What is Ecotourism?
For decades, ecotourism has been a growing trend in travel for all types of adventurers.
Ecotourism is not just visiting a natural location, but means truly investing in and learning about the community and culture of your destination. There are as many types of ecotourism adventures as there are travelers.
What is Ecotourism?
The official definition of ecotourism, from the IUCN (the World Conservation Union), says that ecotourism is:
“Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”
Ecotourism is often used to describe any type of travel that includes some part of the natural world, but it does not necessarily mean that the trip is sustainable in a true sense. For example, a SCUBA diving tour might advertise itself as an ecotour, although they may use plastic water bottles, serve a processed food lunch and/or not take the marine habitat into consideration.
In fact, The Nature Conservancy says that most tourism to natural areas is decidedly NOT ecotourism. “Ecotourism is distinguished by its emphasis on conservation, education, traveler responsibility and active community participation[…] and true ecotourism encompasses not only the experience of a natural attraction, but also includes a focus on preserving or restoring the ecosystem.”
TNC lays out the characteristics that they think qualifies true ecotourism:
- Conscientious, low-impact visitor behavior
- Sensitivity towards, and appreciation of, local cultures and biodiversity
- Support for local conservation efforts
- Sustainable benefits to local communities
- Local participation in decision-making
- Educational components for both the traveler and local communities
Similarly, the International Ecotourism Society lays out their principles for ecotourism, with a goal to unite conservation, communities, and sustainable travel:
- Minimize impact
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
- Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
- Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate
EcoWorldy, a great ecotourism site that explores worldwide ecotourism adventures and encourages travelers to build their own eco-travelogue, explains ecotourism as such:
“Ecotourism is more about participating in local culture than passing through it in an air conditioned bus. It should help protect the natural and cultural heritage of the earth; empower local communities by providing employment opportunities and promoting sustainable development; and promote greater appreciation for nature, local society, and culture.”
The Economics of Ecotourism
Ecotourism brings in money to the local economy while supporting the community, culture, and natural ecosystems. And it is a valuable industry indeed. Ecotourism also bolsters the idea of natural capital is important for local economies. Natural capital is the concept that natural resources have inherent value to the broader ecosystem and as a destination, and thus need to be valued (with a dollar amount, just as reserves of minerals or fuel would be valued) and protected.
As examined on EcoWorldly, ecotourism is a big market and has lots of potential to grow.
“PLOS Biology, an open source, peer reviewed biology journal, has published a new study which estimates the world’s protected environment areas generate 8 billion visits every year, 80% of them in Europe and North America. The numbers for the US say ecotourism generates approximately $600 billion annually in direct in-country expenditures and $250 billion each year in consumer surplus.
The point of the study is that protecting natural habitats from ecological damage is not an expense, it is an investment that pays enormous economic dividends for the host countries. This is the sort of economic evidence needed to rebut the claims of those who seek to profit from logging, mining or drilling in protected areas.”
By supporting ecotourism, you are also tacitly approving of an economy in which nature is valued over mining, logging or other destructive resource extraction. Spending travel dollars wisely can contribute to a greener world all around.
Ecotourism for the Community: Voluntourism
An offshoot of ecotourism is voluntourism, which allows travelers to experience the joy of travel while committing to a positive volunteer project in their location of choice. Voluntourism might include habitat restoration in a wildlife area, teaching in a village school, assisting a community building project, or beach cleanups for degraded areas.
NPR notes that voluntourism is growing in popularity as students and travelers are taking time off from ‘real’ vacations and are instead working in schools, farms, orphanages or teaching English abroad. NPR writes that voluntourism “is one of the fastest growing trends in travel today. More than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year [but some people] question whether some trips help young adults pad their resumes or college applications more than they help those in need.” This authenticity of voluntourism is a question that seems to reverberate through the media.
Organizations like VolunTourism.org are hoping to end irresponsible voluntourism though education and outreach, and encourage travelers to research their particular tour provider as if they were investigating a charity. Ensure the money and actions are going to the right places, and determine what and how the local community truly benefits from the outside help.
Be a Responsible Tourist
Even if ecotourism and voluntourism don’t seem like your type of adventure, you can still be a responsible tourist when you travel. With any type of travel, it’s important to consider the environmental impact of the trip: how you arrive at your destination (by bus, train or plane), and how your presence affects the environment.
Preparing well for your trip by bring a reusable water bottle, your own personal care products, and knowing what type of climate to expect can go a long way to avoid extraneous purchases and help reduce your waste. Here are some good guidelines for traveling that allow you to show respect for nature and culture, from Untamed Path:
- Prepare for your trip by educating yourself about your destination and current events. Learn language basics and come with an open mind.
- Respect local traditions and etiquette: Wear clothing that is appropriate to the local customs, and observe how locals relate to each other for touching, talking, and personal space.
- Avoid ostentatious display of wealth: This is bad manners everywhere, but consider leaving your expensive jewelry, clothing and equipment at home.
- Have awareness about begging: in some locations this is unavoidable, but be aware of your impact with seemingly small donations. If you still feel the need to give to people who are begging consider giving healthy local food or essential supplies.
- Be flexible: Come with an open mind, and know that things will change no matter how diligent you are with your planning. Be flexible with your expectations.
- Conserve resources: be aware of water, energy, food, wood, and other resources that you might be taking advantage of during your stay, and how that might impact the local community.
- Practice environmental minimum impact: Follow the international leave no trace guidelines and pack out everything that you bring in.
- Choose a tour operator or guide that’s been researched, accredited if possible, and knows how to interact with local residents.
- Support local economies: try to find truly local artisans, food, and products that can meet your needs, rather than relying on imported items or mass-produced items.
Want to learn more about ecotourism?
Learn how to travel responsibly from The Nature Conservancy
Share your epic travel stories on EcoWordly
Connect with local adventurers with our friends at AdvLo
Volunteer and travel with VolunTourism
Who’s Responsibility is it to Educate Travelers?
Read more about being a responsible traveler
Learn about responsible tourism with The Center for Responsible Tourism