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Last Updated: 04/01/2014
Romancing the Wild: A conversation with Robert Fletcher on the cultural dimensions of ecotourism
Ross Ryan

Recently, I got the chance to speak with Dr Robert Fletcher about his new book Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism published by Duke University Press. In this short conversation, Dr Fletcher offers his insight into the cultural and psychological factors driving current trends in ecotourism, and points the direction towards a more sustainable and socially beneficial form of travel.

What is “ecotourism”, what distinguishes it from other forms of travel?

So the issue with defining exactly what ecotourism is, is that it's pretty heavily contested. In the larger public, ecotourism is just interaction with some type of natural resource, as opposed to seeking out the products of human creation, which has been the main form of tourism until now, in terms of mainstream tourism. So architecture, art, cultural performances, food, that type of thing. Ecotourism is an attempt to escape all of that and find this supposedly pristine, untouched nature.

So is this a retroactive definition? Does it apply to something like the camping or fishing trips from years back? Do we look back at that and call it “ecotourism”, or does ecotourism start at a certain point?

I think in part it is a retroactive definition, but it is also a shift in the way we understand our interaction with nature. This is part of my analysis. There was another florescence of this idea of trying to leave civilization behind and go back to nature, at least in the United States, beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, from around the 1880s to the 1920s, but it was grounded in this idea of establishing your manhood through the conquest of nature. The ideology that arose undergirding ecotourism in the 1960s was kind of the opposite – to commune with nature and become one with it. So a somewhat different way of interacting with nature, but, yeah, a lot of it was kind of rebranded; it was already in existence and now we call it ecotourism.

There are some more differences that came when ecotourism became a label: it became a development strategy, a sustainable development practice. Then the idea was that it wasn't simply about interacting with nature, but about interacting with nature in a form that contributed to social and environmental goals. That's when we really got the idea of ecotourism as nature-based tourism that confers environmental and social benefits.

I want to ask you about the economic side and the sort of tourism-as-development concept – which some would maybe call the commercialization of nature, and we'll get to that, but your work here seems to focus more on the “romanticization” of nature – I imagine that ecotourism in some sense appropriates and romanticises tribal rituals like vision quests and those kind of coming of age ceremonies – could you talk about the romantic side of it, and the cultural issues you touch on in your analysis?

Ecotourism definitely can be seen as a rite of passage – the idea of leaving your home behind, experiencing this liminal space and the transition of your trip, and then coming home with a new identity, or a new layer of your identity that you've established through accomplishing this thing, testing your mettle, in a sense, suffering some kind of hardship away from “civilization.” This has all kinds of roots; it has roots in Christian asceticism – the idea that you can go into the wilderness and achieve some kind of spiritual enlightenment – and this was taken on by the transcendentalists in the 19th century, and the whole idea of finding the sublime in nature.

There is also some connection to the rites of passage from other societies as well. There aren't a lot of explicit linkages, except in certain situations, for example, people talk about going “feral,” and there are wilderness survivalists who explicitly draw on native ritual practices.

The romanticization part has to do with this very problematic idea of “nature”, like, what is nature? There is no essential nature. The practice of ecotourism, I would argue, is very much grounded in this characteristic and largely western dichotomy between a realm of nature and a realm of culture – and that doesn’t necessarily exist in all societies everywhere. Many societies do not make an absolute distinction between human affairs and non-human affairs; they have the idea that both humans and non-humans are operating according to the same type of principles. But ecotourism in its classic form depends on that distinction because the basic idea is leaving the realm of culture behind and immersing yourself in nature.

The epitome of nature, from this perspective, is wilderness. And wilderness is another problematic concept. In reality there are very few areas of the planet that have never actually been occupied and transformed by humans. The only way to maintain that sense is to declare some areas to be “protected wilderness areas”, usually kicking out the inhabitants, erasing evidence that they've been there, and then pretending that this place had always existed in a primordial state of nature – and that's kind of what I mean by “romanticization”, it's the creation of this fantasy of an unpeopled and pristine nature at the heart of this quest for wilderness.

I can see how this civilization/wilderness dichotomy fits with the colonial mindset – in North America there were literally “forts in the wilderness”, and that history, that dichotomy is still very much in the culture. But I wonder if this whole idea of trying to leave society and reconnect with nature, or sort of balance the two, is a really solid difference between, let's call it “western” society and other cultures – or, is it possible that the counterbalance to regular, settled life that “nature” as a romantic concept offers is something that we all have in common, maybe even the basis for some kind of cross-cultural communication?

I think it's both yes and no. The absolute division between nature and culture is pretty peculiarly western, although there are echoes of it in other places. But what I focused on was understanding the experience from the inside, and ecotourism has originated from a western base.

