Sustainable Ecotourism in Media: Inle Lake Region Case Study

Is Ecotourism as Sustainable as Advertised in the Media? — A Focus on the Case Study of Inle Lake Region

Introduction

Aims and Objectives

By focusing on the case of Inle Lake region, the primary aim of this paper is to establish whether the ecotourism practices are sustainable as advertised in mainstream media, and recommend a need for change. To be able to fulfill this aim, several objectives are considered:

  1. To understand the nature and form ecotourism practices in Inle Lake region.
  2. To establish the strengths and weaknesses of ecotourism tourism in Inle Lake region with respect to whether findings can be generalized to other tourism contexts.
  3. To find out what needs to be done to align ecotourism with sustainable development and correct the media narrative.

Research Questions

The main research question is “Are ecotourism practices sustainable as advertised in the media? To answer this question, several sub-questions are considered.

  1. What are the defining aspects of ecotourism practices in Inle Lake region?
  2. How is the media reporting these practices?
  3. In which ways can the ecotourism practices in Inle Lake region be said to be sustainable?
  4. In which ways do they fail to be sustainable to mirror the stories in the media?
  5. What are the areas of weakness in ecotourism practices, if they exist?
  6. How can the weaknesses be addressed?

Literature Review

            Although the literature on the subject is documented, it does not effectively answer the research questions. At its best, it only provides the opportunity to appraise the importance of the subject and justifies the research by helping to conceptualize and develop the key questions that need to be answered. The literature review is addressed in the following section.

Conceptualizing Ecotourism and Sustainability

Ecotourism is defined as responsible travel to natural areas which actively participate in environmental conservation, as well as the welfare of the surrounding communities (Picard 823). Therefore, ecotourism is a holistic approach to sustainable resource utilization which takes into consideration the local communities. In addition, there is an aspect of appreciating the beautiful sceneries that nature possesses ranging from trees to the animals notwithstanding the micro-organisms.

Four types of eco-tourism practices have been noted: Eco-lodging, agro tourism, community development   and eco treks (Hlaing, Haruyama  and May 18).). Eco-lodging involves accommodations that are nicely crafted to serve the purpose while the aspect of environmental awareness is addressed. The natural setting make part of the scenery and the visitors enjoy the enhanced nature-based experiences. What is so fascinating about the lodges is the location which is a pristine natural setting. A highly qualified staff with a wide range of knowledge serve in the lodges. Therefore, visitors from all backgrounds can have a taste of nature under the guidance of professional guides (Hon and Lui, 16). Tourists give a lot of cash to the accommodation services and other enjoyments. In return, the management of the Eco lodges is designed in such a way that the local economy is boosted as part of the money finds its way to the locals.

Agro tourism, is regarded as an ecotourism type that engages local farms to promote tourism. In most of the cases, the practice serves the purpose of protecting the threatened communities. In return, platforms that demonstrate high and sustainable farming practices are created by agro tourism. Community development is another type of ecotourism gaining popularity. Industrialization, deforestation, coupled with other types of modernization practices usually exert pressure on the community land. As a result, the people’s livelihoods are severely affected like the pollution from the industries which lower farm productivity. Community development ecotourism usually comes with ideas to minimize pollution and empower the locals to use resources in promoting conservation. Tree planting, local trade learning, and home building are the measures adopted by ecotourism in the community. Lastly, Eco-treks is a practice that involves conducting excursions to threatened, exotic, and other beautiful and fascinating places. There are so many things that can be done in Eco Treks: rock climbing, swimming in natural pools, and caving hiking, rafting, sailing, and bird-watching. By so doing, there is increased awareness and consciousness for protecting the environment (Hon and Lui, 20). This literature creates the allowance to question whether media stories accord importance to these four sects of ecotourism. Do reporters understand these sects, in the first place?

