A steely sky cracked to release faint rays of sunlight, but the low swirling clouds and the peaks of the Dinarides consumed most of the warmth. It was only 9am. I was already chilled after my four kilometer walk in the light rain from the hostel to the travel agency to join nearly 100 other individuals on our day trip to Plitivice Lakes National Park. My light pack contained only two peanut butter and honey sandwiches, an apple, hand sanitizer, sunglasses, chapstick, a foil emergency blanket, a plastic poncho, a laminated photocopy of my passport, and an equivalent of $20USD in Croatian kuna, in both bill and coin form.
I glanced around at my fellow travelers. We had all purchased the tour of the waterfalls from this local business, and were in route to the National Park gates. I had selected this package because the pick up and drop off locations were walking distance from my hostel; it included bus fare directly to the Park entrance; and it allowed access to Veliki Slap, the highest falls which thunders 78 meters into the river Korana. Additionally, the tour employed a local naturalist who interpreted the geology and ecology of the biosphere in the English, German, and Croatian languages. Most of us on the bus were adults, many couples, several large groups of Japanese and Chinese men who changed camera lenses before each shot, and perhaps one or two other independent women. I listened closely to the subtle drone of dialogue, but heard no other English speakers.
This visit to Plitivice Lakes National Park is one of the few organized eco-tours I have purchased. The other two were in Peru: to visit the Tambopata National Reserve on the border with Brazil, and Taquile Island in Lake Titicaca. According to The International EcoTourism Society, ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education.” It’s intention is to develop a type of tourism that connects an environment with its human culture in an economically meaningful way. However, in practice, perhaps it creates more damage to ecosystems and culture alike?
First, it enables high volumes of humans to visit fragile ecosystems. The beauty and the appeal of wilderness areas are that they are clean and free of our human interventions. The spaces are peaceful without our constant hum of electricity wires and the fast-paced expectations of instant communication mediated through a machine. But when lines of busses packed at capacity drop hundreds of people onto a remote walking path at hourly intervals, suddenly we carry with us the burdens and trash we had all been trying to escape. At Plitivice Lakes, the crowd was so thick at times I was literally standing still in a traffic jam of non-movement. Cigarette butts and tiny bits of plastic, accidentally dropped from someone’s pocket, floated in the water beneath the boardwalk. When I arrived at Veliki Slap, I couldn’t see the falls through the depth of people in front of me, who perched and posed on boulders with selfie sticks, speaking into their camera phones about their “hike to the falls.” I didn’t feel peaceful at all. Instead I felt frustrated, impatient, and generally disappointed in my fellow humans. I could have had that emotional experience on Any-Given-Freeway-USA.
However, some wilderness areas are more strictly protected, which leads me to my second point of critical analysis.
Under global capitalism, wilderness is a commodity, and it is sold to the people who can pay for that experience. The journey into the Tambopata National Reserve was far more elite than Plitivice Lakes. This tour initiated with a ride on a fishing boat down the Rio Madre de Dios with a small group of ten or so people. All but my traveling companion and I were staying overnight at an eco-lodge, which was far beyond our budget. Our day trip included a canopy tour of the jungle; a lunch of tropical fruits, juices, fish, and an indigenous dessert; and guided kayaking to a smaller island known for its monkey population. Over lunch, my partner and I chatted with a very young couple from Los Angeles. They had booked their flights into Puerto Maldonado and the jungle tour at the last minute, having decided suddenly to spend their holiday break from university in Peru, and were shocked to learn that we had saved money for a year to travel. We saw a glimpse of the jungle and then returned to our shared hostel that had no power or running water, while they cuddled at the eco-lodge, wafting the scent of passion flowers on the evening breeze. Although knowledge can never be bought and sold, experience has evolved into an commodity: the experience of the exotic and sensual. “Wilderness retreat” is more a marketing slogan than an activity.
Just as wilderness is now a commodity under eco-tourism, so is indigenous expression of culture.
Our first milestone on our journey at Lake Titcaca was the Uros Islands, human-constructed from totora reeds. The Uru are indigenous people of the area. Although the exact history is blurry, they have been around for about 3700 years. They life largely according to their traditional lifestyle, on 120 floating islands. When our tour boat landed at their island, they sang a few of their songs, and did a dance and clapped. Then they sold us their textiles and pottery. Here’s the thing. I saw the same mass-produced consumer goods at the market stalls in Cusco. These were not their crafts and textiles, simply generic “Inca Souvenirs from the Andes,” which could probably be bought in bulk from Amazon. I understand that currency and the global market has improved the quality of their life; their floating islands had solar panels and a TV satellites. However, has eco-tourism turned their cultural identity into a commodity? Are their songs and dances still meaningful beyond tips from foreign visitors? I can’t answer that of course, but I felt very uncomfortable and exploitative even participating enough to be present in that space.
What is the balance? Given the global expansion of capitalism, the growing divide between wealth and not-wealth, and the accelerating accumulation of power within the upper echelon of wealth, I predict that widespread access to wilderness areas will shrink. Transportation will be more limited, entrance fees more pricey, and a local guide who will charge fair wages for their expertise will be necessary. I’m okay with that. It means the wilderness will be protected, and the local economy will absorb dollars instead of nickels. Meanwhile, a connection with nature doesn’t have to include an adventure deep into the wilderness. It could be self-guided forest bathing, wildlife viewing, or waterfalling. Want to hear more? Follow me to my next post for three Barefoot-style eco-journeys in the American southeast.