Ecotourism Potential in Pakistan’s Northern Areas


I have been asked to speak on the Ecotourism Potential in Pakistan’s Northern Areas. In 1995, Kimberley O’Neil and I prepared a report for IUCN on this topic (Mock and O’Neil 1996). I would like to clarify some of the conceptual issues regarding ecotourism, present an update of key topics from that report, and suggest a way forward for sustainable tourism development in the Northern Areas. In so doing I will draw upon current work linking tourism, the environment, and sustainability within a framework of community-based development.   

The tourism potential in the Northern Areas is no secret. The beautiful landscape and the unique cultural heritage give the Northern Areas a competitive advantage in attracting tourists. So our question is not how to identify the tourism potential, but rather to consider how tourism can help conserve this unique natural and cultural heritage while also contributing to desired improvements in the quality of life in the Northern Areas. These are the general goals, as I see them, of ecotourism. In order to understand how ecotourism might help to achieve this potential, we need to understand just what is ecotourism. This convention is about sustainable tourism, so we must also understand what we mean by sustainable tourism, and what are the similarities and differences between sustainable tourism and ecotourism.

Sustainable Tourism
IUCN defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that is developed and managed in such a way that all tourism activity – which in some way focuses on cultural or natural heritage resources – can continue to grow” (Ceballos-Lascuráin 1996). The author of the IUCN document recognizes that sustainable tourism refers to all types of tourism that contribute to sustainable development. So we must also ask, what is sustainable development? The 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development provides the answer that it is economic growth that is socially and environmentally sustainable, based on policies that both sustain and expand the environmental resource base.

The resource base for both sustainable development and sustainable tourism, then, is the social and natural environment, and the goal of both tourism and development is to sustain and expand this resource base. In other words, tourism and development can go hand in hand, and the goal is sustainability. If we are to develop the potential for tourism in the Northern Areas, then we must do so in ways that sustain the mountain landscape and the cultural heritage. Because the natural and cultural heritage constitute the resource base for tourism, tourism has a vested interest in conserving and strengthening the natural and cultural environment.

Here I would like to introduce some questions about sustainability for this convention. What are the spatial and temporal dimensions of sustainability? That is, are we concerned with sustainability on a global level, a national level, a regional level, or a local level? Are we concerned with sustainability over one season, five years, or for the next generation?

Our 1996 IUCN report recommended that in order to sustain the natural and cultural heritage of the Northern Areas, tourism should take the form of what is known as ecotourism. Ecotourism, however, is a popular, but not well-understood buzzword: everyone knows it is desirable, but it means different things to different people. I would like to take a moment, then, to review this key word ‘ecotourism’.

Ecotourism is a relatively new term, first used in the early 1980s by Hector Ceballos- Lascuráin, who is Special Advisor on Ecotourism to IUCN and the Director of Programme of the International Consultancy on Ecotourism. He defines ecotourism as “environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features) that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations” (Ceballos-Lascuráin 1996). The Ecotourism Society similarly defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.”

Ecotourism requires a commitment to conservation on the part of all stakeholders in tourism. That is, it requires a partnership between tour operators, relevant government agencies, NGOs, protected area managers, local communities and tourists for the conservation of natural and cultural resources. Ecotourism involves travel with the intent of learning about the interrelationship between living beings and the environment.

This points out a key difference between ecotourism and other forms of tourism, such as ‘adventure tourism’. Ecotourism involves learning about the environment, whereas ‘adventure tourism’ focuses on the personal accomplishment of successfully meeting the challenge of the natural environment. This is an important clarification for the Northern Areas, where ‘adventure tourism’ is widely marketed by both domestic and overseas tour operators. Focusing as it does more on personal accomplishment than on environmental conservation, adventure tourism is less likely to be a form of sustainable tourism. I have seen many examples of the negative impact on the natural and cultural environment from adventure tourism: trekkers changing their clothes in public while camping next to a village; trash left lying in meadows along glaciers; toilet paper and human waste not properly buried at campsites; arguments between trekkers and local people over porter wages; trekkers breaking into shepherds huts in summer pastures because they did not bring adequate food, clothing or shelter for their own use.

