Conservation Tourism: Interview with Ralf Buckley, International Centre for Ecotourism Research

At the end of 2010, CABI published the world’s first book on Conservation Tourism. The book was written by Professor Ralf Buckley and his colleagues at the International Centre for Ecotourism Research in Griffith University, Australia. Featuring 100 international case studies from private marine reserves to bird watching lodges, this book covers key topics including sources of capital and operational funding, corporate and organizational structure, marketing strategies, primary conservation outcomes and spin-off effects, links to public protected areas, future plans and global trends. Learn more & order this book from CABI.

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Interview with Professor Buckley

TIES: How do you define conservation tourism, and how is it different from ecotourism?

Prof. Buckley: We defined conservation tourism as commercial tourism which makes a net positive contribution to the continuing survival of threatened plant or animal species. There are a number of different possible mechanisms for positive contributions to conservation, but the key issue is to calculate net outcomes after subtracting the negative impacts. Many definitions of ecotourism do include contributions to conservation, but there are very few companies that can demonstrate their overall net contribution at global scale is positive. So, conservation tourism is a very small sub-sector of ecotourism, which is itself a small sub-sector of the multi-trillion dollar tourism industry. Budgets for conservation are small and stretched, especially in developing nations. Conservation tourism, while very small, is very important as there are several rare species where significant populations are protected in private reserves funded by tourism.

TIES: Where do you see this research going in future, and what are the most critical issues which need to be addressed?

Prof. Buckley: The companies considered in this book are driven by visionary individuals who saw the potential to use commercial tourism as a conservation tool, who understood the practicalities of both tourism and conservation, and who had both the charisma and the perseverance to combine them successfully. As we showed in one of our earlier CABI books, Case Studies in Ecotourism, nature based tourism can certainly generate money; but tourists and tourism development generally have negative environmental impacts, unless there is a system to harness it specifically for conservation. In Conservation Tourism, we show that a few companies do this directly and voluntarily; but usually, it only works if there are public national parks, and systems of fees.

There are several parallel lines of research. The first is to extend what we did in Conservation Tourism, as tourism funded models for conservation on private and community lands become more widespread worldwide. We’re just starting to see these models extend into Asia and the Pacific, for example, and we will try to track how they develop in different countries.

The second research theme relates to individual tourists visiting public national parks. This is a longstanding area of study, but as conservation in many countries is now heavily dependent on park entry fees, the large scale interactions between parks agencies and their visitors are becoming more significant for conservation.

The third is the management of small scale commercial tourism concessions in public national parks. Many countries permit small scale commercial tour operators in their parks, and some contract out quite large proportions of their visitor services. The US National Parks Service recently held an international meeting to compare concession management models. Historically, these concessions have made very little contribution to conservation, but the demand is certainly there, and parks agencies might well increase their permit fees considerably. In fact, some developing countries have already done so.

The fourth theme relates to relatively large-scale privately owned tourism accommodation and infrastructure inside national parks. Of course, property developers push for this, because they can profit under the pretense of partnership. By tracking existing examples worldwide, we found that most are there through various historical accidents, and that very few indeed yield any net gain for conservation – usually, only those operated by the same companies that run their own private reserves.

TIES: What types of destinations are most or least vulnerable to the negative effects of tourism, and why?

Prof. Buckley: While of course the answer depends on the type of tourism, generally, the marginal impacts of tourism will be less in areas which already have high human impacts, such as urban or agricultural landscapes. In wilderness areas, whether national park or not, even very low levels of human visitation can have major impacts, especially on any endangered plant or animal species.

That is true in any kind of ecosystem, but of course, different types of tourist activities have different impacts in different ecosystems. The 2006 CABI book, Adventure Tourism, discusses the types of activities; and the 2004 CABI book, Environmental Impacts of Ecotourism, the types of impact. And we have a new review in the 2011 volume of Annual Review of Environment and Resources, which updates the picture on environmental impacts and management.

TIES: What kinds of positive benefits can tourism bring to the environment, and how can we harness these benefits?

Prof. Buckley: One of the most important benefits of tourism, especially in less wealthy nations and regions, is that the money it generates. So, it’s all about what happens to that money, who gets it and what they use it for. In Conservation Tourism, we described cases where tourism funds conservation directly, by establishing private reserves and funding rehabilitation works, wildlife relocation, anti poaching patrols, and so on. In cases where communally owned lands are converted to conservation, or indeed where local residents help to reduce poaching in public national parks, it’s generally because they get immediate local gain from doing so.

The usual problem is that some people gain, but others lose, so it becomes a question of redistribution within a local community, which is outside the control of tour operators. This applies just as much in the wealthy continents as it does in the poorer regions. Tourists want to see wolves, for example, but farmers still kill them.

In some cases, the benefits of tourism can be harnessed through control of funds generated by tourism, for example when parks agencies charge tourist entry fees and use the money for conservation. This itself is a hugely complicated process, because it also depends on how their ability to earn money from tourism affects their other sources of funding, especially from central governments. Park fees, in addition, are part of a broader political context. In most countries, rich or poor, governments want their citizens to visit and appreciate national parks, so they want to make that affordable for all. So the best strategy depends on the country, and whether it is cash or political support that is most critical at the time.

TIES: What about the social and community impacts and benefits of tourism?

Prof. Buckley: Tourism is both an engine of economic growth, and an agent of cultural change. So, of course, the individuals who gain from tourism are happy, and the ones who see themselves losing out are not. Injecting new wealth into any community, no matter what the source, creates social changes, and some people will see those changes as good, others as bad. This applies for all kinds of tourism in all kinds of communities.

Cultural changes can work both ways too. Sometimes, locals want to become like tourists, copying their clothes and music. Sometimes, tourists want to become like locals, trying to learn their artistic or outdoor skills. Sometimes, tourism leads to loss of local traditions; but sometimes, it renews pride in traditional skills and practices. Even within our own societies, it’s not always easy for people with different backgrounds, trades and professions to find mutual respect for each other; and between widely different cultures which live in completely different ways, it can be even more difficult. But it seems to me to be a goal well worth pursuing.

TIES: Anything else you would like to add?

Prof. Buckley: Just one thing. We have summarized the whole of Ecotourism: Principles and Practices into short bullet points, and put them together as 120 easy to read powerpoint slides, to use as teaching materials with the textbook. And with permission from CABI, these will be available for download from Griffith Research Online. We are also doing a short PDF version as a study guide. Of course these are just outlines, for the full picture you need the book too. We have not yet done the same with Conservation Tourism, for which we’re still at the initial case study level, and tour operators are still experimenting with different approaches and strategies. It is possible with ecotourism, because it is a well-established field. For conservation tourism, it will be a few years before we can boil it down to key points. Watch this space!

More about CABI
CABI is a not-for-profit science-based development and information organization that applies scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment, to address the challenges of food security, and to improve access to agricultural and environmental scientific knowledge. CABI’s mission and direction is influenced by member countries who help guide activities undertaken. These include scientific publishing, development projects and research, and microbial services. CABI has published numerous books on the subject of tourism and ecotourism. For a complete list of these publications, visit the CABI bookstore here.