The worldwide development of ecotourism – including adventures such as mountain climbing and whitewater rafting, as well as more pedestrian pursuits such as birdwatching – has been extensively studied, but until now little attention has been paid to "why" vacationers choose to take part in what are often physically and emotionally strenuous endeavors. Drawing on ethnographic research and his own experiences working as an ecotour guide throughout the United States and Latin America, Robert Fletcher argues that participation in rigorous outdoor activities resonates with the particular cultural values of the white, upper-middle-class Westerners who are the majority of ecotourists. Navigating 13 000-foot mountain peaks or treacherous river rapids demands deferral of gratification, perseverance through suffering, and a willingness to assume risks in pursuit of continuous progress.
In this way, characteristics originally cultivated for professional success have been transferred to the leisure realm at a moment when traditional avenues for achievement in the public sphere seem largely exhausted. At the same time, ecotourism provides a temporary escape from the ostensible ills of modern society by offering a transcendent "wilderness" experience that contrasts with the indoor, sedentary, mental labor characteristically performed by white-collar workers.
Robert Fletcher, a cultural anthropologist, is Associate Professor in the Department of Environment and Development at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. He is the editor of Beyond Resistance: The Future of Freedom.