Sustainability

Sustainability is defined as the ability of the available resources to be harnessed without compromising its ability to continue serving the future needs (Molina-Azorín,  Tarí, Pereira-Moliner, López-Gamero and Pertusa-Ortega 15). By putting this in the concept of environmental science, sustainable tourism is the balance between socio-cultural, economic and environmental aspects. Long-term sustainability can be achieved in the event there is a stable balance in the three dimensions: environmental, social-cultural and economic sustainability (Htwe, Brinkmann and Buerkert, 2015). Environmental sustainability is defined as the acquisition of benefits from the surrounding living and non-living forms without compromising the future generations from earning similar benefits. The factors that contribute to the quality of the environment must be put into consideration. Economic sustainability refers to the ability of a practice to continue serving the economic needs such as providing revenue, without compromising the future economic productivity. Lastly, cultural sustainability refers to the ability of a practice to respect and support the local cultural practices, values and norms without harming them. This literature creates the allowance to question if the media is effectively giving consideration to these three elements of sustainability when talking about the benefits of ecotourism. If so, how effective is the reporting?

Ecotourism vs. Media-reported Sustainability Questions

A plethora of literature recognizes that question of whether ecotourism is truly sustainable as reported in the media is increasingly gaining popularity. Critics are particularly concerned that what people hear is not necessarily the truth on the ground (Serenari, Nils Tim and Paulina 78; Picard 56). Indeed, Serenari, Nils Tim and Paulina have observed that media is increasingly being used corporations to conceal their borged ecotourism practices. To him, corporations are reaping profits from tourism and hotel industry in disregard for social, economic and environmental sustainability. However, for fear of reprimand, they turn to the media to conceal their acts in the name popularized corporate social responsibility and ethics initiatives framed around the ecotourism narrative (Serenari, Nils Tim and Paulina 34). In the same vein, Picard has acknowledged that organizations are not truly supporting eco-tourism. Rather, they are engaged in public relations game, which is expected to save them from sanctions of the local communities and the government (Picard 54). From the lenses of this literature, ecotourism is just a hoax.

However, literature that continues to believe in the spirit and consciousness for ecotourism among the participating corporations, believing that the media is only doing well in reporting the positive developments, exists too. For instance, KUON notes that the momentum for organizations to be at the forefront in supporting ecotourism has peaked, especially because many stakeholders are finding more of an obligation that a discretionary engagement. The author sees that some ways in which organizations are obligated to practice ecotourism is that the practice is an avenue of self-regulations, marketing and avoiding sanctions from the local communities and the government (KUON 2). Altogether, these perspectives create an allowance to infer that the relevant literature only presents a debate, instead of providing an answer. In essence, it only justifies the need for research.

Lake Inle Tourism

Literature documents Lake Inle region as a strategic area with booming tourism business. Lake Inle is a freshwater lake located in the Nyaungshwe which is township found in Taunggyi District in Myanmar Burma. The lake occupies an area of approximately 116 square kilometers and 880 meters deep. This is lake is the second largest in Burma and it is associated with a hot spring. While most people seem to underrate the potential of this water resource due its small size, a number of benefits are derived from it (Sapay 2).

The region also prides in unique cultural practices that complement tourism. For instance, the famous ceremony “Hpaung Daw U Festival” takes place for over 18 days, allowing people flock there to experience the Buddhist lent. The lake occupied by some local inhabitants known as Intha. They have settled in numerous small villages along the shores of the lake. The Inthas dominate the population of this area, with the rest of the population consisting of Shan, Taungyo, Taungthu, Danu, Kayah, Danaw, and Bamar ethnicities. These self-sufficient farmers are devout Buddhists and live in simple wood and woven bamboo houses. The main economic activity of these people is fishing as one would expect. In particular, the lake harbors unique and endemic fresh water fauna and flora that serve as tourist attractions. They own small traditional boats while some have somewhat bigger boats with single cylinder diesel engines. The lake is immensely covered by reeds and floating vegetation which makes navigation very difficult. As a result, the locals developed a unique way of rowing through the dense vegetation. Instead of the usual rowing, while sitting, the fishermen row while standing, one leg on the stern, while the other around the oar. They got so used to the style that it became a part of their lifestyle, adding to their unique culture. The style is however only allowed for men, women row in the traditional style (Hlaing & Mary, 2018). Other interesting undertakings include the traditional boat racing, the unique fishing style, traditional silversmithing, weaving, wood carvings, and the unique cuisine that is only known to the Burma residents (Wu, Kuo, and Yang 4). Because of these several pull factors, tourism is a booming business. Several large hotels have been established in the region. The examples of these big hotels include Hu Pin Khaung Daing Village Resort Inle Lake, Shwe Inn Tha Floating Resort, Myanmar Treasure Resort and Shwe Inn Tha Floating Resort (Tussyadiah, 16)). The popularity of region follows from the way it is advertised in the global mainstream media as an area that has embraced high-level standards of ecotourism. The adverts are often made as a promotion for the big hotels and tourism in the region (Sapay 2). Certainly, Lake Inle region is one of the global international tourist attraction sites. The region commands a large number of tourists, making it a very competitive. However, relating this presentation to the ecotourism vs sustainability debate only creates the allowance to question whether such advertisements reflect the true picture on the ground.

