by Stuart Butler
First coined in the early 1980’s, the term ‘eco-tourism’ has fast become a travel industry buzz word that, like a randy rabbit, has in turn spawned numerous other offshoot buzz words that essentially mean the same thing (sustainable tourism, responsible travel, ecotravel, green travel and so on), but what exactly does eco-tourism mean? There’s a common misconception that eco-tourism is about nothing more than wildlife-watching tourism in conservation areas. But, according to Megan Epler Wood, the co-founder of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and now the director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard, eco-tourism means “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”
So there you have it. Eco-tourism is much more multi-dimensional and in-depth than merely visiting a national park. Real eco-tourism may in fact not even involve wildlife tourism at all. The key points though are that to qualify as genuine eco-tourism a holiday must make a positive impact on local communities and economies, and on the local environment. Few destinations and tourism operators manage to combine both aspects properly.
So, now we have a basic idea of what eco-tourism is let’s have a look at your next eco-tourism holiday destination. A growing number of countries are marketing themselves as eco-tourism destinations (some more truthfully than others!). Examples of countries where eco-tourism really is more than just a buzz word include (but are not limited too) Botswana, Bhutan, Costa Rica and Madagascar. The countries of eastern and southern Africa are especially strong at delivering real, genuine eco-tourism and perhaps one of the best countries at it – and the one we will look at here – is Kenya.
Up until about ten years ago Kenya had a reputation for African safari mass tourism. Tourists flocked to the often poorly managed national parks and reserves. Much of the money generated through this kind of tourism went straight into the pockets of unscrupulous developers and tourism operators, and corrupt ministers and other public officials. Relatively little actually went towards preserving the parks or other conservation projects, and local communities were largely excluded from the economic windfalls generated by this sort of tourism. While today Kenya does still have areas where swarms of safari minibuses chase lion shadows over the savannah, the other side of today’s safari coin focuses on low-impact, sustainable and environmentally and socially aware tourism, and in this respect Kenya is now one of the world’s leading eco-tourism destinations.
This is at its most obvious and successful in the wildlife conservancies. These are community or privately-run conservation areas (often adjoining national parks or reserves) run in a manner that is of direct benefit to both local communities and wildlife. For local people the birth of the conservancies has led to a much larger proportion of tourism dollars going to them with (in many cases) guaranteed monthly incomes through leasing their lands to the conservancies, and an increase in health, education and income generation projects. As for the wildlife, well that’s doing very well out of the conservancy model as well with wildlife populations in all conservancy areas increasing dramatically in a very short period of time. And what do you, the safari-goer get out of this? Quite simply, the best safari experience in the world. Good examples of Kenyan wildlife conservancies that are making a real difference to wildlife and local communities include those run under the umbrella of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT); those that surround the acclaimed Masai Mara National Reserve; a camp near the Chyulu Hills and Amboseli areas, Campi ya Kanzi – which is actually a lodge on the Kuku Group Ranch; and for something more low-key (and affordable to the common man or woman!), the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary, a couple of hours drive inland of Kenya’s stunning south coast beaches.
Kenya’s conservancies are highly commendable but such an eco-tourism model only works because of very high paying, exclusive tourism. Sadly, the majority of us can’t afford to drop hundreds of US dollars a night on accommodation. But, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy a guilt-free holiday to Kenya without sending your bank account into a screaming bright red. At utterly the opposite end of the luxury scale to the conservancies is a homestay. In the village of Sekenani, on the edge of the Masai Mara National Reserve, is a unique Maasai homestay. Organised by Semadep, this is an entirely locally-run project in which lucky guests get to stay in, and experience life in, a genuine Maasai village. You will be expected to help milk the cattle in the morning and walk with the livestock to the grazing grounds. You can also help with the cooking, join the women in doing beadwork and visit the local school. And the best thing about this is that all the profits are ploughed back into local community programmes such as an orphanage, clinic and primary school.
A similar operation exists further north in Kenya in the village of Twala on the Laikipia plateau. Here guests get to stay in simple huts erected by a local Maasai women’s group and, alongside getting involved in day-to-day village life, guests have the unique and fascinating opportunity to join biologists tracking a huge troop of baboons on foot. They’ve been habituated to humans which means a heart in the mouth, once in a lifetime, opportunity to get within a metre or two of these dauntingly large primates. For more information see Baboons R Us. Another recommended homestay style experience is at the Umoja Uaso village. Set up by a group of Samburu women on the edge of the Samburu National Reserve, the money generated by a stay here goes towards supporting Samburu women who have fled abusive marriages.
Any kind of tourism is likely to have a negative environmental impact in regards to waste generation and extra power consumption but there are ways of reducing and offsetting these impacts. At Basecamp Masai Mara they’ve turned recycling into a virtual tourist attraction in its own right. Guests can be given a comprehensive tour of the camps innovative recycling programme. As well as recycling and using sustainable energy, Basecamp are deeply involved in reforestation programs. To date they have planted some 100,000 native trees in the area surrounding the camp. This has had a very positive impact on wildlife (in particular bird and insect life) in the area and it’s all been paid for through tourism. Their latest project is an ambitious attempt at ridding the villages surrounding the Masai Mara of the blight of plastic waste using an ingenious recycling technique.
From helping colobus cross the road, to supporting a project building traditional dhow boats out of discarded flip-flops and shopping for ethically sourced crafts, there are numerous other ways of having an eco-tourism holiday in Kenya. Check out the Ecotourism Kenya website for more suggestions for the feel-good holiday of a lifetime.
Stuart Butler is a photographer and writer specialising in the Himalaya, Myanmar and eastern Africa. Stuart is the author of numerous Lonely Planet guides to Africa including Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Stuart’s passion for all things African started young as he grew up listening to tales of his father’s childhood in East Africa, and his grandparents stories of working on the earliest English-language editions of Kenyan newspaper, The Daily Nation. Originally from southwest England he today lives with his wife and two young children on the beautiful beaches of southwest France. His website is www.stuartbutlerjournalist.com