Ecotourism good for Earth, and for biz
By Jonathan Schechter, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
August 22, 2012
Shockingly, crushingly, I was not invited to this past weekend’s Timberlake-Biel nuptials.
Looking to make lemonade out of these bitter, bitter lemons, I started reflecting on all the private jets I saw parked at the airport, as well as the rumored five semitrailers of flowers hauled in for the occasion. During my ruminations, it hit me that this display of connubial excess might provide a nice segue into my planned two-part discussion of ecotourism, a concept not usually associated with private jets and semitrailers full of flowers.
Leading with the punch line, four things are clear to me.
First, ecotourism is tourism’s future.
Second, Jackson Hole has the potential to become the world’s acknowledged leader in ecotourism.
Third, if Jackson Hole successfully embraces that potential it will align our economy, environment and character. If that happens, it will allow not only our tourism economy to thrive for generations, but also our overall economy and, critically, the qualities which make us distinctive.
Fourth, there’s a chance — perhaps a good chance — that we’ll squander this opportunity to become the world’s acknowledged leader in ecotourism.
If we do, we’ll have blown a remarkable opportunity, a way to give ourselves a meaningful, long-term competitive advantage over every other destination resort in the world. Right now, there is no world leader in ecotourism, no place synonymous with “ecotourism” the same way that, say, Davos is with thinking about the global economy. That kind of brand identity is something no amount of marketing dollars can ever buy for us, and it’s exactly the opportunity that lies in our hands. Here’s hoping we have the vision and courage to seize it.
In today’s column, I’ll frame my thinking about this opportunity by sharing three anecdotes. In my next column, I’ll build on them to further my argument for why I feel that the quality of our long-term overall economic success is closely linked to how well we succeed in seizing the opportunity presented by the vacuum in world ecotourism leadership.
Anecdote No. 1: Four years ago, my son and I visited remote portions of Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula. Regardless of how isolated we were — no matter how deep the box canyon or obscure the wadi — our guides invariably had cellphone service. That memory never fails to strike me whenever my calls drop as I drive around Jackson Hole.
According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2011 America’s per capita gross domestic product was $48,387. This ranked us sixth among the world’s 183 nations, well ahead of Egypt ($6,540; 104th place) and Jordan ($5,900; 107th place). Yet despite our huge advantage in GDP, our cell service doesn’t match theirs. When I asked why Bedouin tribesmen might enjoy better cell service than residents of one of the wealthiest counties in America, the most credible explanation I received is that America’s second-rate cell service is an artifact of our first-rate landline service. In particular, the Bell companies’ huge investments in their landline services discouraged them from investing in a first-rate cell phone infrastructure, and encouraged them to stifle other companies’ efforts to develop one. In contrast, Jordan, Egypt and other countries with little investment in hardwired telephone service had no such disincentives, so when they had the opportunity to deploy cell service, they embraced the best-available technology.
Anecdote No. 2: Three months ago, I spent a couple of weeks in rural Namibia (2011 per capita GDP of $7,363; 99th place). During my time there, I visited a series of “eco-lodges,” hotels whose operations focus on complementing the local landscape, wildlife and human communities.
To reach the first lodge we visited, we flew in a small plane for 90 minutes, then drove for another hour over poor roads. The facility blended into the landscape so well that we couldn’t see it until we were just a couple of minutes away. More impressive, when we arrived we were met by a staff of six who, before offering us cool drinks and moist towels, greeted us with a welcome song they had written, delivered in perfect three-part harmony.
Candelabras and flutes
A few days later, we drove five or so hours to a hilltop in the middle of absolute nowhere. The vista spanned perhaps 6,000 square miles, and there was not one sign of human habitation; not even a light in the middle of the night. In fact, there wasn’t even an eco-lodge. We spent the night camping at the location of a yet-to-be-built lodge, one that would be accessed primarily by a yet-to-be-built airstrip.
But, as I discovered, it was not just any campsite. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, somehow our host had managed to set up a tented dining area featuring a long table for 30 guests, complete with linen, china and candelabras. More amazing still, a separate tent held not just a complete bar, but also iced bottles of Moet & Chandon. And in a final, brilliant touch, when I asked for a glass of Champagne, it was served in a polished flute.
Anecdote No. 3: Two months ago, I attended a wedding in Stowe, Vt. Because my flight arrived in Burlington after midnight, I spent my first night at a Comfort Suites I booked online. Defying both parts of the hotel’s name, my room was neither comfortable nor a suite. What really surprised me, though, was that on the bed of my uncomfortable not-a-suite was a laminated information sheet asking me to help save the planet by reusing my sheets and towels.
This was, of course, complete greenwashing by a hotel that obviously could not care less about the environment. Instead, the money they saved by not washing my linens would go straight to their bottom line. But when even a low-end outfit like Comfort Suites starts wrapping itself in a “go green and help save the planet” veneer, you know some kind of significant movement is afoot.
My “Comfort Suites” experience drove home a phenomenon I’ve noticed wherever I’ve traveled over the past few years, namely that the entire tourism industry is embracing some form of ecotourism. Even if those efforts are paltry and insincere, the message is that nearly every hotel, outfitter and other tourism-related business feels compelled to at least pretend to be green. And when an entire industry hits such a tipping point, the next obvious step is for someone to claim the mantle of market leader. The tourism industry has reached that tipping point; for Jackson Hole, the question is whether we choose to seize the waiting mantle.
Forget the singing staff
We may very well not, for the lesson of Egyptian cell service is that if it chooses to cling too tightly to the past, a world leader today can be left in the dust tomorrow. Just like the Baby Bells, Jackson Hole has made a huge investment in its tourism infrastructure, and that investment has treated us very well. But unlike the Baby Bells, we can’t afford to be complacent; telephone companies don’t have to compete with providers nine time zones away; tourism operators do.
Right now, beautiful destinations worldwide are doing all they can to lure the same high-end tourists who we want to have come to Jackson Hole. And because our cost structure is much higher, we’re ultimately going to find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage for these customers. In the same way that manufacturing migrated from high-cost New England to the lower-cost southern U.S. to the still lower-cost Asian countries, there’s no reason more expensive tourism operators can’t be out-competed by similarly beautiful places that cost less.
From that perspective, the question becomes: “What has Jackson Hole got that will attract people who can afford to visit any place in the world?” It’s not singing hotel staffs or eco-lodges, for there’s no place in Jackson Hole that can afford to deliver service as labor-intensive as I enjoyed in Namibia. And when I can be properly served an ice-cold glass of Champagne a dusty day’s drive from nowhere, it tells me that when it comes to tourism any place on Earth is capable of matching — if not exceeding — any service or refinement Jackson Hole might offer.
In short, in a world where even luxuries are becoming commodities (at least for those who can afford them), it means that, ultimately, Jackson Hole can successfully compete only in those areas where it truly has no competition, i.e., our landscape and wildlife. And since ecotourism is ultimately about aligning our landscape and wildlife with our economy, actively embracing ecotourism is the best long-term guarantee of our economic health, tourism and otherwise. I’ll expand on this in my next column.
Jonathan Schechter, whose column appears every other week in this spot, is the executive director of the Charture Institute, a Jackson think tank. Complete versions of his columns, including graphics, are available at charture.org. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org