In the rainforests of southwest Sri Lanka, Kosala gets ready in the early, humid morning to guide another group of visitors. I tuck my trousers into my socks and add some drops of lemon oil to my shoes and hands, as Kosala taught me on my first day here. It rained during the night, and he tells me to expect to meet more leeches than usual.
I have accompanied Kosala and other guides for almost two months on forest walks to explore how humans and other-than-humans are co-contributors and co-producers of sustainable tourism.
“Other-than-humans” is a relational approach that extends beyond the biological – encompassing all life forms such as animals, plants, non-tangibles and materials – without invoking a hierarchization. My research project, “More-than-Human Tourism: Walking With a Rainforest,” aims to inform how sustainability can be redefined as relational because of these connections.
The walking “with” method recognizes that nonhumans are co-producers of these tourism experiences and enables me to explore how they interact with us and influence what and how we communicate about them.
I use multispecies ethnography – a genre of writing and anthropological research that is sensitive to the lives and needs of nonhuman organisms – to study how the human guides and other-than-humans interact.
This requires attentiveness to sensory experiences, while recognizing that I cannot detect or experience everything that is around me due to the limitations of my human body and senses.
The two dogs that live in a house on the edge of the forest reserve often accompany us on our walks. They know the road well and usually walk in front of the visitor groups. Some people consider the dogs a nuisance, while others enjoy their company.
Sometimes, the dogs run off into the dense forest in a way that we, with our human bodies, would have difficulty doing because of the thick vegetation. I find I’m attentive to the dogs’ reactions, what they listen to and look at. Understanding their ability to guide visitors’ experience teaches me about interdependencies and multispecies relationships.
We have walked for over an hour, following the narrow and muddy paths, when the group suddenly halts. “Look,” Kosala says softly, pointing toward a spider almost as big as my palm. While it’s only an arm’s length away from the face of one visitor, who gasps, it is still hard to see the large web and the enormous dark spider with light markings on its body.
In the rainforest, I’ve been bitten by leeches and mosquitoes, cut by sharp leaves and scratched by branches. During my many walks, encounters and chats, I have learned a lot about the area, but more importantly, I have learned that I can walk with the forest.
Getting bitten by a leech, hearing a blue magpie’s chatter, nearly walking into a giant wood spider and its web, wading across a river and climbing over wet, slippery fallen trees after a storm provide a variety of sensory, intangible and tangible experiences that shape our walk in – and with – the forest.
Directly and indirectly, tourism relies on nonhumans, often as the attractions. However, when walking with the forest, we understand that these nonhuman counterparts are more than entertainment for us human visitors – they shape our experiences in significant ways.
The human guides are central to these introductions and interactions. Kosala grew up in the area, on the border of the current forest reserve. He has worked as a guide in the reserve for over seven years and has formed relationships with the forest, various species and individuals over time.
In tourism settings, visitors interact with native flora and fauna for a short time. But these direct encounters can have long-lasting and sometimes devastating consequences for other life forms and organisms, underscoring the vital need to address how people come to know them.
“Animals are not here for the tourist,” Kosala says, “Some are here because they have learned and enjoy the benefits they get, but some must adjust in other ways to human visitors. We have to understand that.”
Tourists affect other-than-humans because of their culture, economics and politics. It is critical to map the mutuality of these relationships to avoid furthering systemic oppression. Rethinking our relationships with nonhuman species and organisms in Western tourism ideas and practices helps us recognize existing connections that are often overlooked.
Kosala says that some visitors such as birdwatchers are disappointed and frustrated when they do not encounter a specific species they want to see, while other visitors just want to enjoy the forest environment in general and are happy to learn a thing or two.
When I ask other visitors what made the most impression or surprised them, many people reveal a newfound fascination with a species they were unaware of before their visit, usually not the charismatic megafauna – the large and attractive animals that typically are the center of attention in much nature-based tourism. Instead, visitors mention unfamiliar plants and invertebrates that left lasting impressions.
Notions of sustainability tend to be human-centric in that they downplay the roles of nonhumans and their mutual interdependencies. Expanding on sustainability’s relational qualities, my study furthers our understanding of these crucial relationships among humans and nonhumans in tourist settings. If nonhumans are perceived as co-producers and stakeholders in tourism, it can lead to changes in decision-making processes and conversations about natural areas and tourist activities.
Emma Lundin is a doctoral student in Recreation, Sport and Tourism at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. Emma’s research interests include exploring tourism as a multispecies phenomenon, interspecies sustainability, and relationships between humans and other animals, focusing on learning experiences and more-than-human approaches to learn with other animals, tourists, and destination residents.
This article was originally published by the Illinois News Bureau. All article photographs are provided by Emma Lundin.