Methodology

The study uses the qualitative technique. This study reviewed the peer-reviewed journals and other grey information to undertake a literature search in a structured manner. The available grey information included the media reports, books regarding ecotourism and magazines coupled with data files and written artifacts. Therefore, the nature of the previous projects will be understood and the previous objectives reviewed. Other sources of information will include native in-house files, hard copy papers and online repository, as well as the media reports.  The reason as to why the method was considered is the underlying advantages. First of all, the information gained from the various sources is independently verifiable. It means that each document can be reviewed without seeking assistance from another source. Another very important reasons is that it is relatively affordable compared to other research methods such as experimental studies and surveys. The information was identified through guided literature search. The search queries were guided by the pairs of the key words:

  1. Inle Lake, Ecotourism, media reports
  2. Inle Lake, Ecotourism, research reports
  3. Inle Lake, Ecotourism, strengths.
  4. Inle Lake, Ecotourism, weaknesses

Findings

            The literature identified several sources. The media reports, presented in the form of advertisements and travel journals lauded ecotourism practices in the Inle Lake region to be sustainable. The featured media showcases green pictures, dazzling Mother Nature, birds flying, growing economy, happy smiling people, and luxurious hotels (e.g. The Elegant and Sacred Lotus Robe 4). Certainly, anyone who sees these media reports will be convinced that the region is truly an evidence of a success story of ecotourism. However, a look at other pieces of information paints a different picture. The discussion is segmented into three sustainability areas (social, environmental and economic sustainability) and presented as follows.

Social Sustainability

Evidence reveals that there is a significant progress concerning the social life of the Inle lake residents. However, there still much that need to be addressed. The social concerns include population increase, the water hyacinth menace, diseases associated with the lake, and pollutions that come as a result of human activities (Ba 5). Bearing in mind that the Lake was considered a small ecosystem there were no much concerns from the stakeholders about the predicaments the Burma residents on the lake Eco region face.

Concisely, one can say sustainability basing on the pillar of socio-cultural is partially addressed. While tourists flock in the area through ought the year, the concerned stakeholders do not seem to care about the culture of the locals in a similar manner. It is only during important occasions like Thadingyut festival of lights and Hpaung Daw U Festival that much effort towards culture and social promotion are undertaken. After such events are gone, the situation on the ground goes back to normal (The Elegant and Sacred Lotus Robe 4). This is against the principles of sustainable management which advocates for harvesting of benefits and in return ensuring the future generation will also enjoy the benefits. On the contrary, resources are being harvested indiscriminately but the effects to the environment have not been addressed.

Although pollution is a concern in the region little has been done to solve the puzzle of noise, chemical pollutants, and land degradation. The social life of the inhabitants of Inle Lake is not safe at all. However, the hotels, travel tours, and accommodation accommodations are reaping big from the tourism industry. Most accommodation centers also positively publicize ecotourism while in real sense they are only focused on winning the clients heart. Cases of green-washing are common all in the name of sustainable travel but in reality, it is economic benefits that is the focal point. These undertakings usually talk good about ecotourism. Accommodation companies and hotels, therefore, lead in sending a wrong perception about ecotourism (Jani and Han, 25). The ill behavior has also found its way in the marketing and advertising sectors. However, in actual sense, not much is done in line with what is advertised. Due to such happenings, there is a perception that ecotourism is a good and thriving venture. Nonetheless, experts warn that if the situation will be left under the control of economically oriented people without incorporating real biologists, then the sector would soon become a white elephant project.

