Ecotourism: Yemen’s first steps toward a new industry [Archives:2007/1056/Health]

June 4 2007
Dragons blood trees, unique to Socotra.
Dragons blood trees, unique to Socotra.
Very rare species of flowers can be only found in Socotra.
Very rare species of flowers can be only found in Socotra.
Alice Firebrace
Although a relatively new trend in travel, ecotourism is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry – the world's largest service industry – with an average annual growth rate of 20 to 30 percent.

Ecotourism started to gather momentum in the 1980s with the rise in 'green' consumerism and the realization by a significant sector of the population that the world is a fragile and vulnerable place.

As far as tourism goes, if we overexploit natural areas attractive to tourists, we could find that we've exhausted the very thing people come to see in the first place. Additionally, abusing any product of the natural environment, for example fish stocks, could have a serious impact on other economic sectors, such as food production.

As renowned writer James Lovelock said, “We should remember that we are a part of the earth and it is indeed our home,” and our tourism practices need to bear this in mind. Ecotourism involves travel to destinations where the flora, fauna and cultural heritage are the primary attractions. Responsible ecotourism involves programs that minimize traditional tourism's adverse effects on the natural environment while enhancing the cultural integrity of locals.

The Ministry of Water and Environment's Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to establish conservation areas in Yemen. Selected areas have been or soon will be placed under “zone management,” which splits areas into zones for particular uses, so some are for general human use, whereas some ecologically important areas are given special protection.

Such a zone management plan was implemented across the whole of Socotra, an ecologically unique island off the south coast of Yemen. There, in the main towns such as Hadibo, restrictions are light because it is designated a “General Use Zone.”

Other areas have other designations with stricter regulations in place to protect the environment accordingly. These comprise a spectrum including “Resource Use Zones” and “Nature Sanctuaries.” The latter are especially important on Socotra, where a third of its plant species are unique to the island.

Looking after areas of significant size, not just specific parcels, is of more help to the goal of species conservation due to the interconnected nature of ecosystems. In this way, the benefit will be much wider, including for example, economically profitable resources such as fish stocks.

There are now eight areas in Yemen where designated zone management has been put in place. Besides Socotra and its well-respected Socotra Conservation Program, conservation schemes have been declared (or are under preparation) for:

– The wetlands near Aden, which have a range of spectacular biodiversity, especially birdlife.

– Kamaran Island in the Red Sea, where the small, multi-colored tropical fish that have become popular in household fish tanks worldwide now are protected.

– Hawf, an area of 'fog forest' in eastern Yemen's Al-Mahrah governorate, where one might see large wild animals from the cat family that have wandered across the border from Oman where they were newly re-introduced.

– Jabal Bura'a and Otma, renowned for their flora and fauna and dramatic scenery.

– The Bir Ali coastline, which includes a saltwater volcanic crater fringed with mangroves amid the contrasting black and white mountains

– Sharma and Jethmoun beaches with their important populations of nesting sea turtles

One idea behind such conservation zones is to introduce ecotourism in these areas. The aim is to provide an economic input that doesn't degrade the environment, that can replace any destructive economic activity and that avoids the negative aspects of general tourism.

For example, many of the pristine sands of the Greek islands have been taken over by resorts in order to accommodate those tourists who are content with a stretch of sunny beach for their vacation. However, though the move to develop many of Greece's beaches has reeled in millions of dollars, it has come at a tough price to wildlife and the environment.

Sea turtles used to come and nest on these beaches, but now they are fought off by landowners, who view them as competition for a more profitable trade. The turtles are distracted by the lights, they choke on the litter left by the thousands of tourists and their nesting places are replaced with sun chairs and umbrellas.

According to the May 6 issue of the New York Times, “Local authorities have found it impossible to hire night guards on some beaches because they fear attack by their neighbors if they defend nature rather than real estate interests.”

If such practices were allowed to occur on Socotra, the island as it is now simply couldn't survive. Ecotourism, such as is beginning on Socotra, seeks to build an industry that isn't centered on these nearsighted and detrimental practices. The aim is to preserve nature while also profiting from it.

For example, tourists on Socotra can go up into the Homhil Mountains where they can stay in shelters in a designated campsite so that any damage to the environment is limited to a controlled area. There, they're served food by locals, who also can organize hiking tours with camels, if desired.

Activities are mostly nature-orientated, including swimming in cool natural ponds, hiking, camel riding, snorkeling and diving in the coral reefs or visiting the botanical gardens/endemic plant nursery near Hadibo. While won't attract the “sun and sea” market, it celebrates the surroundings much more while educating visitors about the ways of these unique locations.

The Socotrans I met were rightfully proud of their homeland and displayed an infinite respect for their surroundings; for example, they knew the names and uses of local plants (including medicinal properties) and were keen to take care of their island's resources. If tourism profit is directed to locals, inhabitants will gain confidence and understanding that their island is unique and a valuable tourist asset from which many could derive a sustainable income.

Tourism can be one way to channel funds from richer nations to poorer ones. International tour operators are beginning to cash in on Socotra, leaving some to speculate that if the island opens up too much, there's the danger that the majority of financial benefit will end up with companies from the Yemeni mainland, Egypt, Europe and the United States.

Tony Milroy of the Socotra Conservation Fund says, “Socotrans know better than anyone the precious value of their island and how to protect it, but will they have time to develop their local capacity for tourism to reflect these values before the big international sharks eat the small local fish?”

In those areas where caring for the environment isn't so strong, ecotourism provides incentives for increased preservation and encourages individual conservation efforts. In order to establish an ecotourism base, facilities must be installed; for example, huts that don't intrude on the surroundings, toilets and discreet parking places.

Many countries, such as those in South America, have gone a few steps further to ensure that such settlements do as little damage to the wider environment as possible by installing solar panels and using only green products and locally sourced foods.

To observe wildlife, telescopes can be installed, as well as bird watching towers. Experts on the specific environment also can be hired so that the necessary expertise is present. However, it's equally important to train locals, as these are who should get the bulk of jobs so that much of the revenue goes straight back into the local economy.

As with conventional tourism, there are other impacts associated with visitors coming into an area. For example, there's usually an increase in infrastructure, which can benefit other industries like transport (airlines and buses) and local agriculture (assuming the food is grown in country), thus spreading the wealth to other sectors.

Additionally, locals can rent out their boats and sell handicrafts for further income. Building roads enables greater mobility for tourists wanting to pack as much as they can into their vacation, but it also makes transport easier for locals.

But not all tourism impacts are positive, by any means. Separating tourists from meaningful contact with locals generally results in less mutual understanding, which can cause problems. Also, if badly designed, settlements can be a source of light pollution, litter and traffic congestion.

Additionally, tourist travel to and from distant areas usually is via airplane; however, a 10,000-kilometer journey consumes approximately 700 liters of fuel per person. This leads to depletion of natural resources and global warming, thereby indirectly affecting the very environment the community is trying to protect and display. In some popular areas, there's huge visitor overload, which must be curtailed if environmental damage is to be avoided.

Economically, tourism of all types causes a location to be reliant upon the international market, not only for customers, but often for money to start up such schemes. Lastly, tourists easily may be scared away from a country by even the smallest safety issues or political hiccups, thereby affecting the stability of local incomes.

Yemen is a country with huge and exciting potential for an ecotourism industry to allow both international visitors and Yemenis themselves to explore this beautiful country and its rich heritage; however, developing this emerging industry must be managed with great sensitivity and learning from the mistakes made elsewhere.