A Game Theoretic Look at Ecotourism

Ecotourism seems like a very fine idea: People from the rich parts of the world come to a poor part of the world, and spend money for looking at, and photographing the wonders of nature there. In return the people in the poor part of the world don’t destroy the environment. They don’t need to cut down the rain forest anymore, they don’t have to over-fish their waters to make a living, and they don’t have to let foreign companies dig up the ground below their feet for minerals. Because now – trumpets sounding! – the tourists who marvel at all of those natural wonders pay for their livelyhoods.

A good idea. It should work for the preservation of coral reefs, jungles, desert canyons, and mountain peaks. While it works best in poor countries, where people really need the money, but even in my home country Austria, a pretty affluent place, tourism has co-motivated the protection of some protection-worthy areas, like the salt marshes around lake Neusiedel. Even when people are rich, they always want to get richer, and it’s better that they get richer via a healthy environment.

In some cases, ecotourism works really well. Where I live, on the Philippine island of Negros, the reefs of Apo island have been protected since the 70s, and support ample diving tourism. Apo has healthy reefs with high coral coverage, and with big fish. Siliman University in nearby Dumaguete is crucially involved in the protection, which is done with tight involvement of the locals.

In other regions, there are significant short-comings when it comes to the ecotourism model, or it does not work at all. In some places, diving tourists come in masses, but the locals still over-fish or even dynamite fish. In other places, jungle river tours lead through a narrow corridor of actual jungle, surrounded by huge areas of palm plantations – the presence of the tourists has done little to promote real conservation. Why does ecotourism work, why doesn’t it in other cases? Let me share my thoughts, partially colored by my experience in scuba diving tourism:

Let’s look at game theory to understand the interactions in ecotourism. Game theory strips a situation between two or more parties down to its bare essentials. Think of two completely cold-blooded business men, trading a nameless cargo. It does not matter what they are doing business in, what their names are, if they are in an office or on a marketplace; It is irrelevant if one businessman secretly finds the other one cute, or hates his nose. All that matters in game theory is what steps each party has to take to optimize its return from the present situation. There are no emotions or sentimentalities involved, it’s just about rational optimizing of one’s own gain. An analysis of a situation in such terms is often surprisingly insightful. It was very fashionable in economics for a while. I think no one has analyzed ecotourism from this point of view; I hope my thoughts here contribute something novel, or summarize the situation in a salient way.

Btw, this is a pretty cool book I read about game theory and cooperation a long time ago:

The results from a lot of game-theory research are that you can build trust by repeated interaction, by sustaining long term relationships between parties. Again, we are not taking about the emotion of trust, or friendship or anything like that. We are just concerned with the question: how would a completely rational person act to gain the best outcome for himself? Imagine a version of Mr. Spock who loves money. What would he do? Well, if there is the chance that greedy Spock will have the chance to do business with you again, to his benefit, then he won’t cheat you now, because he wants you to come back. There will be information for both of you to base future encounters on. So, lesson one for ecotourism: Long-term, repeat interactions count, and build trust on which the trade off conservation versus livelyhood gained from conservation could rely on. And note: Everyone is in it for the long term, other than the tourists.

Generally, the role of information in game-theory decision making can’t be overstated. Only if Mr. greedy Spock knows how to assess the odds of a business deal, can he make an informed decision. With a lack of previous experience or other feedback about the business practices of the person across the table, he can’t rationally optimize his decision in his dealings.

Hence lesson two for ecotourism: It can only work, if the flow of information from the state of the environment to the tourists really flows. If our environment-saving tourists don’t know what the state of the environment is, they will not be able to make decisions which reward environmentally friendly behavior of the locals.

So, with this insight in mind, let’s look at the diagram above again … it’s incomplete. Rather, let’s add what we have learned. Information flows. And, the tourists usually don’t directly stay with some nice old couple in a local village. A tourism operator sits in-between, who advertises his services to tourists, provides his services to them, and in turn employs locals. Sometimes an environmental fee/national park entry/ect is paid by the tourists to a park administration/marine police/..

Ideally, community projects are financed by these fees, and they profit the locals. Ideally, the locals also find quality employment in tourism, which provides them both with income as well as with a sense of purpose. Never underestimate the psychological effects of meaningful employment or the absence thereof! Locals who feel appreciated by the tourists and their tourism operator employers will be much more keen to preserve the nature the tourists come to witness.

And now we can gain a better understanding why ecotourism sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t work: Sometimes the cycle is broken, typically in two spots: One lack of income/recognition gained by the locals, and the other is a lack of information for tourists.

