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By Stasja Koot and Robert Fletcher*

A critical look at two emerging forms of ‘ethical’ tourism aimed at big donors of conservation projects: philanthrotourism and environmentourism.

 

Introduction

In this blog post we explore two types of ‘ethical donor tourism’ as an important novel trend in broader ethical tourism activities (i.e. attempts to ‘do good’ in and through tourism): philanthrotourism and environmentourism. Both are often presented as supporting social and environmental causes, but this positive self-presentation may obscure how they actually benefit from and reinforce inequalities and environmental degradation. After introducing them, we provide a brief critical analysis of both types of tourism, drawing on the psychoanalytical concept of jouissance: a particular type of ambivalent enjoyment that goes beyond ‘pure’ pleasure to encompass an element of discomfort or even pain in confronting distasteful aspects of social or environmental problems. In both philanthrotourism and environmentourism, we suggest, such problems and the jouissance they stimulate are at the core of the tourist experience. We further relate jouissance to philanthrocapitalism, in which global elites claim to revolutionize philanthropy by applying the business savvy that made them successful. The blog is based on two recent papers by the authors about philanthrotourism (Koot and Fletcher 2021) and environmentourism (Koot 2021), respectively.

 

Philanthrotourism

Philanthrotourism refers to the growing phenomenon in which NGOs offer trips to visit development or conservation projects for ‘major donors’ to increase funding streams and fortify donor relations. Such excursions have become ever more common, constituting a relatively new tourism niche. Thus far, most studies of ‘ethical tourism’ focus on the widespread use of tourism as a strategy to generate foreign exchange, local development and nature conservation. For instance, in a specific form of ‘development tourism’, excursions are organized by (Western) NGOs to their development projects to inspire participants to become more socially and environmentally aware. Or in ‘travel philanthropy’, the focus is on people wanting to ‘do good’ during their travels and has as its starting point the growth of ‘volunteer tourism’.

While philanthrotourism overlaps with these other forms of tourism to some degree, it also exhibits clear and significant differences. In development tourism, for instance, the leisure practice of tourism and the professional practice of development are clearly separated between the development agents and the tourists, and there is no clear focus on major donors. By contrast, philanthrotourism is focused on the corporate sector in particular and holds a focus on major donors to build a long-term relationship with fundraising in mind. It also differs from travel philanthropy and volunteer tourism in that the latter are considered phenomena originating in the tourism industry, whereas philanthrotourism originates from civil society. In philanthrotourism, moreover, participants do not normally ‘work’ (voluntarily or involuntarily) during the trip, as do the (often relatively young) tourists participating in volunteer tourism. In philanthrotourism, major donors join the trip predominantly to witness the projects they support, together with small and select groups of potential donors.

An example of an NGO that organizes donor trips is the (in)famous World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), offering full travel packages to (potential) donors through WWF Travel. Likewise, Conservation International (CI) offers private luxury trips to their conservation sites, including renting yachts and cruises, through their in-house luxury travel firm  (Holmes 2011). Development NGOs such as We Charity and Plan International, among many others, have also organized tours for major donors. Today, some commercial travel operators offer to fully organize such trips: Philanthropy Without Borders, for instance, states that “[b]y offering your donors a transformative experience in the field they will be ready to deepen their commitment,” while the responsible tourism operator Elevate Destinations appeals specifically to NGOs “to win your donors’ hearts through travel.”

 

Elevate Destinations website. Accessed 13 january 2022.

The first author used to work for an NGO as a major donor fundraiser. In this capacity he co-organized two donor trips, to Kenya and Ethiopia, where local allies of the NGO would advise him during preparations for the trips, and they would also frame the projects as successful or having much potential during the trips themselves. They explained the projects during quick visits, diverting attention from structural and historical causes of the poverty and inequality encountered on the trips and leaving elites (in our case a combination of NGO representatives and major donors) largely unaccountable for their role in overarching structural social and environmental issues. Visits to development and conservation projects are constructed in such a way that donors receive a carefully orchestrated guided tour. The dominating narrative about tourism in Africa is that tourists are considered privileged, mostly Western and white, who come to gaze at wildlife and the African people, who are in turn considered ‘less developed’. Nonetheless, donors’ enjoyment can be disrupted by strong feelings of guilt, especially about one’s privileged position in the world. Some donors were very moved with one project in particular in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where orphans were allowed into the school but had to spend the night on the streets, which made evident the relatively luxurious life of the foreign travellers.

 

Environmentourism

In a different part of Africa, namely at the private nature reserves to the west of Kruger National Park, South Africa, a high-end tourism industry thrives. Here a strong focus on exorbitant and excessive tourism consumption is presented as if this creates an ultimate experience of pleasure and relaxation while at the same time ‘doing good’: wealthy tourists are approached for donations too. We dubbed this type of tourism ‘environmentourism’, which is inspired by ‘developmentourism’. In ‘developmentourism’, the focus of the development impact of tourism itself is crucial, since “the merging of development and tourism” into one single practice means that the two are not distinct, and thus “should appear as a single word and a single morpheme” (Baptista 2017, 94). Environmentourism differs from other types of ethical nature-based or “eco” tourism in that it lacks the inclusion of ‘local communities’ to be ‘developed’ and benefit from the tourism activities. By contrast, environmentourism only focuses on addressing environmental concerns, and thus ignores local communities’ well-being. Moreover, environmentourism is ‘excessive’ in the sense that it promotes elitist lifestyles in which exorbitant material consumption has become the standard. And although environmentourism, like philanthrotourism, overlaps with other types of ethical tourism such as volunteer tourism, it still exhibits significant differences: when compared to volunteer tourism, environmentourism has a stronger focus on a nature-based tourist experience infused with wealth and luxury, taking place in an environment of exorbitance. Furthermore, while it also “creates value in the trade of experiences in or with ‘nature’” (Brondo 2015, 1405-6), environmentourism still differs from volunteer tourism because the latter is predominantly focused on young people.

