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Nigeria and sustainable/responsible/ecotourism: costs, benefits, options and challenges

by Editor

August 15, 2013 | 12:00 am
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Nigeria has the potential to become very competitive in sustainable tourism if the necessary political will exists. Nigeria has the essential ingredient for a successful sustainable tourism industry – an abundance of natural and cultural resources. According to the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI) 2013, Nigeria performed relatively well on three important pillars of the TTCI:  the natural resource pillar (ranked 68/140), the cultural resource pillar (ranked 98 out of 140) and the environmental sustainability (63/140). We have what it takes to succeed. The problem is that a complete inventory of the country’s natural, cultural and historical resources has not been done, that tourism infrastructure in the country is in shambles and that overall, the T&T industry is not prioritized in the country.Natural attraction (e.g. forests, parks and caves), cultural attractions (e.g. traditional lifestyles, festivals, music and dances), and historic and heritage sites (e.g. museums, archeological sites, historic towns) are in abundance in Nigeria. Nigeria is well-positioned to also exploit the growing interest in organic food and in natural products in almost every part of the globe. Nigeria obviously has a lot to offer as far as sustainable and ecotourism is concerned. What is “responsible,” “sustainable” and “eco” tourism? What are the costs and benefits of sustainable/Eco tourism? How can Nigeria maximize the benefits associated with sustainable tourism while minimizing associated risks and costs? What is the role of law in tourism development in emerging economies? Sustainable tourism is an imperative and is increasingly acknowledged in international policy documents and fora including: the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism (2002), the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002), the Convention on Biological Diversity, and Guidelines on Biodiversity and Tourism Development (2003).

 What is Sustainable and Responsible Tourism?

Sustainable tourism is not a special type of tourism. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) takes the position that any form of tourism can become sustainable. The UNWTO defines sustainable tourism as “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”Parks Canada and the Tourism Industry Association of Canada defines sustainable tourism as:

“tourism which actively fosters appreciation and stewardship of the natural, cultural and historic resources and special places by local residents, the tourism industry, governments and visitors. It is tourism which can be sustained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place”

Sustainable tourism is not a type of tourism but a set of principles and guidelines that can be applied to all forms of tourism. The concept of sustainability calls into question three dimensions of tourism: the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects. Regarding the environmental dimension, the UNWTO demands that tourism should “Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.” On the socio-cultural front, tourism should “Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.” Finally, the economic dimension demands that tourism must and should “Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.”Three examples of sustainable tourism are: cultural tourism, historical tourism and ecotourism. Related to sustainable tourism are terms such as responsible tourism, ethical tourism, and green tourism.

Fundamental to the success of sustainabletourism is a rich cultural resource. In other words, central to sustainable tourism is a richly diverse cultural, historical and/or natural heritage. Given the important role that cultural, historical and natural resources plays in sustainable tourism, a government desiring to embrace the principles of sustainable tourism must take step to promote and proactively protect and preserve the country’s valuable resources. Regarding cultural resources, policy makers must understand that cultural property can be tangible (e.g. artifacts) and intangible (e.g. traditional knowledge) and must create regulatory framework that ensures that all aspects of the country’s cultural property are effectively protected.

What is Ecotourism? 

Done right tourism can advance the goals of environmental conservation.The relationship between sustainable tourism, environmental conservation and sustainable development is one that many acknowledge but few governments in Africa seek to effectively explore and exploit. Sadly, although richly abundant in cultural and natural resources, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are not maximizing their immense comparative advantage in this area. Most countries in Africa probably do not have the resources needed to establish and run historical monuments and art museums that can compete with leading monuments and museums around the globe. However, the same countries have comparative advantage as far as nature resource and cultural resource are concerned and can use these to develop competitive edge in the travel and tourism industry. The fact that Museums of natural history remain very popular in many European and North American is evidence that natural and cultural heritages remains a big attraction for tourists and represents a source of untapped wealth for countries in SSA

