This class plan takes an ecotourism case and builds a course session around it. The plan includes learning objectives, a student reading assignment, prompts for an opening conversation, and detailed instructions on using a town hall format to discuss the case.
This class plan is part of a larger collection of Life and Environmental Science ethics education resource sets on ethics of emerging biotechnologies, big data in the life sciences, human enhancement, and biodiversity. Doctoral students from Arizona State University’s Center for Biology and Society developed the resources under the direction of Karin Ellison and Joseph Herkert between 2014 and 2019.
Students will be able to:
If you would like to read the article cited in Kaplan 2015, it is:
Ask students: “Given your readings and personal travel experience, what are some kinds of tourism activities and accommodations that you consider to be ecotourism?”
Students may cite examples of nature experiences or sustainability measures, like:
Then, ask students: “Who or what benefits from this sort of tourism? Why?”
Students may mention:
Finally, ask students: "Who or what may be negatively impacted by ecotourism? Why?"
Instructor note: This opening discussion will center around definitions of ecotourism. There is no one definition of “ecotourism,” but the common thread through most definitions is that ecotourism should be nature-based tourism that has both environmental and socio-economic benefits.
Outline for students that class today is designed to enable them to think critically about the positive and negative impacts of ecotourism, including the balance of conservation and development goals in ecotourism initiatives. First, they’ll explore the perspectives of different ecotourism stakeholders, including their ethical responsibilities regarding ecotourism. Then, students will consider ecotourism certification programs, including their role in helping hotels and lodges balance development with conservation.
Okavango Game Lodge lies on the outskirts of the world-famous Okavango Delta in Botswana, Africa. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this delta is unique because it floods during the dry season in what would be an otherwise arid landscape. Thus, the flooded delta draws a remarkable number of wildlife from all over southern Africa, including cheetahs, rhinoceros, lions, zebras, giraffes, and elephants.
When the lodge was built in 1980, environmental impact was a minor concern. In recent years, however, the lodge has shifted its focus to eco-tourism, or tourism that is directed toward enjoying the natural environment while supporting conservation efforts. The redirection came in part from the realization that the lodge depends on the delta’s wildlife as a draw for tourists. In addition, lodge managers were intrigued by a national certification program that provides incentives and guidelines for the development of eco-tourism lodges (Botswana Tourism Organization 2013).
Break class into three (or six, if a large class) small groups. Assign each one (or two) of the groups to read only one of the following case characters and discuss the associated questions:
Nuru lives in a small village near the Okavango Game Lodge. Her people, the Hambukushu, are one of the many groups indigenous to the area, each with a distinct culture and language. The Hambukushu are known for their mixed economy of agriculture, fishing, hunting, and pastoralism (Bock 1998). Nuru is an accomplished blanket weaver, and she also works with her husband and their four children on their small sorghum farm. Despite these means of income, Nuru and her family are living below the poverty line in Botswana, like most of their neighbors. Nuru, her family, and the community are excited by the expansion of ecotourism in the area because of the potential for increased job opportunities and development.
As required by Botswana’s government for any ecotourism venture, the village must elect a Community Trust, a board of trustees who mediate between the village and the lodge to ensure equitable distribution of benefits. Several large-share landowners step up to the plate; they are well-known in the community, all older men, long-time residents, and among the most affluent. Many of them own larger parcels of land closer to the center of town or near new roads and see the potential to develop shops, restaurants, and services that benefit from the influx of tourists.
Nuru’s small farm lies several kilometers from the lodge, the town, and the newest roads, and thus does not benefit from such development. But the Community Trust notifies her that as part of the Okavango Game Lodge’s ecotourism initiative, Nuru and other community members are invited to sell their handmade crafts in the Craft Market during the high visitation season, May through December. Nuru also notices that members of her own community who already have lucrative jobs as shop owners, small-hoteliers, or safari-managers (most often men) are securing jobs at the Okavango Game Lodge in the kitchens, as waiters, and as cleaners.
One day, Nuru sees a job posting for safari guides and wildlife educators at the lodge. Although she has no formal training, Nuru has been living and farming in the delta region her whole life, so she decides she has the know-how to perform the job duties. This could be her first chance at a steady income to support her family.
The lodge's manager, Rachel Jacobs, is a South African biologist with a lifelong passion for wildlife. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Conservation Biology and her master’s degree in Wildlife Ecology and became a field biologist with a focus on African elephants with Conservation International (CI), a non-profit dedicated to worldwide conservation of ecosystems. After 5 years working throughout many southern African countries with CI, she learned that Okavango Game Lodge was seeking a new manager to direct an eco-tourism overhaul of their safari and educational programs, as well as their facilities.
