How Vacations Can Fuel Sustainable Economic Activities

A professor’s journey to the remote Skeleton Coast of Namibia highlights how ecotourism can be a powerful force for economic good.

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About a decade ago, I had a perspective-changing conversation with a young mechanic in northwest Namibia.

Born into the local Himba tribe of semi-nomadic herdsmen, he lived in a region known as the Skeleton Coast because of the area’s history of whaling and shipwrecks. At low tide, I could see the hulls of rusting ships littering the shore. There were no roads, schools, or medical facilities — not even antibiotics or painkillers.

To get there, my wife and I had flown in a twin-prop Cessna over several hundred miles of desert to a village not far from the Angolan border. The pilot buzzed over the dirt runway to chase away cattle, then circled back to land. Children wore mud as sunscreen. Our trip was organized through the South African operator Wilderness Safaris, which had hired and trained a number of the local tribespeople, including that young mechanic.

Tall and lean, he had clearly undergone a striking transformation, from being raised in a nomadic lifestyle to now servicing the camp’s fleet of Toyota Land Cruisers. Trained as a mechanic, he made a good living and had a skill that he could take anywhere in the country. Here was tourism providing jobs and training, and, perhaps more importantly, anchoring the community and providing a route for ambitious members to move ahead economically without joining the migration to the cities that is the bane of so many poor countries.

Summer is here, and with it vacation travel — which can be a powerful force for economic good, if done thoughtfully. As I argued in an earlier book, Nature and the Marketplace: Capturing the Value of Ecosystem Services, environments like the one I found in Namibia can be inherently profitable for sustainable economic activities such as ecotourism, which can improve the lives of the very poor and conserve highly endangered animals and habitats.

There are expanses of Africa and South America with stunning animals and landscapes that act as magnets for visitors from all over the world. Mostly these are in remote and underdeveloped regions, because economic development destroys the works of nature. Safari companies set up camps in these remote areas.

They charge a lot — $300 to $700 a night, per person, is the typical range, with some charging even more. A lot of this goes into the costs of transportation, both for the visitors and for their required supplies and equipment. But a significant amount is left over for the local community, which supplies the labor and, in an increasing number of cases, grows foodstuffs for the camps. This provides employment for people who previously lived via subsistence agriculture, which puts them among the poorest of the poor.

It doesn’t just give them employment: it can also give them access to medical treatment, education, and an opportunity to engage with the modern world on favorable terms. Otherwise their only chance of moving into the 21st century would be to migrate to a big city. With no training and no familiarity with the modern world, migrants easily fall victim to exploitative employers and end up in miserable living conditions in the huge urban slums that are such a depressing feature of third-world cities.  

The positive impacts go far beyond this. Tourists don’t go to these remote areas to help the locals: they go there to see rare and beautiful animals and landscapes. Because wild animals attract paying tourists, they hold economic value. Lions, which might once have been shot or poisoned as a threat to humans or cattle, are now protected as a draw for tourists — who are much more valuable than cattle! Elephant herds, which can be destructive for crops, are now tolerated because they, too, attract tourism revenue that greatly exceeds the cost of the damages. So the elephants pay for themselves.

The result is a fundamental change in the economic incentives in these remote areas: local people now have employment opportunities thanks to the animals, so they regard the local animals not as enemies or destructive pests but as assets that draw in valuable tourists as partners in their new business model.

Of course, matters don’t always work out so well. Critical to the success of this story is that the local people are included in the economic enterprise. Outside of southern Africa, tourist revenues are often monopolized by the government and a few large travel chains; local involvement is marginal at best. In those regions, you see the traditional hostility between humans and animals, where animals are still viewed as pests rather than assets.

We also have to subtract the costs imposed on the global environment by air travel, which accounts for 12 percent of all transport-related emissions in the United States. This contributes to climate change, which threatens the habitats of the very species the tourists are traveling to see. There is also an immediate health impact from thousands of aircraft pumping hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere. A recent study by Wolfram Schlenker and W. Reed Walker of Columbia University demonstrated that periods of high congestion at US airports led to a rapid increase in hospitalization for asthma, heart conditions, and other respiratory illnesses in the neighboring communities.

We need to mitigate that negative side of vacation travel. I purchase carbon offsets when I fly, and we can pressure airlines to become more energy efficient. We have to, because more people like that young mechanic on the Skeleton Coast are counting on our investment.

About the researcher

Geoffrey Heal

Geoffrey Heal, Donald C. Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, is noted for contributions to economic theory and resource and...

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