or diveristy?

Wendy Brewer Lama and Nikhat Sattar describe how serious impacts on mountain biological and cultural diversity by the world’s fastest growing industry is causing growing interest in ecotourism

Mountains – homes of the gods, sources of life-giving waters, gigantic monuments of rock and ice – that for centuries posed as impenetrable boundaries, are increasingly falling vulnerable to humans’ sporting endurance, to an onslaught of travellers seeking escape from cluttered lives, and to demands on natural resources and cultural institutions that far exceed their capacities.

Mountain tourism constitutes 15-20 per cent of the industry worldwide, worth $70-90 billion per year. It is vital to the conservation and development of mountain regions, and has brought laudable economic opportunities to these previously isolated and undeveloped areas. But it is also turning them into ‘the world’s highest waste dumps’, high-altitude Disneylands that misrepresent and exploit mountain cultures with little gain for their inhabitants. Roads, airports, hotels, communications and other infrastructure developments are opening them to mass tourism before proper planning or management can take place.

Tourism’s impacts on mountain ecosystems and biological resources are of great concern. Immense changes in altitude and associated climatic conditions result in great variations in temperatures, precipitation, soils and vegetation, breeding a rich diversity of ecosystems. But these conditions also impose inordinate stresses on natural resources – which are compounded by unrestrained human activities and development.

High impact
Unmanaged tourism can have a high impact on sensitive mountain environments formerly buffered from disturbance by remoteness and isolation. It can lead to the removal of vegetation, the degradation of forests, disturbance to wildlife, the reduction of habitats, and an increased incidence of forest and grassland fires. Tourism generates a high volume of rubbish and waste which mountain communities are unprepared to process. And sustainable agricultural practices that promoted agro-biodiversity become geared instead to meeting tourism market demands, creating a chain effect on cropping patterns, loss of soil productivity and soil erosion, and ultimately destruction of habitats and ecosystems.

Mountain regions are repositories of high concentrations of endemic species and vital reservoirs of genetic diversity. They are also critical corridors for migrating animals and sanctuaries for plants and animals whose natural habitats have been squeezed or modified by both natural and human activities. The loss of such biodiversity has environmental, ethical, health-related and economic implications. Many high-altitude plants, for example, have medicinal properties important to mountain people’s well-being, and/or potential economic value that can boost mountain economies.

Cultural identities and diversity in mountain regions are also under threat from the economic, social and environmental forces associated with mountain tourism. Cultures long secluded by rugged terrain and isolation are suddenly ‘object matter’ for camera-toting tourists. Knowledge and skills refined over generations lose value in the face of high-tech mountain sports and demand for five-star hotel standards. A loss of cultural identity leads to increased crime and drugs, and the degradation of community values and religious practices that once held the society together.

Mountain peoples must have a say and a stake in the state and future of their cultures. Tourism can provide them with it by giving value – and income – to maintaining such authentic cultural features as architecture, dance and song, food, dress, historic knowledge and handicraft skills. Well-conserved mountain cultures can be a unique attraction to tourists, and the attention of outsiders can promote cultural pride and a desire to restore authentic cultural heritage. There is a fine line, however, between sustainable cultural tourism and over-commercialization of culture. Treading it successfully demands local participation and commitment to authenticity, equity and careful management.

Due to isolation and limited access, many people living in mountain areas lack sufficient skills and resources to invest in tourism or benefit significantly from it. Tourism does provide jobs and investment opportunities, but it tends to benefit households and investors who already have significant assets. The trickle-down benefits to poorer, uneducated households are generally limited to menial labour jobs, some farming and food production, and minimal profits from time-consuming handicraft production. Local populations living in and around mountain parks often bear the burdens of tourism – such as increased waste, security risks and inflation – but receive little benefit from park entry fees for much needed local development and conservation.