She applied for and accepted the job, seeing it as the perfect opportunity to apply her passion for wildlife and conservation in the hotel and game-lodge industry that she believes is too often at the heart of many human-wildlife conflicts. In her work with CI, she often confronted lodges and hotels over issues with over-exposed wildlife, development, and pollution. Safari and trophy hunting programs would sometimes allow guests to come too close, too often to wildlife. And lodge facilities come with a host of infrastructure projects that increase the flow of visitors, and thus also increase amounts of waste and pollution, further development, and wildlife exposure.
Upon arriving to the lodge, Rachel immediately went to work on initiatives to help the lodge reach their new environmental and sustainability goals. However, she was presented with two dilemmas.
First, to initiate and sustain improvements, Rachel would like to secure investments from American developers. With such investments, the lodge could employ electric vehicles and solar-powered boats, build the infrastructure to recycle grey-water, and manage their own waste recycling plant. Through these efforts, they could cut their waste footprint by as much as 85%. But to recruit top investors, Rachel would need to agree to share a margin of the lodge’s profits with the investors, cutting from the revenues that could otherwise enter the local economy.
In addition, Rachel faces a hiring conundrum. To improve the lodge’s wildlife conservation and educational programming, Rachel would like to hire more safari guides and wildlife educators. As she pages through applications, she recognizes some old friends. A handful of her colleagues from university and CI have applied to be safari guides and wildlife educators, and Rachel believes their world-class expertise could inspire and impress guests of the lodge. But she also notes a dozen applications from members of the nearby Hambukushu village. One application, Nuru’s, catches Rachel’s eye as the only woman from the village who has applied to a be a safari guide. Nuru could be the first woman villager employed in such a position. This excites Rachel, but still, can Nuru’s application compete with an expert hire from Conservation International? In general, she wonders, would village members know enough to lead safaris? The lodge already hosts a twice weekly fair for village members to sell crafts to tourists, and several village members work in the kitchens and in housekeeping. Perhaps that is enough.
Mahendra, an animal behavior specialist who studies elephants, hails from Massachusetts, United States. In addition to being a well-known expert in elephant behavior and social structures, he is an avid traveler and photographer. Mahendra is planning a trip to one of his regular field sites, the Okavango Delta. In fact, the largest population of elephants in the world (~130,000) migrate to the flooded plains each year (UNESCO 2017). This July, he will be bringing his wife and teenage daughter for the first time so he will be staying in a hotel or lodge rather than his usual “roughin’ it” conditions. As Mahendra begins to plan his trip, he reviews his accommodation options.
First, there is an affordable option. Sanctuary Inn is in the town of Maun, the closest city to the delta. The Inn is staffed and owned by long-time residents of Maun. They provide breakfast and modest amenities at a rate less than half what the large game lodges charge. Mahendra would need to take a daily car or jumper-plane to field sites, but he could probably afford more days in the field staying at a cheaper inn.
Dreaming, Mahendra also looks up rates at the Royal Safari Camp. This one is located right in the heart of the delta. As with any lodge in such a location, you can see wildlife up-close-and-personal, sometimes daily! Work would be right on his doorstep. The price is steep, but the amenities are similar to a four- or five-star hotel in Boston. That would be the best of both worlds, and his family prefers this option.
Finally, the Okavango Game Lodge. Mahendra notices that the lodge is Green and Green+ certified by the Botswanan government, indicating that conservation and sustainability are priorities for the lodge. They also host a “Craft Market.” Local men and women line the road leading up to the lodge, selling baskets, bracelets, woven clothing, and other local goods and souvenirs. The lodge is located on the delta, so the prices are high. But the lodge has more rustic accommodations, so rates are not so steep as at the Royal Safari Camp. In any case, Mahendra would have easy access to field sites as well as the opportunity to cross paths with fellow elephant expert turned eco-lodge manager, Rachel Jacobs.
Instructor note: As the students are reading and discussing, the instructor should walk around to distribute the following information to each group:
(1) 'Nuru' group. Divide the following roles among yourselves:
(2) 'Rachel' group. Divide the following roles among yourselves:
(3) 'Mahendra' group. Divide the following roles among yourselves:
When students have completed their reading, discussion, and division of roles, ask each student to take a moment (3-5 minutes) to develop and write their character's stance on ecotourism, "For" or "Against" with a full justification for their perspective. They are welcome to partner with other members of their group, though there may be within group disagreement so this is not required.