The limited research that I've seen about the quest for nature experience in other places, particularly in the Asian context, tries to make the argument that there isn't the same kind of absolute division between nature and culture, that there is kind of a fluid spectrum of moving back and forth between human and non-human realms.

OK, so let's get into it from the western context. You mentioned this idea of “liminal space”, so let’s say you work in an office in Europe or North America or somewhere and you take two weeks off to see a jungle or climb a mountain to sort of “get liminal”. What is going on there? And what about this phenomenon of expatriotism and trying to live in this liminal space – do you touch on that in the book?

Yeah, there is a kind of spectrum or shading of ecotourism experiences – from the shortest, least rough experiences to people who basically try to live their lives as ecotourists, where the liminality becomes permanent, to a degree. But the issue with that is that it is very difficult to maintain, and I think that is one of the issues with the expat experience – you go to a place, you feel the sense of liminality, you feel free, and you assume that the reason why is because of the place that you're in, rather than the psychological space that you're in. So then you decide you can move to this place and experience that sense of liminality all the time, but as a lot of the research into liminality and rites of passage shows, eventually new structures start to impose themselves in the liminal space, and if you stay there too long, it becomes this kind of rigid thing that, again, you are motivated to escape.

One way to deal with this is moving continuously, so you're continually moving in liminal space, which is in a sense the essence of long-term backpacking, or living in a place where everybody else is moving through – so you're a worker in a casino in Las Vegas, or you own an ecolodge where you are always interacting with backpackers and maintain that feeling of liminality.

What do you think is driving this desire to constantly seek out liminal space or change the environment around us? I would assume that part of it must be our transient evolutionary history, but knowing some of your work, I guess you are looking more at cultural and psychological factors?

I actually try to argue against that perspective – that humans have this inherent need to be nomadic and move around – that's definitely the argument that I've seen there at the base of it. But I think that there is a lot of evidence from other societies that people everywhere don’t feel that same sense of need to escape from their own lives and live outside of their comfort zone. I mean, every society has liminal experiences, but usually they are grounded in some kind of life stage transition – from boyhood or girlhood to adulthood, or getting married, or becoming an elder. But the way we practice ecotourism is usually from this sense that there is something wrong with the society that we live in, with our normal lives. There is a sense of restraint, of alienation, ugliness, stress – something that you need to escape from, to a place where you don’t feel those things.

A lot of it has to do with the psychological perspective that ecotourists bring to it. The core of ecotourists come from what I would call the upper middle class, and there is a particular regime of conditioning associated with being upper middle class that gives you this feeling of restraint and restlessness, this sense of always having to be proving yourself and moving forward; in a sense you have to be constantly proving your identity through continual progress, which means you always have to be dissatisfied with where you are relative to where you're going. So it creates a sense of restlessness and a desire to constantly transcend your current situation.

On the other hand, it doesn’t feel so good to be in that state, so I argue that the essence of ecotourism is the attempt both to fulfil your cultural conditioning by progressing and achieving through hardship and labour, while at the same time, trying to escape that conditioning by achieving this kind of transcendent, liminal space. Paradoxically.

I think that's a brilliant analysis. I wonder if there is an easier solution – could people fulfil those needs at home, for example, or within themselves?

I think you could, if you were able to cast that identity aside, and not see your worth in terms of continual progress – I see that as the root of the problem. Once you start defining yourself like that, you can never be satisfied because no matter what you achieve, there is something else on the horizon.

Right, it really is a kind of curse when you start comparing yourself to others, someone has always been more places than you, read more books. Maybe this brings us back to the commercialization of nature, and it's sort of consumption through ecotourism. This is big business, right? I mean, a lot of people are cashing in on this phenomenon of middle class people endlessly seeking a kind of authenticity that doesn’t exist – or whatever they are doing.

Yeah, they are driving a global industry. I think in part, incompleteness is part of the basic human conditioning, because there is always this sense of lack. But there are different things you can do about that lack, right, you can accept it as part of the essential human condition, and there are different ways to try to temporarily fill that lack through the pursuit of these transcendent experiences, what Lacan would call “jouissance”. Or you can try to fill in that lack – if you have this idea that somehow you can become complete or “full”, then you'll always be dissatisfied. I think if you can accept the lack, then you can enjoy those moments of partially transcending that lack, recognizing that they are always temporary, and that until you die you are always going to be incomplete, that's just the limitation of human consciousness, and accept it as such.