Furthermore, so many aspects which have little impact on the ecotourism sector have been dragged into the sector. This includes political, financial as well as corruption which derails to a bigger extent the efforts of genuine conservationists (Serenari et al. 2). It is saddening to learn that people with little or no experience at all pick up the mantle of propelling the name of this largely misconstrued industry. This is why only the positive side of the ecotourism sector is brought up whereas the dark side of the industry is so uncommon among a huge population of people. In reality, ecotourism is facing so many challenges that might even bring the sector down at any time. Nonetheless, what is portrayed is that ecotourism is doing absolutely well.

Economic sustainability

Similarly, economic sustainability status can be equated to the concerns addressed in the socio-cultural section above. Considering the atrocities bedeviling ecotourism Inle Lake residents, the question that lingers in my mind is whether ecotourism is sustainable or not. There is ample evidence to conclude that bad actors are slowly ruining the ecological sensitive places. In the near future, there will be an acute shortage of such places like Lake Inle owing to the fact that human beings are enemies of their own. According to Diamantis (203), it is postulated that areas with this very tourism will soon become nonexistent past another generation or two Inle Lake among the threatened ecosystem. Ecotourism itself is a good concept which states that people should engage in responsible travel to natural areas and also be economically responsible. Ironically, ecotourism activities are failing to preserve pre-existing habitats and less is left to the locals in terms of the monetary value (Roy, Sidle, Ziegler and  Vogler 3). This is despite the fact that a lot of dollars are being siphoned from socially responsible tourists. Therefore, this mismanagement could be otherwise seen to be impeding economic progress in the region, denying the local government and the people to determine their economic growth.

Still, on the same point, many of the operators indulge in destruction of the same habitats in which they obtain their daily earnings. It is even worse that the organizations participating in the destruction activities are fully aware of their mandates regarding sustainable management. In fact, it is clear that for any organization to engage in ecotourism they must have acquired the relevant certifications. A total of 60 certification schemes exists for ecotourism sector which indicates the desperate situation of eco-management. There is this concept of sustainable tourism and ecotourism (Jani and Han 15). However, these two phrases are totally different as it has been discovered recently. What most people and tourism businesses are actively practicing is sustainable tourism. Nonetheless, nothing is being done towards ecotourism. Besides, on paper the ecotourism concept is perfect but in practice, nothing seems to be bearing fruit.                           Under real circumstances, sustainable ecotourism means practicing ecotourism while ensuring economic, ecological and cultural protection. The Inle people still languish in poverty while investors benefit a lot. There are several opportunities for people to invest like the unique cuisine, the crafting, and games only known to be harbored by Inle Lake locals. Surprisingly, the investors in the region do not seem to be concerned of how they can partner and strike a good deal where these economic activities promote the economic segment of the locals. As has already been seen, the giant investors acquire huge benefits leaving the locals with meager earnings. Only few organizations have promoted a form of sustainable economy policies. There is a significant level of local trade enhancement in the local products such basketry and fish selling. Nonetheless, these efforts are not sufficient enough to earn an economic sustainable Lake Inle ecosystem (Leonidou, Leonidou, Fotiadis and Aykol, 20). The rate at which resources are being harvested is not equal to the conservation efforts. The money input regarding economic development is still below the threshold.

