Protected areas and ecotourism: Charting a path toward social-ecological wellbeing
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Protected areas (PAs) are changing rapidly in size and scope with the influx of development activities intended to benefit people living within and near their borders. In developing countries, integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs), which include ecotourism, are expanding into environmentally fragile areas where remote local and indigenous people live. However, decades of research cite the inability of ICDPs to reach their full potential, suggesting that they do not adequately balance human livelihoods with natural resource conservation. Protected area stakeholder relationships in countries undergoing modernisation and democratisation, and local, indigenous perceptions of project development in relation to social and ecological wellbeing are two largely under-explored areas of research in conservation and ecotourism. Developing a better understanding of approaches to PA conservation and development is critical given the increasing evidence of global ecosystem degradation due to anthropogenic activities and, unless changes are made to policies, institutions and practices, the continued, uneven and detrimental impacts on poor people. The purpose of this doctoral research is to explore the impacts of ecotourism on the wellbeing of human societies and nature in remote PAs, and the connections between community-level ecotourism and other development initiatives to broader PA policies and practices. The study pursues three research objectives: (1) to critically examine stakeholder relations in PA conservation; (2) to identify and assess indigenous perceptions of ecotourism and wellbeing in relation to ecotourism development; and (3) to refine and apply an integrative framework of wellbeing to empirically investigate the ways in which ecotourism enhances or constrains social-ecological sustainability in developing areas. This research was conducted through a case study of three local, indigenous PA communities in the Merak-Sakteng region of Bhutan. Data were collected through unstructured interviews (n=20); community (n=68) and non-community (n=50) semi-structured interviews; focus groups (n=6); literature review and document analysis; participant observations; and debriefing sessions (n=4). An empirical analysis of stakeholder relations first examined the progress and outcomes of two recent development projects, revealing that indigenous communities face specific socio-cultural challenges that could benefit from operational adjustments and new approaches. The buen vivir (living well) perspective was then used to analyse indigenous perceptions of ecotourism and wellbeing and the influence of socio-cultural factors, which illustrated the significant links between nature and indigenous cosmologies, socio-cultural values and spiritual beliefs that can impact ecotourism development and local PA governance. Lastly, a social-ecological wellbeing framework was developed to assess subjective, socio-relational, material and ecological dimensions of wellbeing in communities. The framework emphasised the importance of social-relational aspects of wellbeing and their connection to declining ecological conditions, the capacity of power relations between stakeholders to bring about wellbeing, and the constant trade-offs between wellbeing dimensions regarding justice and authority at the local level. This thesis refines an integrative framework of wellbeing to assess social-ecological sustainability by uniting theoretical perspectives from development studies (social wellbeing, buen vivir) and social-ecological systems, and empirically demonstrates the insights to be gained from adopting a multi-dimensional approach to wellbeing in ecotourism development projects. It offers a theoretical and methodological application of the buen vivir perspective to understand and analyse wellbeing in tourism scholarship through a biocentric, communal and culturally sensitive worldview. The dissertation makes an empirical contribution to research in terrestrial ecosystems in the context of Bhutan and provides much needed perspectives on wellbeing from a mountain environment. Moreover, the research findings contribute to broader debates around parks and conservation, indicating the need for more progressive social conservation science and practice, and support for participatory and collaborative governance approaches between local and indigenous communities and external PA stakeholders. These contributions, while situated in the context of Bhutan, are relevant for other development projects and terrestrial PAs around the world.
Cite this work
Heidi Karst (2017). Protected areas and ecotourism: Charting a path toward social-ecological wellbeing. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/11194