There are different ways of achieving that transcendence: I mean, the Buddhists have told us for a long time that you can experience the same thing, an experience like climbing Everest, by sitting and looking at a wall, if you're able to calm down enough. The difficulty is that doing nothing is kind of the antithesis of the upper middle class ethic, so it's very difficult to accept that as a legitimate way to spend your time, and therefore it's very difficult to be present in the moment, unless you're actively achieving or progressing. It's about overcoming that need to always be doing something in order to feel OK, I think that would allow you to be a lot more content with mundane, everyday experiences.

There is a kind of swing that happens to tourists where things seem really great at first, or during your first trip – it's a rush, it's energizing – and that kind of goes away after awhile and things can look pretty dull and routine – sort of like a hangover from all that romanticization and transcendence – what's going on with that?

That happens on an individual level, and also in the industry as a whole. Continually progressing and achieving means you have to always be upping the ante. What you've done yesterday is no longer good enough for today: you always have to pursue the novel experience, what gave you stimulation before no longer gives you stimulation after you've done it five or six times, you've been acclimated to the experience. So that's part of the problem: you have to keep escalating things to experience the high, and eventually it either becomes too difficult to find the high, or you start doing things that are so life threatening that you get scared by it, or it kills you. So you get stuck in that cycle, and often you become increasingly dissatisfied.

That translates into a shift in the industry over time, as more infrastructure gets built around it – and often times that infrastructure is built by ecotourists themselves, right: they probe a new location, decide they like this place and can make money off it, they form the structure of an industry that ends up compromising the unique, on-the-edge experience that brought them there in the first place. And so ecotourism is inherently expansionary and colonizing, you know, it's always about transcending the places that have been established as ecotourism destinations and finding the new place on the frontier. So the process of continual transcendence of the individual parallels the industry.

That sounds... unsustainable.

[laughs] It’s about growth, right... definitely.

I mean, it seems like it would be hard to get a net environmental benefit out of any tourism, even ecotourism, as long as it's based on aeroplane travel and basically, energy consumption. That's in addition to this process you point out of tourists and the industry constantly pushing the frontiers into more “pristine” places. Is there a sustainable ecotourism? Is that possible?

Any human use of the environment- and just being a human in general - means that you consume resources. That only becomes unsustainable when in aggregate we use too much. So I think, if we're really looking at sustainability, it's unfair to focus so much on ecotourism, which is the least ecologically damaging form of tourism. There are many other ways in which we can cut environmental costs, especially emissions costs, from activities that do nothing good for the environment, and do nothing good for people either. Let's stop flying jets to drop bombs, let's stop maybe NASCAR, let's stop illuminating used car lots in the middle of the night. So, I think if we are really interested in environmental impact, we should focus on other places.

Ecotourism is unsustainable in that larger sense, like any activity, because, yeah, sometimes you have to fly to your destination, and the more you fly the more fuel you use; on the other hand, relative to many other activities, it can be done much better. And the social implications, when it is done well, can be pretty important – it can be a transfer of wealth from the haves to the have-nots. It brings a lot of income, potentially, to people who need it and who don’t need to invest a lot before they see a return. So there is a potentially high profit margin there and a lot of social benefits – assuming it's done well.

The ecotourism ideal is self-mobilization by community groups who decide that they want to benefit from ecotourism, organize themselves, maybe with the help of outsiders, to develop their own industry, plan ahead for the growth, and limit the growth – so that it doesn’t compromise people's enjoyment of the environment, but still maximizes social benefit.

So I think that it can be done right, to the extent that travellers are challenging their own motives for travelling, and getting beyond this idea of always looking for the authentic and realize that what we find in people's lives is authentic. So you're not always trying to get past whatever you're being shown as a tourist and find this “backstage,” which forces people to always kind of make a fake backstage and then hide their real lives behind that.

I think that's important. I think the longer you stay in a place, the more chance there is for deeper and more meaningful cultural exchange between hosts and guests. So if you're backpacking and moving on every three days looking for “the new”, you're going to have a hard time connecting. And the more you're actually willing to spend on a particular trip, the more possibility there is for local people to use the resources that you leave behind, for an environmental and social end. So if you're always looking for the cheapest bed, the cheapest meal, then you're not really helping many people.

So I think travellers investing more in their trips, staying longer (so you're doing more with the fossil fuels you've already consumed), is how the industry needs to go – more or less in the opposite direction that it's going right now. The trend has been to sort of offer more for less, over time, and drive the prices down. But just like with any form of “ethical consumption,” in order to change that dynamic, people are going to have to be willing to spend more for the goods and services they enjoy.

I'm not saying that ecotourism is anything that will change the world, it will always be a small portion of the tourism industry as a whole, and it will always be a small portion of the movement for sustainability as a whole, but there is a positive impact on many communities that have been pretty much bypassed by other development opportunities for half a century now.

Dr Robert Fletcher is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Environment and Development at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. A comprehensive list of his publications can be found at