One afternoon in 1978 I found myself standing on the roof of a Land Rover in Kenya, watching the Samburu National Reserve—an arid stretch of the northern frontier roamed by rare wildlife and camera-wielding tourists—go up in flames. This was the heyday of mass safari resorts, and while large operators raked in millions, the Samburu people, the ones the park was named after, weren't benefiting. Frustrated by this injustice, they'd rather imprudently torched the savanna. As gerenuks, impalas, and giraffes bounded to safer ground, I helped the park warden and his rangers, many of them in sandals, beat the fire back.
How could a booming safari industry let its rangers go bootless and leave its local people disenfranchised? In the ensuing years, I met others—David Western in Kenya, Stanley Selengut in the Caribbean, Pradeep Sanghala in India—who shared a belief that tourism, if done right, could make places better for humans and nature. While nature travel boomed in the '80s, the tenets of ecotourism were slow to take root. In 1991, when a dozen scientists, conservationists, and tour operators from around the world gathered in a farmhouse outside Washington, D.C., for the inaugural meeting of The International Ecotourism Society, the first task was to define what, exactly, ecotourism was. We decided on this: "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." None of us, however, knew of a real working model of it anywhere.
Thirty years after setting a game park on fire, the Samburu operate community-owned wildlife reserves and lodges in the northern frontier and practice a form of tourism that promotes social and economic cooperation. Kenya, rocked by the postelection turmoil of the past few months, will need time to repair its reputation as the world's great safari destination, but it was ecotourism's early staging ground, and that approach—improving lives and preserving wildlife—can help the country find its way forward.
Since then ecotourism has gone mainstream, and we can point to thriving international successes: Brazil's wetlands, the barrier reef off Belize, the Arabian Desert, even Northern Ireland. Responsible travelers and enlightened practices are transforming the $5 trillion global travel and tourism industry into an opportunity to empower people and protect the planet in the process.
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