Heightened dependency
As tourism has grown and other sources of livelihoods and market demand have declined, some mountain economies, including agricultural communities, are becoming overly dependent on it. If and when tourism declines, economies, social structure and cultural conservation efforts suffer inordinately. A case in point: due to the current political instability in Nepal, tourist arrivals have diminished significantly this year, and village lodge operators are squabbling for visitors’ business. The loss of income, and heightened competition, have contributed to the weakening of lodge operators’ commitment to conservation (such as waste management schemes) and have challenged the communities’ support for cultural and religious institutions.
‘...it seems as if cash itself is life. There is money all around us but we don’t know how to accumulate it. We aren’t used to amassing money’

Chandra, Mountain Voices

Gender roles and relations often change when tourism enters the local mountain economy. Guiding or transport jobs take men away for long periods, adding considerably to women’s already heavy burdens of household, child-rearing, agricultural and resource-collecting tasks. The additional responsibilities – combined with women’s relatively low socio-economic status and their lack of ‘economic worth’ through earned wages – holds them back even further from pursuing education, careers and political involvement, and can affect their health, longevity and children’s welfare.

Tourism will evidently remain one of the world’s fastest developing industries, with significant, direct and mounting impacts on the sensitive ecological and cultural values of mountain areas. Such concerns are driving a growing interest in the concepts and practices of sustainable and eco-tourism.

Chapter 13 of Agenda 21 recognized tourism as an important component in sustainable mountain development and conservation, and acknowledged the role of the Mountain Forum and others in enhancing the position of mountains on the global environmental agenda. The year 2002 has been designated as both the International Year of Ecotourism and the International Year of Mountains, and throughout the year ecotourism planners are gathering around the globe to share experiences and draw up recommendations on such issues as how to measure and mitigate the impacts of tourism on biodiversity and indigenous cultures, equity in benefit sharing, development of industry standards, the roles of various stakeholders in tourism management, and the importance of the participatory approach in building sustainability. The Biodiversity Planning Support Programme of UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility provides assistance to national biodiversity conservation planners, and is undertaking a study on ‘global best practices’ for integrating biodiversity and tourism.

Common to nearly every locale and culture is the lack of any tourism or development plans for mountain regions. Planning for mountain tourism must assess the short and long-term environmental impacts of development and give priority to tourism activities that benefit local people, while generating sustainable revenues and support for conservation.

Natural strengths
Some of the same characteristics that hinder development and conservation – such as isolation, limited access, ruggedness, altitude and climate – also make mountains attractive places for tourism, and help to protect biological and cultural diversity. One way to keep mountain tourism activities within an appropriate scale and level of impact is to build upon the natural strengths and assets of the area and its people. By learning to value such assets as the basis for a mountain tourism economy, stakeholders come to realize the importance of conserving them, and of managing tourism properly. In this way, tourism serves as a ‘tool’ for conservation and development.

Strong stakeholder participation – particularly by mountain peoples, but also by government policy-makers, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and, ideally, the mountain tourist – is important throughout the planning, implementation and management of mountain tourism. Experience has now shown that this, and equitable benefit sharing, will produce more sustainable practices, and better-conserved biological and cultural resources. Local people need to be engaged in mountain tourism and empowered to conserve the resources upon which it depends

Wendy Brewer Lama is an Ecotourism Planning Consultant working with communities protected area managers and the private sector in the Himalaya and parts of China to plan for and promote community-based ecotourism. Nikhat Sattar is Programme Director in IUCN Asia and also the IUCN Asia Coordinator for IYM 2002.


A fuller version of this article, including detailed recommendations, is available at www.mtnforum.org/resources/library/lamax02A.htm

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Saving the common land | Aiming high | Mighty, but fragile | Walking the talk | Regreening the slopes | For the people | High priorities | Natural beauty | Prospects for WSSD: Towards Johannesburg | Along a steep pathway | The height of trouble | Disneyland or diversity? | Path to discovery | On top of the issue | Peak condition | Swimming upstream | Cloudy future

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Tourism 1999
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and ecosystems: Mountains
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and landuse: Migration and tourism

Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report