Arrange the classroom in a large circle so that all students can view one another. Welcome them all to their first Townhall meeting concerned with the ecotourism initiatives at the Okavango Game Lodge. Before beginning, instruct students to introduce themselves first when they choose to speak-up, and to then present their support, ideas, or concerns, using (but not reading from) their written statements. Encourage them to get into character, even if it means they have to stand up for a perspective that conflicts with their personal stance.
To begin, have 'Rachel' step forward to present her ideas for bringing ecotourism to the Okavango Game Lodge, and from there open discussion to the class: does anyone feel strongly for or against Rachel's plans? Why or why not? Depending on the chemistry of the class, you may need to go in a circle and have each individual do this one-by-one. Or, it may be fine to open it up for random participation. Urge students to speak up if they hear something they would like to respond to (positively or negatively).
In addition, the following questions from the character cases may aid discussion:
Ensure that the following topics have been covered throughout the townhall:
Benefits of ecotourism:
Tensions and challenges:
Introduction: Each group will revisit the definition of ecotourism. Write definitions on the board.
Context for students: Have each student read the following.
Ecotourism in the Delta:
The Okavango Delta, one of the largest inland deltas in Africa, lies in northwest Botswana, a sparsely populated country in southern Africa with just over 2.2 million residents across a territory the size of France (CIA 2017). This UNESCO World Heritage Site floods during the dry season, transforming the brown, arid landscape into a lush, nutrient-rich oasis, providing water for countless animals and plants during the arid winters (UNESCO 2017). This wetland system is largely untouched by human development, with restrictions on permanent settlements.
In the last two decades, the national government in Botswana has become dedicated to ensuring that the massive tourism industry has a small footprint on the delta it depends on (Botswana Tourism Organization 2013). Note that such motivations for a national ecotourism program are indicative of anthropocentric ecotourism; the government has a utilitarian view of nature as instrumental to maintaining levels of tourism. (This makes sense, as travel and tourism contributed to 8.5% of the nation’s GDP in 2014 with projected increases around 5% per year through 2025 (World Travel and Tourism Council 2015).) However, such values and motivations may not be replicated on the local scale.
In 2002, as part of the Botswana National Ecotourism Strategy, the national government launched an Ecotourism Certification System, “designed to encourage and support responsible environmental, social, and cultural behavior by tourism businesses and make sure they provide a quality, eco-friendly product to consumers.” According to this certification system, ecotourism must be sensitive to natural and cultural heritage with opportunities for biodiversity conservation and economic development. Thus, development initiatives for local communities are required to be integrated at the outset of all certified ecotourism projects (Stevens and Jansen 2002). Through this program, lodges and hotels are expected to minimize negative impacts on their social, cultural, and environmental surroundings, ensure equitable distribution of benefits to their host communities, invest part of their revenue in conservation, provide educational programming for guests and locals, and provide a “quality” experience to guests.
Green: This is the basic entry level and reflects all of the mandatory criteria that are necessary for all facilities to be considered for certification. The standards for this level deal primarily with the environmental management systems of the facility.
Green+: This level has additional requirements and is of a higher standard than the Green level.
Ecotourism: This level upholds the principles of ecotourism, as stated in the Botswana National Ecotourism Strategy (2002) and defines those facilities that have met all the principles of ecotourism. The level reflects the facilities’ commitment to and involvement with local communities in tourism development, nature conservation, environmental management and interpretation of the surrounding environment to the guests.
Reflection. Discuss as a group:
Ask students to draw up a short list of (2-3) ethical questions representative of the core issue(s) in the ethical disagreements about ecotourism. Potential points:
Instructor note: Some find it is helpful to frame ecotourism practices as “deep” or “shallow,” with the acknowledgement that such classifications are fluid and gradated (Acott et al. 1998). Deep-ecotourism practitioners view the natural world as intrinsically valuable. They are ecocentric, and encourage first-hand experiences with nature and culture. Shallow-ecotourism is more utilitarian; a healthy environment is valued as a driver of visitation. Such a framework acknowledges the array of motivations and practices you might find among eco-tourism projects, but the terms “deep” and “shallow” are normative, and thus it would be more neutral so simply use the labels “ecocentric” and “anthropocentric” ecotourism, again with the understanding that the classifications are fluid and gradated.
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The International Ecotourism Society:
The Nature Conservancy:
Botswana Ecotourism Certification System: