Sunday, March 30, 2014

Eco Tourism? Scuba Dive in Quarries? Explore Lake Erie Shipwrecks?

My sister Dianna and I emailed one another yesterday, just catching up.  She brought me up to date on my nephew Jack's honeymoon in Costa Rica which until yesterday I did not realize had been a part of an eco tourism movement.  I was immediately curious so started surfing the web to find out more about it. First thing I discovered was that it was not new but had been around for decades. Also, universities had been among the first to climb aboard to promote it. My sister majored in natural resources at the University of Michigan and worked for the Cleveland Metroparks for awhile so it is not surprising that he would likewise be interested in ecology.

A commonly used definition of eco tourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people. The money paid by the tourists is further invested in maintaining the fragile environment being visited plus involves the local community in the process and gives it financial benefits from the tourism profits. This can also involve boycotting travel to countries with repressive regimes and human rights violations. Such travel boycotts were used against South Africa during the protests against apartheid. In our country, travel boycotts have been recently used to stop professional conventions being held in states known to be anti gay rights.

I was not surprised to discover in my web surfing that eco tourism is a controversial topic. There are two principal criticisms. First, that you need to use airplanes to get to it. The argument here is that you are just adding to greenhouse gas emissions which further worsen global warming and climate change. If you really want to help the environment, critics say, travel very close to home and use the least offensive transportation. Study the charts above and the conclusion is rather depressing: the most ecologically profound act you can seemingly take up is to become an avid Greyhound bus rider.

The second criticism is that people, mostly Americans, use this concept to paint themselves as philanthropists when in reality they just want to indulge themselves further and promote a nicer version of themselves than really exists. 

Well, I had thought of the airplane problem. But the second presupposes a second incarnation of The Ugly American. Back in the 1960s that book was published which painted a very unflattering portrait of Americans as we presented ourselves outside of our country. To be blunt, we were pictured as loathsome interlopers who were complete boors in other countries.  Our only redeeming virtue, throwing our money around these places, was also our most offensive quality.  Our efforts at diplomacy also showed us to be nothing more than extended incarnations of our manifest destiny pasts. Fittingly enough, Marlon Brando starred in the movie. I hope we are not about to go into another era of bashing ourselves for being Americans or letting our allies do it for us as they have been so willing to do in the past. 

It turns out that Jack's visit to Costa Rica is not an unusual choice, especially for North Americans.  The country is seen as a primary example of how eco tourism can benefit the host country. Costa Rica has steadily improved its quality of life for locals while also having a natural eco system well worth preserving. However, its very success is its biggest problem.  This is South America after all, commonly viewed as the mother lode of corruption and graft. There is no centralized control and administration of the monies and their purposes so that some people have exploited and/or appropriated the plentiful funds which have come flowing into the country. It turns out that any eco tourism program does best with moderate success. When there is huge success in eco tourism, there is the danger of damaging what you sought to protect. The main site for eco tourism in Costa Rica is here.

Another surprise was in store for me.  On Google I discovered that my very own alma mater, Ohio University, has a program in eco tourism. The southeastern portion of Ohio, the beginning of Appalachia, is becoming more and more invested with eco tourism.  This is where OU is located. You want to know how into this they are in Ohio? For God's sake, they scuba dive in quarries! Gilboa Quarry, shown above, in northwestern Ohio is a mecca for scuba divers and you can view three videos of scuba diving there here.

Ohio is number five in the nation for scuba diving which is quite a feat when you realize that we have no ocean. These same scuba divers also explore Lake Erie's many old shipwrecks. Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes and thus always considered the most dangerous by seaman.  It has had a high death toll over the centuries.

The eco tourism businesses in Ohio meet every criticism of eco tourism head on. They are located in areas which are largely unused nowadays whereas they were ruthlessly exploited in the past by industrial practices such as strip mining for coal. Many Americans can get here without using a plane. Plus growth in those local eco tourism businesses are good not great. It is the great success which kills the golden goose in this enterprise. There is a great article I found on eco tourism in southeastern Ohio here.

Do I see myself doing eco tourism?  In the larger sense I already do because I rarely go anywhere.  It is generally years for me in between plane rides. Even with driving, I only seem to travel within the same ten mile radius of our condo.  Plus Jim and I share a car and live in a small condo. So it would be hard for me to come up with a much smaller carbon footprint than I already make ecologically speaking. For people like me then, this is more a matter of curiosity than alteration of lifestyle.

Rebecca and I have debated these ecological issues on our drives around here. She was dating someone in the anti fracking movement and asked me what my opinion was on fracking.  (It is a method of oil and gas extraction which causes a lot of environmental damage to our own lands.)

"Well, I don't like it, " I replied, "but we really have backed ourselves into a corner. We have made ourselves totally dependent upon an utterly crazy part of the world, the Middle East, that would like to blow each of us up ASAP. It is hard for me to think of any atrocity worse than the atrocities we've brought on ourselves by not dealing with Middle East oil dependency decades ago.  Fracking is because of that, not because of anything else.  It is a side issue to a truly insane issue. I don't have any answers as how to handle the huge, overlying issue."

What could she say? Nothing. That is the true nightmare each of us lives with every day. Unfortunately, we are not going to solve this problem in our lifetimes so Jack and the other younger people will be left to contend with it. And I am really sorry that we are leaving this mess behind us for them.

A big thanks to Jack and Dianna for bringing this topic to my attention.  If anyone else has a suggested topic, just send it in please.

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