Local Destinations: Mystified, Packaged, and Sold
Local destinations in ecotourism refer to (a) places that ecotourists visit; (b) places that various kinds of businesses use to make money; (c) places that indigenous people live, (d) places of fauna and flora, and (e) local material, immaterial human resources that are used for enjoyment by ecotourists and consumed for extraction of profits by businesses. The ecotourism destinations include rich variety of places such as communities with their own historical life styles, national parks, pastoral and protected areas, mountains, lakes, and rivers.
Ecotourism for Enjoyment and Profit from Local Areas
The explanations about local destination and impacts of industrial practices significantly vary according to the theoretical approach, knowledge, and vested interests. That is why, according to some studies in Turkey and other countries, ecotourism generates local jobs via tourism services such as various kinds of restaurants, souvenir shops, eco hotels, eco lodges, campsites, bungalows, chalets, pensions, cave hotels, guesthouses, home-stay accommodations, transport, and guiding services. Thus, it provides new sources of income, engenders local empowerment, and inculcates a sense of community ownership, local development, and new local business opportunities (IUCN 2012; Stronza 2007; Mustika et al. 2012; Reimer and Walter 2013; Seetanah 2011; Nyuapane and Poudel 2011; Jalani 2012). On the other hand, alternative/critical studies focus on issues such as disruption of local livelihood, external interference in local historical development, economic exploitation of destination, land-grabbing, lost of land, physical displacement, exacerbation of poverty, causing interior-migration, cultural degeneration, cultural hybridity, and cultural annihilation, impacts on flora and fauna, habitat destruction, and environmental degradation.
The basic question here is whether or not ecotourism activities compromise local life, culture, and environmental quality for the sake of vested interests of certain industries that are presented as, e.g., national economic prosperity by the governing power structures and relations. That is why the fate of destination depends on the outside interests and policies. The idea of empowerment of local population is a forged explanation that disguises the control of outside forces. What remains for local people is to participate, remain silent, or take a risk and demonstrate some opposition.
In Turkey, the development of ecotourism has led to the expectation that local handicrafts, agriculture, and services can gain momentum. However, all success stories in Turkey or elsewhere are the success stories of ecotourism investors and service providers, not the success stories of local community in general. Furthermore, explaining success with the level of total revenues misleads us, because the important point is not the total gain, but the nature of the distribution of total wealth gained via ecotourism. Success studies in Turkey and elsewhere treat the existence of few local enterprises and “better than nothing employment and income level” as the indicator of local economic development, while ignoring the negatively changing condition of vast majority of local people brought by the arrival of ecotourism/tourism. Activities related with land value, capital formation, and use of land in local areas in Turkey, unfortunately, present a highly distorted power and interest relations that work against the large majority of people, because of, e.g., land speculations and appropriations by the powerful centers.
During our observations over 15 years in the north, west, and south of Turkey, we witnessed the followings: Tour operators control most tourist flows to ecotourism areas. That is why, the tourism revenues of the local businesses depend principally on establishing business relations with tour operators (travel agents). Those who do not or cannot establish such a relation cannot survive. Tour operators/agencies offer visits to local communities as part of their programs. They obtain the cooperation of one or two local economical, cultural, or political organizations by, e.g., paying user fees, bringing tourists for meals and shopping, renting indigenous-built huts or bungalows for overnight stays, and preferential hiring. They get a preset fee, commission, or gift for such cooperation as kickback in return.
They make verbal agreements with one or two establishments in local areas and bring the tourists only to these places in order to make some extra money for themselves. Thus, they establish a symbiotic relation with one or two establishments and shun and exclude other places, services, and individual sellers.
Furthermore, local people who have handmade materials to sell are kept away from tourists and denied access to accommodations. The excursions are mostly limited to only predetermined places. The worst is that some tour operators utilize tricky means and ways so that visitors do not spend even a penny in local areas. There are numerous studies in other countries with similar findings (Duffy 2002; Hu and Wall 2014; Slocum and Backman 2011).
On the other hand, there are successful ecotourism ventures in Turkey, too, but the actual local benefits of these ventures are extremely marginal in many cases all over the world (Hsu and Lin 2013). As various studies stated (He et al. 2008; Lapeyre 2010; Fennell 2008; Meza 2009) such marginal revenues are mostly shared by a few local people who run shops, restaurants, develop activities, or have access to profitable locations. Namely, only those who have the financial resources or private partners get the largest portion of small benefits that remain at the local communities. Only very small portion of the local labor force, as it happens all over the world, get the extremely low-paid seasonal jobs. Some researchers (Mbaiwa and Stronza 2010; Zanotti and Chernela 2010) think that these small incomes are better than the existing means of living which is generally characterized by poverty and exclusion. Through similar explanations, exploiting the exploited and poverty, and employing power over the powerless are justified.
In Turkey and other countries, local people (excluding few exceptional affluent ones) (a) have extremely limited access to resources to produce their own wealth, (b) are never part of the inclusion or participation in planning and decision-making processes in ecotourism (or any other kind of economic and political processes beyond participation in their own exploitation through predetermined activities such as voting and working as laborer), (c) have no capital for business capacity, (d) lack education, skills, and experience in getting higher paid jobs. Thus, statements about the development of indigenous community through externally induced economic activity such as ecotourism and about the accountability of local people for anything related with ecotourism are cunningly forged assertions, false justifications, and mind and behavior management ploys.
The prevailing nature of the ownership and business practices, and creation and distribution of wealth in (eco)tourism in countries like Turkey reflect considerable imbalance and inequality, perpetuate the lack of access to land and natural resources, deepen the economic inequality and disempowerment of local people, and alienate local community from planning process (e.g., Horton 2009). Ecotourism related facilities are mostly concentrated in the hands of few wealthy local families and outsiders. The local livelihood is connected to poverty through the mode and means of production of ecotourism that also encompass the lack of access to employment and income diversification (e.g., Lepper and Schroenn 2010).
What makes the local situation worse is that ruling forces in countries like Turkey surrender control of organization and operation of many resources, including local resources for ecotourism, to private powers and foreign interests in the name of liberalization, privatization, decentralization, deregulation, and democratization (Duffy 2000; He et al. 2008; Mowforth and Munt 2003).
Large portion of (eco)tourism studies also establish invalid causal tie between the level of local participation with attitudes, perception, motivation, education, access, or commitment (Stone 2015). They base their invalid conclusions on the existence of significant statistical relations that never mean the existence of causality beyond simple correlation unless the researcher designs a causal study which is based on a sound theoretical rationale. Namely, statistics alone do not spell causality, but only correlation. They establish wrong causality, because attitudes, perception, motivation, education, access, commitment, and participation exist together: If an individual does not have capital, political ties, and power to decide and act, his/her perception, motivation, education, access to information, communication ability, and attitude do not matter at all, because he/she can participate in ecotourism only as laborer whose working conditions are decided by others.