It turns out that I’m an ecotourist – I’m one of those people who travel around looking at nature.
Ecotourism has come into sharp focus over the last few years. We’re trying to get a feel for how we can monetise natural assets, and the idea of ecotourism seems to be a nice fit. Conserve and protect wildlife, then charge people to come and look at it. It’s a clean, easy model which promises to protect nature by giving it a financial value – but it’s not straightforward.
Perhaps I’ve still got the scent of a recent holiday in my nostrils, but it was interesting to see ecotourism “in action” earlier this month. It’s fair to say that Poland is not a popular holiday destination for most British people, and Bialowieza is all but unheard of here. But if you’re in the know, that place represents the crown jewels of European nature. Popular writers and activists frequently clamour for a wilder Britain, but it’s surprising how reluctant we are to go and look for wilderness in other countries. It’s an odd quirk of Britishness that we could be standing in a host of wild and tempting places from Finland to the Dolomites within half a day’s travel Heathrow, but we prefer to stay at home and complain that we don’t have wilderness in the (much less accessible) Scottish Highlands.
Bialowieza was dead and sorely quiet. Fair enough, it was winter – but this is only a small town with a hotel and few guest houses. I paid a Warsaw-based tour company to take me out there, and I was guided by a man from Krakow. We stayed in a budget hotel with all food included, and any drink had to come from an Off-Licence over the street. If I had to work out the total amount of money I left behind me in Bialowieza, it would be less than forty pounds. It so happens that I’m a sucker for tat – I wanted a bison keyring and a coffee cup. But I could not find even so much as a postcard in the village. I couldn’t spend money, even if I wanted to.
The point was driven home when, on our last night, the owner of the hotel came and asked if we would like to join a “casino night” held for locals in the bar. Our guide said that we would be up early and that it wasn’t for us. The owner laughed, spread his hands and said “you always bring such quiet guests!” And in that, he raised a fair point. Because without casting aspersions about my fellow eco-tourists, we’re a quiet bunch. We aren’t likely to be up all night partying or hitting the shops and splashing the cash. I dislike the expression, but we’re pretty tight-fisted. We eat packed lunches from the hotel and when we get back from the hills, we stay indoors with our wallets in a safe. The same was true on my recent trips to Croatia and Finland; ecotourism may bring people into remote places, but it’s hard to get them spending when they get there. Some ecotourists tell themselves that they are being virtuous by supporting conservation projects, but many (like me) are secretly pleased to find a cheap holiday.
In some ways, I feel the same about the ongoing community bid to buy part of Langholm Moor and manage it for ecotourists. Langholm is a harder place than most to monetise wildlife because most of the “best” spectacles can be seen from the main road. Perhaps you’d pay a guide to take you once, but when you’ve worked out where to go, just park up and open the window. Maybe a few more people will stop in cafes and bars for a scone, but will that really offset the cost of buying the place?
I’m used to thinking about sporting tourists who travel around to shoot. They pump money into the local economy, and because they’re out for a luxury experience, they pay over the odds for it. There aren’t many of them, but they punch well over their weight. If ecotourists spend less, perhaps the answer is to have more of them. But then there are other issues which relate to volume – having travelled through National Parks in India and Africa, volume of visitor traffic is a problem of its own. When wildlife becomes a gimmick and an accessory, it becomes hard to engage with it. The tiger I saw at Ranthambore found it difficult to burn bright as he was overlooked by a convoy of squawking tourists.
We were unable to stay anywhere peaceful and calm in India, so our bedroom overlooked a swimming pool tiled with a tiger design. It seems worth remembering that in a bid to protect and conserve nature, ecotourism can drive change like any other industry. Closer to home, I have fond memories of visiting Mull as a teenager, but I hardly recognised the place when I returned three years ago – this was the legacy of a ten year project to rebrand the place as “the eagle island”. It’s no better or worse nowadays, but it is undeniably very different.
Meanwhile, the spread of eagles into other parts of Scotland begins to raise questions about the sustainability of Mull as a tourist destination. Why travel all the way out to the West Coast when you can see a sea eagle in Fife (or even the Solent?) A friend who has runs a red kite visitor centre for the last twenty years has seen his profits tumble as kites become well established across the UK. People used to travel for miles to see his kites. Now they can see their own kites at home.
Ecotourism is going to be an important part of how we value and monetise landscapes in this country and abroad, but it’s hard to see it as a standalone industry or a panacea for settling the business bottom-line. It needs to be carefully integrated into other revenue streams and managed sensitively alongside a variety of interests. And without wanting to end on a bum note, if we want to cash in on the general public’s love of nature, we also have to make sure that the public does love nature – which is something we often take for granted.