Ecotourism Can Play a Key Role in Development

Although it shares some of its aspects with other forms of tourism, ecotourism is a facilitator for responsible tourism applicable to any type of mass tourism.

It should be viewed as distinct from other categories of tourism. When properly understood, ecotourism further extends respect and benefits to the natural environment as well as the people there in.

Within the tourism sector, it focuses on minimizing the environmental and cultural consequences, contributing to conservation, community development and environmental education.

The growth of ecotourism in Kenya is however constrained by a weak policy, legal and regulatory framework; limited level of community involvement, market penetration and product development; limited financial incentives; and increasing environmental degradation.

Around the world, ecotourism has been hailed as a tool for economic development and environmental protection through funding conservation and scientific research, protecting fragile and pristine ecosystems, benefiting rural communities, promoting development in poor countries, enhancing ecological and cultural diversity, instilling environmental awareness and a social conscience in the travel industry.

In areas where ecotourism is developing, it has helped increase tourist spending and linkages, with multiplier effects on mainstream tourism. Local communities have started benefiting by working as rangers or camping staff and creating local businesses focusing on providing food, crafts and entertainment for tourists.

Although tourism is an integral part of Kenya’s national economy, it has contributed significantly to the degradation of the environment in popular wildlife protected areas, including the coastal marine environment.

This happens when visitors cram the national parks and reserves, adversely affecting the wildlife and their habitats through congestion, animal harassment, solid waste dumping, effluent discharge into rivers, over-development of tourist facilities, animal harassment and park abuse.

Mass tourism began destroying our parks in the 1980s and 1990s leading to degradation of the product. Consequently, Ecotourism Kenya, an association founded in 1996, addresses the impact of tourism as well as the consequences of degraded environments on tourists, who are becoming more aware of environmental quality whether on the beach, cultural tours or on wildlife safaris.

These days, tourists are more inclined to shun overcrowded, polluted beaches and wildlife parks in favour of more natural settings. Visitors also want to ensure that their impact on indigenous peoples and cultures is minimal and that tourist expenditures benefit societies in the immediate neighbourhoods.

Over 75 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife is still outside the protected area network (national parks, national reserves and natural game sanctuaries). They occupy community trust lands, private land and ranches, group ranches and reserves. These areas are in the arid and semi arid savannah inhabited by pastoral communities.

When parks and reserves in Kenya were created, they overlooked local people. In fact, the people did not benefit from tourism in spite of bordering some very popular tourist destinations. Of course, this led to a disgruntled neighbours who even began abetting wildlife poaching and tourist attacks, showing a bad image of Kenya’s premier tourist product, hence avoidance by potential visitors.

Local communities, who are the owners and users of the vast environmental and natural resources, must be involved for ecotourism to be sustainable. Local people have the greatest knowledge of their ecosystems which when blended with modern techniques gives the best results. Locals have inalienable rights to their ancestral lands and the resources that they have conserved and used for generations.

Most local communities co-existing with large volumes of wildlife have realized the potential in tourism. There are over 50 community-based conservation areas in Kenya now, possibly covering a larger total area than that of national parks and reserves. Communities are earning financial benefits from lucrative tourism enterprises located in the conservancies thus providing a reliable alternative source of income. Community conservancies are unspoilt wilderness areas offering low volume high-value products.

The association provides guidance to the Kenyan tourism industry in implementing a voluntary certification scheme for tourist accommodation facilities. The scheme aims to provide tourism businesses with an opportunity to review and improve their operations towards ‘best practice’, which will lead to the overall improvement in socio-economic and environmental performance.

Ecotourism Kenya is involved in the development of the Kenya Safari Codes and Coastal Codes, which aim at involving tourists in campaigns to conserve destinations in Kenya to ensure the country’s tourism sector remains sustainable.

Eco Tourism Kenya tries to reach a large number of community-based organizations in areas with rich wildlife resources to promote ecotourism principles and conservation. The objective of this outreach is to reach, gather and share local knowledge useful and helpful towards integrating local people in tourism operations so as to uphold local values for nature conservation while locals gain profitably from tourism.