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Graeme Murrell

Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities, is fundamentally nothing more than going to see what has become banal. The economic organisation of visits to different places is already in itself the guarantee of their equivalence.
Guy Debord, 1967, Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, paragraph 168
The profile of ecotourism has risen a great deal in the last few years. Its appeal lies largely in its stated aim of facilitating visits to isolated communities and areas of outstanding beauty without disrupting local life and ecostructure. The destructive tendencies of mainstream tourism are supposedly avoided by taking an eco-friendly angle and respecting local traditions. However, since 1998 when the UN General Assembly designated 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism, it has itself become more mainstream. It is no longer a luxurious alternative to backpacking for the few who can afford it. It has become the holiday of choice for many middle class families rightly concerned about the impact of their journeys to exotic places. Adverts for environmentally friendly adventure adorn the back pages of the glossies and the mantra of 'take only pictures, leave only footprints' is endlessly repeated to ensure us that all is well.

All does not appear to be well. A recent report in The Ecologist magazine 1 highlights many of the worries about the effects of ecotourism on local communities, the landscape and the local economy of targeted areas. The rise of ecotourism from small-scale phenomenon to internationally hyped business opportunity is firmly pulling it away from its roots. As big business muscles in to ecotourism, supported by the neo-libertarian free market philosophy that underpins its UN rubber stamp, the movement is being reconfigured as new spectacular colonial threat. Instead of locally derived initiatives, generic prescriptions for development are being suggested that favour pancapitalist global expansion. The brutal tourist development that crippled Spanish culture on the Costa Del Sol is being exported under the guise of caring, sharing capitalism to countries whose economic straits prevent them from adequately voicing discontent. Conservation areas are being blighted by holiday resorts and the infrastructure required to support them. Rural economies are quietly being dismantled by free marketeers keen to hide their subterfuge under surface talk about ecologically sound initiatives.

A fundamental problem with big business ecotourism is that it explicitly exists to profit the companies that take part. Local benefits are considered to be important only in so far as they ensure the go-ahead for capitalist intervention. The perception of what constitutes local benefits is governed by generic concepts of development that are themselves birthed in Western economic philosophy. Thus the landscape of dialogue is disfigured by imposed terminology. Polarities of 'good' and 'bad' are predetermined. Only the prescription for imposition of so-called good can be discussed, and this within narrowly defined parameters that often ride roughshod over local desires.

The global prescription of ecotourism thus conforms to other universal panaceas that only serve to further the intrusion of global pancapitalist spectacle into all sectors of human interaction. As Guy Debord warned, capitalism will constantly 'remake the totality of space into its own setting' 2. Despite its environmentally friendly appeal and lip service to local needs, ecotourism threatens the rich diversity of the places it intends to exploit with the homogenisation it has fostered elsewhere. The concerned ecotourist in their safari lodge, consuming Western delicacies and using Western appliances while awaiting the next land rover to the plains, is an unwitting accomplice. The beautiful National Park around them is being subtly turned into a theme park according to Western perceptions of otherness that often clash with lived reality. Difference and diversity is being replaced by banality. The elephants are "just like they are on the telly." So, increasingly, is everything and everywhere else.


1. Luis Vivanco (2002) 'Escaping from reality', The Ecologist, Vol 12, No. 2, p. 26

2. Guy Debord (1967), Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, paragraph 169
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