On the South African private reserves, many tourists learn about the rhino poaching crisis, and want to contribute to fighting this. There are now many philanthropic tourist initiatives to ‘save’ the species by providing financial and in-kind support. Consequently, high-end tourist lodges have now developed a rather large and intriguing suite of activities in which tourists can join this fight. They can, for example, physically take part in activities to microchip rhinos (and their horns); visit and donate to a rhino orphanage; do a tour to an anti-poaching unit or visit the world-famous, all-female and unarmed anti-poaching unit the Black Mambas. One activity that stands out is when tourists join a translocation of rhinos to ‘safer’ havens, where anti-poaching policies are much stricter, such as Botswana. Examples of this are “[e]ight adrenaline-fueled days rescuing rhinos in South Africa and Botswana”, a tour that was heavily promoted by actress Uma Thurman. Drenched in luxury, the trip is expensive: US$ 18,655 per person and a tax-deductible requirement of US$ 25,000 per person for the Wilderness Wildlife Trust to Rhino Conservation Botswana. Many luxury operators, lodge owners and managers would emphasise the importance of tourism in Africa to the survival of wildlife. Absent from this discourse that prioritizes nature are the often deplorable labour circumstances at the private nature reserves, failing public services, racial and socio-economic inequalities, and land ownership injustices that have historically been created under colonialism and apartheid. In this way, environmentourism legitimizes the existence of high-end privatized tourism, both its excessive consumerist lifestyles and the land it requires.

Enjoying the fight against rhino poaching

The example of rhino translocation is not an isolated example of environmentourism: at other luxury tourism companies, tourists are also invited to join activities against rhino poaching, or to fit elephants with GPS collars in Tanzania, the latter promoted as “safaris with a purpose”. In these, tourists can enjoy a four nights/five days full board safari, including game drives, all meals and beverages, gin, archery, wine tastings and tennis from “USD 19,464 for 4 people plus a tax deductible contribution of USD 25,000 per person” for the collaring project. More examples can easily be found (see Koot 2021). Collaborations with communities, however, should, according to a tourism CEO, be done with community development committees that are “as apolitical as possible”. This confirms the de-politicization and de-historicization of structural causes of conservation problems, disregarding problematic aspects of neo-colonial, racial and ethnic power inequalities within the South African tourism industry.

 

Jouissance and philanthrocapitalism

A key element of the attraction of both types of ethical donor tourism is their capacity to allow (potential) donors to experience jouissance, which is a particular type of ambivalent enjoyment that goes beyond ‘pure’ pleasure to encompass an element of discomfort or even pain in confronting distasteful aspects of social and environmental landscapes, such as orphaned children, poverty or poached rhinos and the idea that these animals will soon go extinct. Jouissance functions as a core motivation for donors and tourists to engage in development and environmental problems, including through tourism. More than an affect or emotion, jouissance addresses the unconscious and irrational: it is structured by specific fantasies that inform our sense of reality. In ethical donor tourism, such fantasies are predominantly based on colonial ideas of the ‘white saviour’ in Africa (Pailey 2020).

Philanthrocapitalism, by Ryan Kovar.

Jouissance is important also in ‘philanthrocapitalism’ (Wilson 2014), via which both civil society organizations and private sector firms assert that reorganizing aid according to business principles holds the key to reforming development and conservation moving forward. Such principles are typically characterized by quantitative goals, commercial management styles, short term targets, and technical solutions for environmental and social challenges (Edwards, 2008).Previous forms of philanthropy are generally regarded as largely ineffective because they lack grounding in sound business principles. Philanthrocapitalism’s effectiveness has thus far not been proven, and it has been critiqued for concentrating wealth and power among the rich and thus lacking democratic decision-making.

Moreover, it is seen to instil principles of competition within civil society and ignore attention to broader structural issues promoting the inequality and environmental problems it intends to address. This translates into a lack of accountability and political legitimacy for philanthrocapitalists. Engaging with philanthropy through philanthrotourism or environmentourism generally strengthens donors’ position as global social and economic elites, creating a situation in which inequality is the starting point of the enjoyment as jouissance. This shows, for instance, in the example above in Addis Ababa when donors travelling with NGO’s show a strong sense of guilt based on their privileged positions (Koot and Fletcher 2021). In South Africa, jouissance shows when CEOs of involved travelling companies and Uma Thurman cry and get very emotional when watching and doing rhino translocations (Koot 2021).

As novel types of ‘ethical donor tourism’, both ‘philanthrotourism’ and ‘environmentourism’ exemplify the expansion of philanthrocapitalism, and are subject to critique on similar grounds, including their concentration of (economic and decision-making) power in the hands of a privileged elite. In both papers on which this post is based (Koot 2021; Koot and Fletcher 2021), we explore the relation between ethical donor tourism, jouissance and philanthrocapitalism in more detail. We found that philanthrotourism and environmentourism are both important ways for donors to experience jouissance as a core driver to engage in social and environmental causes. Moreover, jouissance provides a productive analytical lens through which other types of ethical tourism can be investigated, highlighting crucial psychological elements in the delivery and reception of such tourism.


Stasja Koot is an Assistant Professor at the Sociology of Development and Change group of the Wageningen University, the Netherlands, and Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Geography, Environmental Management & Energy Studies, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Robert Fletcher is a Professor in the the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He has research interests in conservation, development, ecotourism, globalization, climate change, social and resistance movements, and non-state forms of governance.