Environmental sustainability

With growing ecotourism activities there can be detrimental environmental impacts. Mass tourism is evidently causing much harm to the environment. Even though the segment was brought with a view of creating a cleaner and safer environment, there are negative consequences which come as a result. The first major concern is that ecotourism is emerging as a marketing strategy rather than an environmental conservation and society beneficiary act. It is widely acknowledged that as at now, more virgin lands are being converted into tourist attraction destinations around Lake Inle (Wu,  Kuo, and Yang, 23). The local farmers are on the receiving end because of the diminishing farming lands. In addition, there are adverse weather effects being witnessed globally and this is due to the destruction of natural habitats. No single program regarding agro tourism has been undertaken in the Inle Lake region. Therefore, the farmlands and other resources like fishing grounds will soon be depleted (Kenway et al. 114).                                   To expand on the above point, cases of wrangles over land and other vital resources have been witnessed. Furthermore, huge tracks of lands are now being privatized where many individuals are left homeless. Nonetheless, communities gain nothing from the conversion of the communal land to game reserves and tourist centers. As a result, cases of poverty emerge while also diseases and hunger strike. Also, the expanding businesses come with effects such environmental pollution. The Lake now faces algal bloom, water hyacinth menace, and water pollution resulting from the industries that are come up. Ecotourism has led to modernization where vehicles pollute the air and industrial effluents from fish processing industries are released into the lake (Jani and Han, 2015). Another environmental concern that has been overlooked is overfishing and the manual boats used that destroy the organisms in the Lake.

Overall, commendable work goes on the Lake Inle ecosystem concerning ecotourism and sustainable development. However, there exist shortcomings which if addressed amicably, definitely sustainability will be ultimately come to be realized. The most challenging situation involves the bad actors who hide behind ecotourism yet their goal is to benefit economically and give nothing to the society (Leonidou, Leonidou, Fotiadis and Aykol 20). Other weaknesses come in from the loopholes in the laws where bad actors can easily dupe the concerned stakeholders.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In conclusion, ecotourism is a concept that is increasingly gaining popularity. The trend follows from concerns that conventional tourism was not being properly undertaken. This problem was particularly due to the failure to assure sustainable development; especially because stakeholders were only concerned about making money. Ecotourism is an aspect of conservation concerned with natural habitats. The practice comes with benefits to the community where ecological, economic, and cultural aspects are usually intertwined. Relatively undisturbed and pristine ecological regions form the basis for ecotourism. The hotel industry in the Inle Lake region can be seen to be progressive in pursuing sustainability goals. The research has established an evidence of focus towards different aspects of sustainability, which include social sustainability, environmental sustainability, security and infrastructural development, and traditions culture and globalization. However, ecotourism should not be confused to be meeting the needs of sustainable developments.

Research has revealed that media is falsely representing the truth about the gains of ecotourism. The media is essentially lying to the public to conceal the activities of the largely corporations and hotels operating in Lake Inle, which continue to abuse the social, environmental and economic resources for the selfish gains. Corporations are reaping profits from tourism and hotel industry in disregard for social, economic and environmental sustainability. However, for fear of reprimand, they turn to the media to conceal their acts in the name popularized corporate social responsibility and ethics initiatives framed around the ecotourism narrative. Organizations are not truly supporting eco-tourism. Rather, they are engaged in public relations game, which is expected to save them from sanctions of the local communities and the government.

In light of these weaknesses, several recommendations can be made. Firstly, there is a need for the practice to exercise checks on media practices to ensure that they accede to the desired code of ethics of truth and justice in reporting about ecotourism and derivative sustainability benefits. The media may also particularly need to seek training to understand how they should report the matter of ecotourism and sustainable development.

It is also recommended that some adjustments need to be done for a better and sustainable management of Inle Lake. The first recommendations goes to the policy makers. There should be an overhaul re-evaluation of the policies that manage the lake ecosystem to address the loopholes that exist. By so doing, bad actors will be prevented from capitalizing on the good deeds. The second recommendation regards business sectors that revolve around ecotourism and sustainable management segment. The management of these organizations should be strict in adhering to the signed consents and also be faithful by upholding the goals of ecotourism and sustainable management. The third recommendation is that the local community around the lake should be empowered with information on importance of ecotourism and sustainable development. Similarly, they should be given a preference in managing the economic industry revolving in the place. It is also suggested that Eco Trek concept be strongly pursued for the tourism organization to come in and rescue the Lake from dwindling.      

            Finally, it must be acknowledged that implementing these changes is not an event, but a process. The process requires careful thinking and weighing between the needs and interests of the communities and the economy, the demands of the environment, and balancing them against the needs of the stakeholders so that one does not hurt the other. Therefore, the role of leadership and integrated management approaches are particularly critical.

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