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Urban ecotourism: A contradiction in terms?

Key Message

The authors discuss the various benefits of ecotourism operations based in urban environments - benefits related restoration of natural areas, impacts of the transportation of visitors, interpretation and education directed at changing attitudes and values so as to foster pro-environmental behaviour and, finally, the financial viability of ecotourism operations. The authors are able to support the work of Chirgwin and Hughes who state that ‘if ‘nature-based’ is a more appropriate criterion than natural, then this offers a wider range of options for those planning and promoting ecotourism experiences’. “

Source

Higham, J., & Luck, M. (2002). Urban ecotourism: A contradiction in terms? Journal of Ecotourism, 1(1), 36-51.

Purpose

This article examines recent developments in the New Zealand ecotourism sector that highlight the limitations of definitions of ecotourism. It considers the contemporary development of commercial ecotourism operations in urban contexts in New Zealand. The phenomenon of urban ecotourism demonstrates various inherent contradictions relating to definitions of ecotourism. Selected definitions are considered in an attempt to review an extensive and voluminous, but important, literature. Three case studies are then presented to demonstrate the praiseworthy nature of ecotourism development initiatives in urban contexts. The authors conclude that notwithstanding the contradictions, urban ecotourism developments are more able than most to fulfil the lofty ambitions to which ecotourism operators are required to aspire.

In 1976 Gerardo Budowski, then Governor General of the IUCN, observed that the relationship that prevails between tourism development and environmental conservation may be one of symbiosis, coexistence or conflict. At the time Budowski commented that most cases demonstrated a situation of coexistence moving towards conflict. Twenty-five years later, through a period that has witnessed the modern development of the ecotourism phenomenon, Budowski’s (1976) observations still apply.

METHODOLOGY
This article supports the philosophy that the relationship between tourism and the environment is one that offers great potential. However, this potential is unlikely to be realised while constrained by definitions that are largely inoperable. It presents a critical analysis of the definitions of ecotourism. This is used to demonstrate that ecotourism comprises many inherent contradictions, constraints that are intolerable, and challenges that are insurmountable for ecotourism operators. The authors then present a case in support for the development of urban ecotourism. Bymost definitions the very term ‘urban ecotourism’ is an oxymoron.

The authors challenge the plethora of definitions of ecotourism by presenting a case-based assessment of urban ecotourism development in New Zealand. The cases presented demonstrate varied and enviable performance records as measured in terms of operation development, economic performance, local and regional tourism development, contributions to conservation projects of national interest, restoration of indigenous natural resources, repopulation of rare or endangered species, research and education.

Evidence

Table 1 Principles and characteristics of ecotourism (after Butler, 1992, inAcott et al., 1998)

1. It must be consistent with a positive environmental ethic, fostering preferred behaviour.
2. It does not denigrate the resource. There is no erosion of resource integrity.
3. In concentrates on intrinsic rather than extrinsic values.
4. It is biocentric rather than homocentric in philosophy, in that an ecotourist accepts nature largely on its terms, rather than significantly transforming the environment for personal convenience.
5. Ecotourism must benefit the resource. The environment must experience a net benefit from the activity, although there are often spin-offs of social, economic, political or scientific benefits.
6. It is first-hand experience with the natural environment.
7. There is, in ecotourism, an expectation of gratification measured in appreciation and education, not in thrill-seeking or physical achievement. These latter elements are consistent with adventure tourism, the other division of natural environment (wildland) tourism.
8. There are high cognitive (informational) and effective (emotional) dimensions to the experience, requiring a high level of preparation from both leaders and participants.

CONCLUSIONS
This article presents a critical analysis of definitions of ecotourism in an attempt to demonstrate their limitations. The recent emergence of ecotourism operations set in significantly modified (Butler, 2001, Lawton & Weaver, 2001) and urban (Dwyer & Edwards, 2000) environments highlights these limitations. According to definition, this form of ecotourism cannot exist due to the fact that it contradicts the notion that ecotourism takes place in wilderness/undisturbed environments (Ballantine & Eagles, 1994). It is not biocentric (Butler, 1992), few such operations are small scale (Butler, 1990; Thomlinson & Getz, 1996) and urban ecotourism activities do not take place in unmodified (Ceballos-Lascurain, 1987; Valentine, 1993), natural (Blamey, 1997;Boyd & Butler, 1996; Fennell, 1998; Orams, 1995; Swarbrooke & Horner, 1999; Valentine, 1993) or pristine (Ceballos-Lascurain, 1987) environments. Indeed in all three cases presented in this article, precisely the opposite is the case. Furthermore, rather than being low in impact (Acott et al., 1998; Honey, 1999; Lindberg & McKercher, 1997; Orams, 1995; Wight, 1993), the case operations presented in this article have made significant contributions to conservation through the restoration of natural areas degraded to various degrees by previous human activities. The authors discuss the various benefits of ecotourism operations based in urban environments. These benefits are considered as they relate to the restoration of natural areas, the issue of impacts relating to the transportation of visitors, interpretation and education directed at changing attitudes and values so as to foster pro-environmental behaviour and, finally, the financial viability of ecotourism operations. The authors are able to support the work of Chirgwin and Hughes (1997: 7)who state that ‘if ‘nature-based’ is a more appropriate criterion than natural, then this offers a wider range of options for those planning and promoting ecotourism experiences’.

Additional Information

| ©2002 J. Higham and M. Lück

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

Leadership Provided By:

  • Leisure Information Network (LIN)
  • Alberta Recreation and Parks Association

On Behalf Of:

  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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