communities and respectful of local cultures. I believe it’s educational, beneficial and enjoyable for the traveler.
All sorts of things have come out of these tenets: The Slow Food movement, organic agriculture, travel philanthropy, concern about human trafficking and child sexual abuse, fair trade, carbon offsets and animal welfare are all branches on the original tree.
You were director of the International Ecotourism Society; helped develop the Sustainable Stewardship Council; and co-founded the Center for Responsible Travel. Why do we have all of these different buzzwords for this type of travel?
I think it’s just human nature. I remember arguing with John Tourtellot at National Geographic when he was creating Geotourism, saying “We don’t need another term!” But now Geotourism has taken on legs. All these terms have slightly different permutations.
For example , the “Pro-Poor Tourism” concept grew out of South Africa and the UK, and puts the emphasis on the human side rather than conservation. Geotourism is more focused on the destination as a whole rather than individual businesses. Sustainable Travel refers to greening mainstream tourism. Responsible Travel is more of a British term. Academics just love to make up terms! (Laughs)
How do you measure the economic benefits of this type of tourism with quantifiable data?
We went into the Great Bear Rainforest in British Colombia, because there was a huge debate with the First Nations, who control most of the rainforest. Bear hunting is controlled by the BC government. Two years ago, the First Nations declared a ban on bear hunting because they consider bears sacred, particularly in the Great Bear Rainforest. It’s the only place in the world where a Komodi, or Sprit Bear (an all-white genetic permutation of black bears), is found. They declared a moratorium on all bear hunting and it started a huge controversy, because the government continued [selling hunting licenses].
We said, “Let’s look at the economics of it: How valuable is bear viewing compared with bear hunting?” Bear viewing is newer: It’s only taken off in the last 10 years. We conducted surveys and interviews with hunting companies and viewing companies, and were able to confirm the amount of money they were making from their various activities. We found that hunting is on an economic decline: There are fewer hunters, and the BC government is spending more money to regulate hunting than they are making from selling hunting licenses.
Bear viewing, on the other hand, is on the rise. More tourists are going to the Great Bear Rainforest every year. In 2013, we found that 13-14 times more money is raised from viewing than hunting, and the gap is only going to widen in the future.
Those are some incredible stats!
I’m astounded that there aren’t more good economic studies on ecotourism, because this is what gets government attention. We’ve done these studies in Costa Rica, and on cruise tours. With good sources and statisticians, you can nail down the dollars and cents of all this.
This is part of a larger issue– a deficit of good research around tourism in general– which is one of the reasons why we started the Center for Responsible Travel. We felt we needed solid, academically-based, multidisciplinary research, not narrow studies that didn’t ask the big important questions, like which type of tourism is more economically beneficial.
Agreed. The argument we used in getting the Cancun CVB to cancel the TBEX dolphin tours was all about the economic pressure. The Sea World situation proved that bad publicity can be very bad for business. Do you think the Great Bear Rainforest case study could be used to fight poaching in Africa?
The problem with Africa is that, in the past, poaching rings were much smaller. We could raise up Ecotourism, which empowered local people and took them off the front lines of poaching. Now, with the big Chinese demand, it’s like finding diamonds in the middle of a game park. There are some things that are almost too big to deal with.
I’m not sure economics always come out on the side that we would like. Sometimes a diamond mine or an industrial type of poaching may be more profitable than Ecotourism. But when you measure the value of elephants, rhinos or whales living versus being killed, it usually comes out on the side of respecting animal welfare and doing nature-based tourism, which leaves more money in the country for the local people.
I’d like to look more at the profitability of dolphin tours and see if there’s other ways we can learn about and enjoy dolphins without having to capture them and put them in tanks.
Before we saw The Cove and learned about captive cetacean facilities, Mary and I went to a place in Curacao where they keep dolphins in these huge pens in the sea. It’s one of only three facilities in the world where you can swim with dolphins in the open ocean.
That sounds kind of like game parks at sea. In Africa, you go to where the wildlife lives, but they’re often fenced in. I think that’s getting in the right direction. But I still think you need to have a lot of protocols in place about what swimming with dolphins means.
The charitable arm of CREST is called Travelers’ Philanthropy. What are your goals for that program?
When I was working on the first edition of my book and traveling in Costa Rica, Africa and the Galapagos, I saw so many great people who came to the tourism business with a social or environmental ethic behind what they were doing. The need is so great in many of these places for conservation or community projects– to help build a school, a well, put fences around conservation areas, etc.– and these projects were being done way below the radar screen.
I came back with a list of these companies, and began talking to people about bringing these companies together to share what they’re doing, because it has tremendous potential. If done well, I think it’s something travelers would want to be involved in. This is the oldest project that CREST has had. We’ve had three international conferences on Travelers’ Philanthropy, and developed a handbook, film and toolkit to help companies do it better.
One of our motivations was that we saw a lot of “impulse giving.” Travelers would see someone poor and would give them $5 or whatever. It comes from a great place in the heart, but it doesn’t build anything in the long-term, and may actually be doing damage by pulling kids out of school to try to get a few bucks from the tourists. We saw that travel companies could be very helpful in identifying good NGOs and community projects, introducing their guests to the issues of a place and what can be done to help address those issues.
We’re working with destinations to develop destination-wide traveler philanthropy programs. We’ll have all the tourism businesses contribute to, and raise money for, specific projects with particular goals, and we’ll introduce it to travelers so that they can contribute. It’s an uncharted form of development assistance, flowing quietly under the radar screen into communities, and has the potential to be much greater than it is now. The goal is to bring it out of the shadows and make it part of what we mean by responsible travel.
What role do you see bloggers and journalists playing in developing responsible travel?
Rather than travel writers being informants for the public, in many cases they’ve become PR arms for the travel companies or destinations they visit. If a FAM trip is paid for by someone who you’re supposed to write about, it’s difficult to be critical unless you’re really hard-nosed.
I think the media has to tell stories of travel that’s making a difference, both in the lives of the travelers and the local people, and helping to protect the nature and wildlife. We need to know more about that kind of travel and the great companies and destinations offering it. But we also need to know about those that are doing harm, or greenwashing. The press has a role in holding the industry’s feet to the fire, but I don’t think it’s being done often, for fear of blacklisting.
Businesses take customer criticism to heart, and I think that is a role that bloggers can play. They can help companies that are trying to do things right. But I do think it’s important to disclose where the funding for FAM trips comes from.
Do you think journalists and bloggers have an obligation to be more responsible, or is it an individual choice?
I don’t think we have a choice anymore. We’re ruining the planet, particularly in the age of climate change. We have to do better. The tagline for my organization is “Transforming the way the world travels,” and that’s the mission.
The good news is that, when we talk about Ecotourism and Responsible Travel, we’re selling a superior product. People who try it always love it. It has grown from the crunchy, granola, rugged vacations to a broad range of Ecotourism that includes everything from backpacking to very high-end “Eco Luxury,” but the core values are the same.
People of all ages and abilities go on their first eco-tour and come back saying, “This is great! I’m never going to do an all-inclusive resort or cruise again!” You can explore the world in a whole variety of ways through Responsible Travel.” It’s simply a better way to travel. –by Bret Love; photos by Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted
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