Faculty Focus Research on Sustainable Tourism

November 02, 2011

Machu Picchu -Jim Johnson
Photo by Jim Johnson


As the wave of green thinking washes into every aspect of day-to-day living, affecting every decision we make from what we eat to what we drive, it’s no surprise that the eco-mindset has begun to have big impacts on how we travel. Savvy explorers now know to consider how their trips abroad affect a country’s environment, culture and economic systems, thus giving rise to sustainable tourism. It’s a bourgeoning and exciting field of study that both Professor of International Business Jim Johnson and Associate Professor of Political Science Mike Gunter will pursue in their individual academic endeavors. 

Enriching International Business Education

 This past summer, Johnson spent two weeks in Peru studying the impact of tourism in and around the ancient Inca capital, Cusco, and on the 26-mile Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Traveling as a result of grant from the President’s Internationalization Initiative, the Crummer professor looked at the effect of tourism on Peru’s indigenous community and considered how the country’s tourism industry could implement best practices in sustainability.

“Sustainable tourism focuses on understanding whether tourism is actually beneficial to a destination and whether it can exist without causing irreversible harm to a country’s employment systems, culture and environment,” Johnson explained.

 “The object of the trip was to learn more about and experience the diverse cultures of Peru, and in particular, learn how mass tourism has affected the rich cultural heritage of Peru,” Johnson said. He also worked to establish an academic link with an educational institution in Lima, Peru. “At present, Crummer has no partners in South America, so a link with a business school in Peru could be very beneficial both to Crummer students and to my research.” 
Hiking along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Johnson witnessed first-hand the impact of years of irresponsible tourism. “A lot of damage has been done to the trail over the last few decades since the trail has been increasingly inundated with tourists,” said Johnson. “Conservationists have begun to implement a number of changes and restrictions including limiting the number of hikers allowed on the trail and increasing the fees required to enter the area.” 
The ability to personally witness a destination deeply affected by sustainability issues will allow Johnson to bring a deeper level of understanding to at least two of his current courses, Global Research & Study Project and Doing Business in Emerging Markets.
“Although I have traveled to several Latin American countries (Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile), I had never before visited Peru,” Johnson said.  “From an economic perspective, Peru has been a leader among South American nations in the past 10 years, with GDP growth recently averaging 6-8 percent per year.  But at the same time, the level of poverty in Peru has been slow to respond to economic growth, and over half the population is still categorized as living below the poverty level. Visiting this nation deeply informs my teaching and allows me to share these rich experiences with my students to increase their understanding of the global issues that will absolutely impact international business.”

Drawing Parallels between Tourism and Climate Change

Gunter is coming at his research into ecotourism from a different direction, looking specifically at the place where tourism and climate change intersect. His book project, which chronicles visits to some of the world’s most popular eco destinations, examines a host of issues raised with tourism, including economic and ecological impacts.

Associate Professor of Political Science Mike Gunter
Mike Gunter in the Peruvian Amazon in 2006

“Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world and ecotourism is the fastest growing sector within that industry,” said Gunter. “Having become the principle export in 83 percent of the developing world, tourism offers remarkable potential to link conservation interests to economic development. The developed world, in turn, can better understand the process of climate change and the dangers it presents with such firsthand experiences.”
Gunter sees this second component and its emphasis on the developed world as equally critical in that it encourages people from outside the Global South to make connections between their daily lives and the places they are visiting. “Ecotourism is a practical political tool for local communities to develop to their advantage, but it is also a remarkable avenue to link global and local phenomena tied to climate change."
Tales of an Eco-Tourist, the book’s working title, is shaping up as a series of case studies rooted in Gunter's experiences across seven continents, including work with scientists at Tambopata Research Station in the Peruvian Amazon and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province, notable as Africa's first protected conservation area and savior of the black rhino.  Additional chapters will target the peninsula of Antarctica, Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and Ecuador's famous Galapagos Islands.
“My hope is this project will serve as an engaging and understandable lens into the complex process of climate change,” Gunter said. “We all learn from our own individual experiences, and climate change is a tough issue to grasp in part due to our lack of experiences with it."
Climate changes such as an earlier onset of spring, strong storms and widespread droughts and floods are directly correlated with our treatment of the environment. “But those connections are still not easily made by the general public,” said Gunter. “By targeting places people have heard about for years, perhaps even visited themselves, I hope that the impacts of climate change will become more tangible. Ecotourism not only takes people to exotic, faraway places; it helps people understand how their activities back home have significant impact on those faraway places.”

Gunter will continue to work on his book project for the next two years. In the meantime, his travels continue to add a new level of depth to his political science courses and research into energy and oil politics, biodiversity protection and endangered species.

By Kristen Manieri

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