Environmental Responsibility in the Tourism Industry With Professor David Lusseau

Image Credit: Pentapfel, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped

Fascination with nature drives a huge chunk of tourism worldwide. The plains of Africa, the Amazon Rainforest, the Swiss Alps and their associated species are huge economic drivers for their respective countries, and they (ideally) increase people’s appreciation of nature. There are plenty of great examples of ecotourism as a pathway for both education and conservation.

Yet when an industry is driven by money first, nature second, of course there are going to be manifold examples of businesses deprioritising the natural phenomena they are associated with, often to the direct detriment of that phenomena. Think the masses of pollution now found around Mt Everest, or the damage caused by avid snorkellers on the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve had my own experience with tourist companies deliberately spreading misinformation about the reef – more on that at this link.

Professor David Lusseau of the University of Aberdeen has been involved with the tourism industry since his teenage years. A student of socioecology, marine and conservation ecology, David and his team have studied the effects of tourism on species all around the world. At the recent Nordic Oikos Conference, at which David was a plenary speaker, we spoke about the responsibilities of tourist businesses, what role humans should play in nature in general, and whether or not ecologists have a good enough understanding of how broader society functions.

Sam Perrin (SP): What do you think the responsibility of a tourism industry should be to the ecosystem they’re associated with, given that obviously they’re there to make money?

Professor David Lusseau (DL): It differs from nation to nation, but my perspective is that a tour operator’s responsibility is to make sure that they continue to operate. Which means that at the forefront of their mind should be that the product they are giving is relevant, that they can continue to make a living out of it. And then from there, as a secondary priority, how do you make sure that the capital you are using, in this case nature, is best preserved, enough for you to continue operating. My opinion is that an individual operator shouldn’t have as strong a responsibility to maintain the integrity biodiversity integrity. That’s where management groups come in. Whether that is a group of operators, a co-management group, whatever you want to call it, you give them responsibility for the ecosystem as a whole, and let them impose rules and regulations on the individual operators. I think that’s the group that is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the nature capital.

SP: Let’s talk about a specific case study, the Great Barrier Reef. Now I’ve personally experienced tour operators knowingly giving misinformation to tourists in order to drive them back to the reef. How do we stop this sort of stuff happening?

DL: So that’s a situation where that co-management groups, like those pioneered by Nobel prize-winner Elinor Östrom can help. The creation of these groups can allow a very swift judicial system to be implemented. Often when management groups are formed, and you can secure an agreement across all the operators, they will bring in an external regulator to act as a judge. Then actions can be taken very quickly if something goes wrong. So you can have a ruling that takes place very quickly that is applied by the sector, and enforced by the regulator.


Elinor Ostrom, whose work on co-management bodies could be a valuable instrument in helping the tourism industry remain sustainable (Image Credit: Prolineserver 2010, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Say you have a situation where one coral reef will be able to sustain 10,000 snorkellers a year without tipping to an algal reef afterwards. So you decide on 10,000, that’s the quota that the regulators tell the operators they can use, and the operators design a system to distribute that quota. And then the operators can design individual business models to make sure they can make a living out of whatever quota they can get. Then we get a situation like you described where one operator is defecting, so no longer adhering to the agreed practice of the sector. The operators demand a ruling, the regulator comes in, reviews the situation, and decides on a punishment. That might take the form of a fine, which is then redistributed to the other operators, or it might take the form of a reallocation of their quota to others. So as long as you can punish defection, to the point where the punishment is larger than the gains you can make from defecting, you can maintain cooperation. Where we can help is to assist that co-management body to design rules and regulations.

SP: What was the point at which you said that you needed to be talking to the tourism industry, how did you go about it?

DL: That need emerged to me when I was 15-16 actually. I lived in a landlocked area – Burgundy in East France. I got the opportunity to go for a dive trip in the south of France, and I got to interact with dolphins. And I saw first-hand how often people leave their rationality behind when they become tourists. I was taken aback by how people that seem normal one second just behave in a very irrational way one second later, in their interaction with the dolphins. That sparked the interest.

Moving forward to when I did my PhD, there was a project opening working with dolphins in Fiordland in New Zealand. And so we designed the study with tourism regulators in the region and carried it out with their help. Now when you are in Fiordland there are not that many people around, I lived in Doubtful Sound and in Milford Sound, and there were maybe three or four of us living there, and the only people that are staying there overnight are the skippers of the boat that are operating. If we want to get across to Doubtful Sound, the only option is the tour operators. So I was lucky enough to make good friends with some of the skippers of the tour boats, but also to get to talk on a regular basis to the people that ran the tour operations. And it was really helpful to comprehend that dimension of where people come from.

Something that I knew already, but was quite reaffirming in that situation, was that people are not bad. Going back to that situation in the south of France, people might become irrational in a tourism situation, but it’s not because they’ve got bad intentions, it’s just that they’ve got externalities that are driving their behaviour, or externalities that are driving their motivation to develop a business model. Maybe out of 20-25 years of interacting with different sectors, I can count on one hand the number of badly intentioned people I’ve had to interact with. So the tourism industry never has bad intentions for nature, and we just need to understand those externalities driving them.

SP: So we should be helping them understand their impacts?

DL: Yes. Overall, we’ve got a problem as a species comprehending the long-term consequences of our actions. Obviously we can see what happens if we kill an individual animal or twenty of them, we can comprehend that it’s going to affect population growth rate. But it’s hard for somebody to comprehend, that if they disturb a dolphin for just five minutes, they’re not necessarily going to be fine afterwards. It’s very hard to appreciate that maybe it will actually take them two hours before they’re going to be able to look for food again. And then maybe there’s ten boats behind you that will do the same as you’ve just done.

