People travel to exotic and pristine locations for all sorts of reasons. Besides adventure and relaxation, there is some comfort in thinking that your tourist dollars help protect the natural beauty you go to visit. But it doesn't always work that way.
A new study in Uganda found that people who spent more money to see gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park didn't necessarily help the local community more. Instead, backpacking on the cheap — but for longer stretches of time — might do more overall good.
The study raises questions about the value of nature tourism to animals, places and people around the world.
"I think there is an untested assumption that ecotourism should be very high-end luxury tourism with a mall number of tourists spending a lot of money," said Chris Sandbrook, a political ecologist at the University of Cambridge. "But does more of their money stay in the local area?"
To answer that question, Sandbrook went to Bwindi in southwest Uganda. The park is home to nearly half of the world's mountain gorillas. Every year, thousands of tourists travel there to see rare species of animals that live only there.
All tourists need to pay $500 for a permit to track gorillas in the park. Lodging at the park headquarters in Buhoma, however, ranges from $4 a night in locally owned camps to $300 a night in luxury hotels owned by foreigners.
To see where all of Bwindi's tourist dollars ultimately ended up, Sandbrook interviewed 350 tourists on the last evenings of their gorilla trips. He also talked with local businesses. Through interviews, he gathered information about how people booked their trips, where they stayed, who they paid money to, and what they bought while at Bwindi.
The average tourist, the study found, was 42 years old, stayed at the park for two and a half days, and spent $265 there. But only about $57 of that sum made it into the pockets of the local community. In other words, more than 75 percent of the tourist dollars end up somewhere else.
A closer look at the numbers showed that, as expected, people spent more money when they booked more expensive accommodations and stayed for more days. Even though some people spent 75 times more on lodging than others did, their preference for luxury didn't deliver more money to the locals.
Instead, that money tended to fall into the hands of tour operators, hotel owners, foreign suppliers, and other non-natives.
Spending more nights in the park, on the other hand, gave people more time to buy crafts, donate money and purchase items from local businesses.
The results don't necessarily mean that nature tourism is bad or that luxury travel is worse, said Justin Brashares, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Instead, they show we should look harder at our assumptions about the benefits of high-end versus low-end tourism for local communities," Brashares said, and the answer probably won't be obvious.
"By ignoring the fact that high-end tourism increases national focus on and development of the area, the study misses a part of the story."
The impacts of tourism can be complicated to calculate, Sandbrook agreed.
"The question shouldn't be, 'Has tourism solved all the social and environmental challenges at Bwindi?'" he said. "It should be, 'Has tourism contributed in some way to making these conditions better?'"
"The answer to the first question is obviously no, but to the second it's a qualified yes. We need to focus on understanding how and why tourism has the impacts it does, and looking for ways to make them better."