Some dive operators I have seen in the Philippines run a dive shop because they hope for a quick buck in a country with cheap labor. This is really sad, and usually results in no one being happy. I have seen such people verbally abuse their underpaid local staff and cheat when paying marine park fees. I have seen dive shop owners nonchalantly pay for the wear and tear of their rental scuba gear from the money in the tip box, meant for their local employees. In some cases, the benefits of tourists visiting a place don’t make it to the locals all that much! The issue here is how much the tourism operators are rooted in the local community: Are they locals themselves, married to locals & loving the country, or just in it for the money for a few years (not in in for the long term)? Is the tourism operator a small business, locally based, or is it a branch of a large international chain? All kinds of options exist here, and they make a difference in how much money and recognition from tourism touches the local community.

Breaking point two of the ecotourism circle of hope is the lack of proper information supplied to the tourists. If the tourists come anyway, even if the reef/rain-forest/… are badly damaged, then the locals don’t have to provide a healthy environment. They will usually figure that out very quickly. Don’t confuse a lack of education (that happens in poor countries in the countryside) with a lack of smarts and wits. The information reaching the tourists is incomplete, and that’s why the ecotourism model sometimes does not work.

Most tourists are not ecologists, and of course I don’t blame them for that. If you have never been on a coral reef before you will be happy to just see “Nemo”, and not notice that the coral cover might be damaged and that the fish populations are severely over-fished. Heck, I hold a doctorate in biology, and would not be able to judge the health of an African rain forest (I am not much of a terrestrial/botany guy, and have never been to sub-Saharan Africa). One big tree would look like the next one to me in the Congo! Expecting a tourist, who might not plan a second trip to the ecotourism destination anyway, to judge the health of the environment he is visiting might not be realistic.

We all want to see reef sharks on healthy reefs.

I remember observing a dive boat crew member in the Philippines fishing off the dive boat, in a marine sanctuary. “How moronic!” I thought at first, “he is destroying the natural resource which provides him employment!”. On a second thought, I realized that the man had found a situation where he can have the cake, and eat it too. Tourists will always come and dive with his employer, since they can’t tell that big fish-eating fish are mostly lacking on the reefs they dive on (thanks to fishermen like him). And he can also get tasty fish out of the very same piece of ocean his guests are diving in. He can sell the proceeds of the ocean ecosystem twice, first he can sell the fish he caught to his neighbor, then he can sell the -reduced- ecosystem to the tourists who can’t tell what’s going on.

What can be done? How can we close the ecotourism loop again? Ethical behavior on the local, and on the tour operator level helps! Sometime, simply good & ethical people run a dive shop, tracking company or a safari lodge. If you have any personal connections to the area, ask around who that would be.

In my opinion, what needs to be done is an injection of solid information at the tourist level. Being an informed customer helps! When you are looking for a diving destination, don’t look for slogans like “beach paradise” or “dream diving destination” (and don’t just look for the cheapest rates!!!). Instead search for concrete descriptions of environmental and social projects undertaken on site, as a positive side effect of tourism. Do the dive shops hold a beach clean up? Sponsor a village health center? Outfit environmental patrols? The average European might not be able to tell an ancient from a freshly reforested piece of African jungle, but he or she can certainly, when looking for the aforementioned activities, find out if the tourism benefits the region sustainably! On sites like tripadvisor a lot of information on the web is available about individual restaurants/dive shops/tour operators. You can figure out if the dive guides find cool sea slugs or if the dive shop manager bumps customers off booked trips for no good reason – that’s valuable information, but that’s not what I am talking about. Large-scale reviews about the eco-tourism value of whole regions are what’s necessary. How do the reefs of northern Palawan look? How much is left of the jungles of Borneo? This information exists, but often not in an easily digestible format for travelers.

Environmental NGOs could play a significant role, too. A clear-worded, frank description of the state of the environment in a region, and a description of what is being attempted will help many of the aforementioned informed customers in their decision making. The point is not if all is completely jolly and pristine – very few places on the planet still are! But, have destructive practices being stopped? Are conservation projects underway? Are eco-tourism fees used to create livelyhoods for locals? Or do they go into the vacation-fund of a local politician? Do marine-protected areas exist in reality or on paper? An NGO with the balls to be frank about such issues could fix the information deficit in our game-theoretic ecotourism circle. Not a job which will always win new friends, but a worthwhile mission nevertheless!