It’s not just a commercial sector issue. Everybody is in the same boat, we are poor at comprehending the long term consequences of our actions. Which leads to the issues we have with long term sustainable goals as well. The big environmental issues we’re facing at the moment, our day to day lives might not seem to be linked to them, but on a large scale they can have broader consequences for the planet.

SP: Let’s take another specific example. In Costa Rica, the government has recently made it illegal to take selfies with animals. There have been worries that it may decrease tourism.

DL: So my colleague Rosie Bailie, the whole point of her PhD thesis is to ask these kind of questions. I’ve worked with the tourism industry for more than 20 years now, and in that time there has been a steep change in the social dynamics around the sector. Which really is driven by a new platform of interaction, social media. And so we do see feedback mechanisms emerging from these new platforms from which you can interact with others about the way you do things, sometimes negatively. We have often seen propagation of poor behaviour as being glorified, as a result of the typical tourist having a larger footprint than they might have had in the past, which is problematic.

I would not be surprised, as a result of these feedback systems, if we do see a decrease in tourism in situations like Costa Rica’s. As a product of losing one of those feedback loops for a destination. Like with any kind of new way of interacting socially, overall it’s a good thing that we talk more with each other, and we’ve got different ways to talk with each other. But people who work in my space really need to comprehend better how social media is influencing tourism flow as well as tourism behaviour. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people are now using social media as a primary source of information of where to go and what to do. So when suddenly this nation drops selfies, you’ll get a substantial drop inn the number of entries you’ll see on that destination on Facebook or Instagram. That could influence your choice of destination as an international traveller.

SP: Let’s shift to another stream of wildlife information. David Attenborough and the BBC have a tendency to present nature as separate from humans, as if there’s no overlap between the two systems.

DL: They serve a purpose in a sense. But they are about maintaining the wonder of nature. They serve a purpose to kind of help people comprehend the value of nature in itself. So from that perspective, they’re good. I think the problem is more the way they are used, which goes back to who’s using it. As long as people comprehend that this is a nature which is what could be, and what the natural worlds look like without humans, then they’re fine. But most people don’t comprehend that.

There should be some way to manage the expectation that if you go outside that’s what you’re going to see. But I’m not sure what the responsibility of a documentary maker is. Their goal is to maintain that wonder of nature. Not to make that interpretation. But I think there’s a need for supplementary work which can help understand that nature is still very much linked with humans. I think where these documentaries do fail, is in that they don’t help us comprehend how nature works around and with people, so people value nature less if it’s not ‘separate’ from humans. Most of the everyday exposure people have to nature is in urban areas. And we don’t value that nature that as well as we should and could. That’s a failure I think. But I do still think there’s still an important case to be made for helping people maintain their wonderment about nature.


David Attenborough’s documentaries may present nature as separate from humanity, but they still serve a purpose in retaining people’s wonder of nature, says David Lusseau (Image Credit: Mikedixson, CC BY-SA 3.0)

SP: I’ve recently given a lecture in which we go from talking about drivers to biodiversity and threats to biodiversity. Obviously there’s a lot of overlap between those two groups. Where do humans, as part of nature, stop becoming drivers and start becoming threats?

DL: People have different world views which are quite importantly shaping answers to that question. There are three main world views on how humans interact with nature. We’ve got a world view where people think it is their duty to protect nature, so humans have a special role in nature. Another world view is that nature is there for humans to exploit, it is their dominion. It’s another world view where humans have a special place in relation to nature. And then the third world view which is around which is that humans are just a component of nature and therefore we should try to minimise our footprint, but that doesn’t mean feeling guilty about the footprint that we leave as well. In that sense that we are just another agent in nature, and don’t have a special place.

I adhere to that last world view myself. So from that perspective, a threat is a negative interaction with biodiversity, when other kinds of interactions might have positive effects. It’s not a binary situation though, I see it as a continuum, and you just happen to cross zero at some stage. The problem starts when we unbalance our coefficients of interactions, and we’re more on the negative sides that the positive side. And my attitude to this is that we need to stop isolating people from nature when we approach management of human drivers of biodiversity. We should try to think more carefully about how to reconcile those interactions so that we are a net positive, or a net neutral as opposed to the net negative we have now.

SP: Do you think in general that modern ecologists have a good enough awareness of economics, social sciences and the other factors that drive society?

DL: No. I think there’s two problems there. One of the hurdles, and root causes of this is that we have problems recruiting people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds into universities. And when we do, we’ve got problems maintaining these individuals through to becoming professional researchers in ecology. And so therefore that means as a community, we are a biased representation of the rest of the population. The best way for us to develop empathy with what going on around us is by comprehending it through our eyes. And the problem is that if as a community we are not representing the same eyes as the greater population, we’re lost. Our community has a range of diversity issues, but particularly around socio-economic strata. We are not representative enough. And that is a problem for Universities, we need to be much better at recruiting people from wide socio-economic backgrounds, and maintaining those individuals, and retaining those individuals in research.

The second problem is that we’re not trained in those social and economic questions. Broadly we don’t have enough training in economic and social sciences to help us capture these wider views. That’s where our problem lies. We’ve got an issue, and the even more pressing issue is that people are realising it. And that’s driving a wedge which some corners of politics are using to place a distance between scholars and the rest of the people. It’s being manipulated in away that’s problematic for a wide range of reasons. Not just about the abilities to do our work, but also for other people’s abilities to comprehend the relevance of our work.

You can read more about problems with ecotourism at the link below.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter here.

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