If you’re an avid traveler who cares about the planet, you’ve likely considered the environmental and social impact of your adventures. Maybe you’d like to give back to the communities you visit, or maybe you’re hoping to lessen your carbon footprint amid mounting climate change concerns. That’s where ecotourism comes in!
As of 2018, tourism accounted for an estimated 8% of global greenhouse admissions — a percentage that’s only expected to increase with time. Ecotourism is gaining popularity due to its focus on the environment, progressive guiding principles, and largely positive press.
Before you book your next getaway, here’s what you should know about ecotourism.
What Is Ecotourism?
The concept is simple enough: Ecotourism is tourism centered around the natural world, with a focus on sustainability. This type of tourism encourages foreign and domestic travel that preserves the integrity of a natural environment and positively impacts the area’s local people.
According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourists should be guided by the following principles:
- Minimize social, behavioral, and psychological impact
- Focus on environmental and cultural awareness
- Contribute to conservation, either physically or financially
- Respect and empower locals to ensure that your presence has a positive impact
As the ecotourism industry grows, so do requirements for ecotourism operators. In Queensland, for instance, ecotourism is a huge part of the $23 billion tourism industry. The Queensland government requires certification for ecotourism operators in order to maintain best practice standards. This certification focuses on the following key areas:
- Habitat preservation
- Waste management and cleanup
- Species interaction and conservation
- Protection of cultural heritage
The guiding principles and best practices of ecotourism aim to ensure that visitors, locals, and the environment can all benefit from a sustainable tourism industry.
Responsible ecotourism activities can be fun, educational, and fulfilling. Here are a few ecotourism examples:
- Travel to nature destinations (think flora, fauna, and natural resources)
- Learning about local cultural heritage
- Sustainable wilderness adventures
- Viewing or volunteering with wildlife
- Trips dedicated to activities that promote the planet’s well-being, like beach cleanups
- Homestays that involve coexisting with a local family, integrating with their lifestyle, and helping to care their property/animals/etc.
With so many ecotourism options, it can be difficult to choose. Luckily, many types of ecotourism will benefit the planet and people around you.
One big benefit of ecotourism is that it supports the maintenance and improvement of the areas used as tourist attractions. For instance, the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda generated $16.4 million in 2016 from park entry fees alone. This money was used to hire park rangers and wardens, engage the community, and maintain this important park that’s home to animals like the critically endangered mountain gorilla.
Some other benefits of ecotourism include:
- Combats climate change. Because ecotourism revolves around natural resources, supporting the industry can help lower carbon emissions. A 2010 study on a cluster of ecotourism land in Peruvian Amazonia found that the land contained between 5.3 and 8.7 million tons of above-ground carbon.
- Incentivizes maintenance of attractions. Ecotourism provides incentives to enhance biodiversity and preserve natural resources.
- Provides locals a source of income. Ecotourism can fight poverty and empower local indigenous communities by creating employment opportunities.
- Promotes conservation. Ecotourism generates revenue, and host communities use this revenue to invest in the natural resources that attract tourists. For instance, Tambopata’s intact tropical forests are at risk of deforestation, but potential ecotourism profits have encouraged local lodge owners to invest in more forested lands and enact conservation efforts to maintain forest cover.
- Educates tourists and locals. Ecotourism activities promote environmental awareness and education among locals and tourists alike.
Overall, ecotourism is a great alternative to traditional travel — but things aren’t always what they seem.
Potential Drawbacks of Ecotourism
Despite its many positive impacts, some methods of ecotourism can have undesirable consequences:
- Popularity can become a liability. If access to popular natural resources isn’t limited and closely monitored, the increased human foot traffic can gradually degrade the delicate ecosystem. Irresponsible ecotourism can lead to noise, litter, and pollution that can damage the natural habitat.
- Disruption of important wildlife routines. Accommodating tourists can come at a cost to local wildlife. The lights from seaside accommodations in tourist destinations have been known to disorient nesting sea turtles and their hatchlings, as they instinctively follow the brightest source of light. This can lead to unsuccessful reproduction for the nesting females and danger or death for the hatchlings.
- Less room for locals. Occasionally, indigenous inhabitants will actually be relocated or disenfranchised during attempts to make room for ecotourism developments and further conservation efforts. This happened in Tanzania when the local Maasai people were pushed out and lost control of their land.
- Redirected revenue. There’s no guarantee that ecotourism revenue won’t find its way back to industrialized countries, especially if the employees aren’t local or the ecotourism operation is owned by a foreign enterprise. In 2018, an estimated 61% of the tourism workforce in Sikkim, India, was from out of state.
- Irresponsible treatment of animals. Ecotourism operators know that many tourists want to interact with wildlife, and they may allow it even when it’s not good for the animals.
As you can see, ecotourism does present a few problems. But you can take steps to be a responsible ecotourist and avoid these issues!
These tips will help you approach ecotourism as ethically as possible:
- Do your research. Before signing up for an ecotourism activity, consider its impact on the land, wildlife, and locals. Look into the activity’s location and sponsors and read reviews from previous participants.
- Respect the wildlife. Remember, you’re on their turf! Many ecotourists want to interact with wildlife, but wild animals don’t always enjoy direct contact with humans. If you’re looking into elephant sanctuaries, for instance, choose one that allows you to observe elephants but does not offer elephant rides, bathing, or shows.
- Practice environmental awareness. Always leave your surroundings as you found them — or better than you found them. Don’t pick plants or collect environmental souvenirs without permission.
- Absorb the culture. Observe the locals around you and take your cues from their behavior. Acquaint yourself with their customs or learn a few phrases in their language so that you can engage with locals respectfully.
- Clean up after yourself. Some ecotourism locations may not be equipped for garbage disposal. If that’s the case, don’t litter! Come prepared with a small bag and hang on to your trash until you find an appropriate disposal site.
Should I Try Ecotourism?
Absolutely! Ecotourism is an excellent option for anyone partial to nature and sustainable travel. Approach your travel opportunities with an inquisitive mind, a helpful hand, and environmental awareness — you’ll be an ecotourism pro before you know it!