Kenya's tourism industry grows 'greener'
MASAI MARA, KENYA
The lion stirs from his late-afternoon nap, stretches, and lets out a roar. A herd of zebras, munching grass in the distance, lift their heads to listen. A whine issues from the sidelines: "What about the cheetah? I want to see a cheetah!"Skip to next paragraph
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The king of the jungle shakes his mane, and - ignoring the whine, the cameras, the binoculars, and the seven white minibuses - saunters off into the bush. The tourists happily check off the "lion" box on their safari log books and head off in search of the elephants.
Just another day at the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya, where thousands of tourists come every year to get a glimpse of the "big five" - lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard.
With 700,000 visitors annually, Kenya is second only to South Africa as a tourist destination on this continent, and tourism is the second-largest contributor to Kenya's economy, after agriculture.
But years of unregulated mass-market tourism are taking a toll. Off-road minibus driving is wrecking the vegetation in national parks and game reserves, sewage is seeping into rivers, trees are being cut down for firewood, and some animals - such as the cheetah - are even changing their hunting habits to avoid tourists. And both Kenyan tour operators and discerning visitors are looking for an alternative.
Enter ecotourism: environmentally and community-oriented travel.
"The future of Kenyan tourism is green," says Judy Gona, executive director of the Ecotourism Society of Kenya (ESOK). "The trend in the world, as well as in Kenya, is to create a tourism industry which will be low impact. It will meet our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.... Those who realize this, and begin to change their thinking and actions, will reap the long-term benefits."
There is, as yet, no official definition of ecotourism. However, the United Nations - which has declared 2002 the year of ecotourism - has identified its general characteristics. Ecotourism, it says, is sustainable, nature and culture based, invests in and supports the protection of the environment, and respects and involves local communities.
There are some 80 members of ESOK, many of which either call themselves ecotourism destinations or are working to become such. The majority of these camps and lodges are small and secluded, catering to no more than 20 visitors at a time. They are built with materials found in the region, use alternative energy sources, are very careful about their waste products, and try to serve food grown and produced nearby.
Most of the destinations are situated outside big-game parks, and many discourage minibus travel, promoting walking tours instead as well as lectures by local villagers. These establishments are either run by, or in conjunction with, the local population and often support community projects.
"People don't specifically ask for ecotourism vacations," says Allan Dixson, managing director of Lets Go, one of the largest travel agencies in the country, "but when they describe what they want, they increasingly use words like 'not crowded' or 'unobtrusive.' They want to know the county in a more authentic way [and] are willing to pay for this."