Ecotourism is a type of sustainable tourism. Eco-tourism is not a new phenomenon or concept. As Piotr Dabrowski, vice-president of the Polish Tourist Society in Cracow, rightly notes, eco-tourism “is a return to roots and the rediscovery of values that have been covered with concrete and drowned by the noise of cars.” The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “Purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people.”The UNWTO identifies five characteristics of ecotourism. First, ecotourism is nature-based and “the main motivation of the tourists is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.” Second, ecotourism typically contains educational and interpretation features. Third, ecotourism “is generally, but not exclusively organised by specialised tour operators for small groups.” Typically, service providers tend to be small, locally owned businesses. Fourth, ecotourism is structured to minimize negative impacts upon the natural and socio-cultural environment. Finally, ecotourism “supports the maintenance of natural areas which are used as ecotourism attractions.”  Also, according to the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism:

“ecotourism embraces the principles of sustainable tourism… and the following principles, which distinguish it from the wider concept of sustainable tourism: Contributes actively to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage; Includes local and indigenous communities in its planning, development, and operation, contributing to their well-being; Interprets the natural and cultural heritage of the destination to visitor(s); Lends itself better to independent travelers, as well as to organized tours for small size groups.”

What is evident is that not every type of tourism can be labeled ecotourism and appropriate laws and policies are important determinants of the success of any country’s ecotourism strategy.Transparency and accurate information is also very important. According to Dabrowski, all the stakeholders “should know what ecotourism is good for as well as what its virtues, drawbacks and possible limitations are.” From the policy-making standpoint, Dabrowski suggests that:

The authorities responsible for conservation should consider tourism when deciding on management plans for a given area…. This is not a simple challenge, and requires environmental, economic and social studies on quite a large scale. It is not sufficient to estimate the environment’s tolerance threshold. On the one hand, by definition ecotourism should not devastate the natural or cultural environment while it should provide the satisfaction and benefits anticipated by all interested parties.

 Tourism and Poverty Alleviation

There are many benefits associated with sustainable tourism. Tourism can be an important tool in Nigeria’s poverty-alleviation strategy.On 21 December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution entitled ‘Promotion of ecotourism for poverty eradication and environment protection.’ In the Resolution recognizes that “ecotourism creates significant opportunities for the conservation, protection and sustainable use of biodiversity and of natural areas by encouraging local and indigenous communities in host countries and tourists alike to preserve and respect the natural and cultural heritage.”

For tourism to advance the goals of poverty alleviation, rural development and women’s empowerment, there must be a conscious effort to factor these goals into a country’s tourism development strategy. To date, this has not been the case in Nigeria.Pro-poor tourism is one which consciously targets the poor in tourism development. Tourism can be structured in ways that is sensitive to and prioritizes the needs and interests of destination communities but at the same time pays attention to the cultural background of guests. The UNWTO has identified seven important approaches to ensuring that the poor benefit from tourism. The seven steps are: (1) Employment of the poor in tourism enterprises; (2) Supply of goods and services to tourism enterprises by the poor or by enterprises employing the poor; (3) Direct sale of goods and services to visitors by the poor (informal economy); (4) Establishment and running of small, micro or community-based tourism enterprises or joint ventures by the poor (formal economy); (5) Redistribution of proceeds from tax or charge on tourists or tourism enterprises; (6) Voluntary giving and support by tourists or tourism enterprises; (7) Investment in infrastructure stimulated by tourism also benefiting the poor in the locality, directly or through support to other sectors.The seven steps can be easily implemented where the necessary political will exists.

The Risks and Costs of Tourism

Despite the many benefits of sustainable/ecotourism, there are costs and risks associated with any type of tourism. In particular, tourism poses a threat to indigenous people, to the environment, and to local cultures. One of the greatest threats is the loss of valuable cultural property through misappropriation by outsiders. The reason is obvious. Tourism increases the potential for intrusive impact on cultures, communities and the environment. There are other disadvantages and risks: risk of large ecological footprint and economic leakages, potential exploitation of community and the environment, the danger of fostering dependency on foreigners and outside assistance, and other dangers such as increased sexual exploitation of children, increase in prostitution, and overall increase in crime rates.

Instruments for More Sustainable Tourism

For tourism to contribute to sustainable development,a coherent, comprehensive and appropriate legal and regulatory framework must be in place, local communities likely to be affected by a specific tourism project must be involved in policy and planning from the very beginning and government must learn to manage the inevitable conflicts that are likely to emerge.  Legislation is very important but is not the only instrument that governments can use to shape and influence the sustainability of tourism. In Making Tourism More Sustainable: A Guide for Policy Makers (2005), the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and UNWTO identified thirteen instruments that governments can use. These include: measurement instruments (e.g. sustainability indicators), economic instruments (e.g. taxes), voluntary instruments (e.g. guidelines and codes of conduct), supporting instruments (e.g. tourism infrastructure), and other forms of command and control instruments (e.g. land use, regulation, and licensing). UNEP and UNWTO warn that the instruments “are not mutually exclusive” but must be viewed “as a complete set of tools available to governments.”

