Ecotourism, which is a relatively new concept, is expected to help save wildlife and the environment, while bringing in the much needed cash to local communities. Preserving nature and at the same time generating income from it has always been a tricky balancing act, with nature always losing to human greed.
Still in its infancy and not yet considered a mainstream Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) conservation policy, ecotourism is expected to have a low impact on both the environment and local cultures, while helping to create jobs and enhancing the conservation of wildlife and biodiversity.
Being small-scale and sometimes family run, ecotourism facilities and infrastructure are small and less sophisticated than those of mainstream tourism.
In recent years, KWS has been actively involved in the sensitisation of communities coexisting with wildlife to get involved in its management so as to utilise their heritage sustainably. While the conservation of Kenyan biodiversity is the core mandate of KWS, the organisation long realised that without active community participation, resulting in their reaping of direct benefits from wildlife-based tourism, there could be no guarantee as to the survival of wildlife and nature for posterity.
For ecotourism to succeed, emphasis has to be on the rights of communities coexisting with wildlife. In (Kenya’s) Coast Province’s Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve, for example, KWS realised that while it is her duty to preserve the rare plant species there, the community’s interests in harvesting certain medicinal species had to be recognised. KWS allows limited and controlled harvesting by the community of these rare plants and trees in situ, but in order to fully satisfy the community’s demand, the people are supplied with seedlings which they grow on their private lands outside the protected area.
Even without a clear policy, KWS is already injecting a lot of money into ecotourism through wildlife community projects.
Kenya is not the only country investing in ecotourism. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says that of the US$ 55 billion grossed from tourism in 1988, a sizeable amount accrued from ecotourism. The World Travel Organization (WTO) says tourism was poised to gross US$ 3.4 trillion – accounting for 10 per cent of the global labour in 1994. WTO says ecotourism is growing globally at an annual rate of 3.5 per cent in the developed world and six per cent in the developing world. The USAID in partnership with the World Bank are providing a propelled multilateral funding to KWS for ecotourism in a number of projects.
A major problem facing ecotourism in Africa in general, and Kenya in particular, relates to the land rights of people in areas with tourism potential. In Kenya, demand for huge and immediate returns from tourism for people living around protected areas is a sensitive issue that both KWS and Kenyan authorities are grappling with.
Sustainable tourism in both protected and community areas demands the re-examination of the extent to which people are allowed access to and use of land for tourism purposes.
Dr. Chris Gakahu, a Kenyan ecotourism expert, says tapping the potential to the benefit of Kenyans and most other people in Africa is not going to be easy. He observes that while residents of the Nepalese villages on the slopes of Mt. Everest pocket as much as 60 per cent of the trekkers’ dollars because they own the cottages, cook the food, and guide trekkers, in Kenya, the KWS finds it a gruesome and an unsustainable burden to share 20 per cent of its revenue with the communities. However, KWS scientists and others in the travel industry agree that the country’s US$350 million tourism industry could gain greatly from increased investment and aggressive marketing of a people-oriented and eco-friendly package dubbed ecotourism.