We must ask ourselves how tourism can play a positive role in the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the Northern Areas. This is the key question for tourism development and sustainability in the Northen Areas. In the Northern Areas where economic opportunity is limited and people yearn for jobs and income, many have chosen income and employment first. But emphasizing immediate, short-term economic gain over longer term conservation of resources cannot be sustainable. Ecotourism must become more than a clever- sounding word used for promotion and marketing. The ‘eco’ in ‘ecotourism’ does not stand for ‘economics’, but for ecology, which is the study of the interrelationship between living beings and the environment. Although both words, economics and ecology, derive from the Greek word ‘oikos’, meaning ‘house’, they represent different approaches to tourism development and sustainability.

Limits of Acceptable Change
This brings me to a fundamental point for this convention. We are here to discuss sustainable tourism development, but it is now becoming clear that development and sustainability are separate processes that are often in conflict with each other. Development and growth typically lead to a loss of resources (Burr 1995). Tourism and recreation inevitably introduce change into the natural and the cultural environment. Indeed, development means change. And although we all want change for the better, the economic benefit derived from tourism draws upon the natural and cultural resources, impacting them in ways that leave them impaired (McCool 1995).

Instead of asking the question, “How can we develop tourism in the Northern Areas?”, we should ask, “In what ways will tourism contribute to our goals for the Northern Areas?”. This question leads us to consider more fundamental values and refocuses our thinking on the conditions we want to see in the future. This question allows us to see tourism as a part of the overall development of the Northern Areas, and to better understand the role of tourism in protecting the natural and cultural heritage that we want our children and grandchildren to live in and experience.

One suggestion for dealing with the impacts of tourism has been a call for establishing a tourism carrying capacity for different regions within the Northern Areas. Carrying capacity is fundamentally a quantitative term, arrived at through asking, “How many is too many?” But the problems associated with increasing tourism are not so much a function of numbers, as of behavior. Instead of trying to determine some ‘magic number’, that itself varies according to climate, type of use, and perceptions of use by different stakeholders, we should ask, “What are the acceptable/appropriate conditions for the Northern Areas?” The answers to this question will enable better conservation of natural and cultural resources.

Change is inevitable with development. Tourism development requires human use of the natural and cultural environment, inevitably resulting in change in the environment. One approach to the management of sustainable tourism that has found significant success in the United States is to ask, “What are the acceptable limits of change within specific areas of tourism impact?” This approach, known as the Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) Planning System (Stankey and others 1985), offers a way to identify desired conditions and a means to attain them. Focusing on the desired goals (that is, the social, economic and environmental conditions) for each area, be it a village, a valley, a conservation area or a national park, helps to define what it is to that is to be sustained (McCool 1993).

The LAC process recognizes the complexity of planning for both sustainability and development, and is a community-based approach that fits well with established practices in the Northern Areas. Indeed, it is a form of what Shoaib Sultan Sahib at this convention has called Social Mobilization. such as the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) approach. In the words of one of the principal developers of the LAC approach:

Intimate public involvement in the planning process is the only approach that will bring conflicting groups together in an arena of negotiation and compromise, resulting in plans built upon consensus and characterized by client ownership (McCool 1993).
The result of this LAC process is a planning system that addresses problems and compels explicitness in decision-making, essential requirements for managing sustainable tourism development.

The LAC process is well-documented, and is particularly useful where there are conflicts of interest between various stakeholders where a need for compromise exists. This, I think, would be very useful in the Northern Areas. With the goals of conserving the natural and cultural heritage of the Northern Areas and enhancing the economic and social conditions of life for the people of the Northern Areas, an ecotourism orientation developed within a LAC framework offers a systematic process for exploring how to achieve the goal of sustainable tourism.

by John Mock, Ph.D.
Member, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas; IUCN is The World Conservation Union
Paper presented at the Convention on Sustainable Tourism in Pakistan’s Northern Areas
held at Gilgit and Hunza, June 12-14, 1999