Law plays a crucial and indispensable role in tourism development. Laws can be used to minimize the risks associated with tourism and to maximize the benefits. The UNWTO and UNEP have identified 12 potential aims for an agenda for sustainable tourism: (1) environmental purity; (2) resource efficiency; (3) biological diversity; (4) physical integrity; (5) community well-being; (6) social equity; (7) economic viability; (8) local prosperity; (9) visitor fulfillment; (10) employment quality; (11) local control; and (12) cultural richness. Only with the help of a carefully crafted legal and regulatory framework can the benefits of sustainable tourism be maximized. Broad stakeholder involvement in the planning and execution of a country’s sustainable tourism strategy is vital. Ideally, the goal should be to engage stakeholders from the very beginning in the formulation of a strategy and policy for sustainable tourism and also to ensure “effective coordination of actions and ongoing dialogue between stakeholders.”

Governments wishing to adopt ecotourism and sustainable tourism principles and standards  have a growing amount of resources at their disposal. In 2005, UNEP and the UNWTO published  Making Tourism More Sustainable – A Guide for Policy Makers.The UNWTO has published a number of other helpful guides including inter aliaSustainable Development of Ecotourism – A Compilation of Good Practices (2001) and Sustainable Development of Ecotourism – A Compilation of Good Practices in SMEs (2003).

In line with the Oslo Statement on Ecotourism (2007), the starting point is for governments to “Recognize the valuable role that ecotourism plays in local sustainable development,” and “Maximize the potential of well managed ecotourism as a key economic force for the conservation of tangible and intangible natural and cultural heritage.” Nigeria can learn from the efforts of other countries. National Ecotourism Strategy and Plan of action (Bulgaria), Red Sea Sustainable Tourism Initiative (Egypt), Tourism White Paper (South Africa), and Agenda 21 for Tourism in Mexico (Mexico) are but examples. Is Nigeria ready?


When people think of ecotourism, they generally think of popular destinations in Central and South America, Canada, the USA, Antarctica, Australia and a few countries in Africa but never Nigeria. This can change. In Kenya, it is reported that tourism contributes about 25% of the Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and that about 70% of Kenya’s tourism revenue come from wildlife tourism alone.Nigeria can find a niche in the tourism industry. Wildlife tourism, rain forest tourism, cultural tourism, and historical tourism are all options worth exploring.

With growing ecological and human rights consciousness in Africa and around the globe and with growing number of norms and principles on the duty of governments to protect the environment and respect the right of indigenous groups and ethnic minorities,  governments can no longer get away with tourism developed at the expense of nature, culture and human rights. The focus today is on exploring sustainable linkages between tourism and conservation, and between tourism and cultural security. In other words, in developing the tourism sector, it is imperative that policy makers in Africa reconcile economic development with ecological and cultural security.

Sustainable tourism cannot be done haphazardly. The government must play a leading role in developing the right strategy and appropriate legal and regulatory framework. Sustainable tourism needs thought, planning and maximum stakeholder involvement.  The goal should be to fully integrate tourism into broader national sustainable development strategies. The goal also should be to effectively balance the interest of all stakeholders in sustainable tourism including: local communities, tourists, tourism enterprises and environmentalists. The UNWTO warns that “Sustainable tourism development requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as strong political leadership to ensure wide participation and consensus building. Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process and it requires constant monitoring of impacts, introducing the necessary preventive and/or corrective measures whenever necessary. UNEP and UNWTO identify three stages in the formulation of tourism strategy. First is analyzing conditions, problems and opportunities. Second is identifying objectives and making strategic choices. The last stage is developing relevant policies and action programs.

 “Dr. Uche Ewelukwa Ofodile

LL.B. (Nigeria), LL.M. (London), LL.M. (Harvard), S.J.D. (Harvard)

Professor, University of Arkansas School of Law

By: Uche Ofodile 

by Editor

August 15, 2013 | 12:00 am
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