You’ve probably heard the phrase “ecotourism” thrown around before, or you may have heard it referred to as “sustainable travel.” These phrases are certainly catchy, but what do they really mean?
It can be hard to define ecotourism, but in general, ecotourism means a type of travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism will:
- Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
- Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
- Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
- Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
- Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.
That’s a tall order, no doubt, but in reality many travel experiences can easily promote most or all of these ideals.
In my research, however, I found that many companies promote their trips or tours as being “eco-friendly,” which may be true, but eco-friendly is not the same thing as ecotourism. Rafting down the Amazon is not ecotourism, unless doing so somehow benefits its conservation or local residents, or is focused on environmental awareness of the region.
The Pros of Ecotourism
Ecotourism, if done correctly and conscientiously, can do a lot for both the environment and local communities. It directs attention and money into conservation of important natural habitats that might otherwise be overlooked, or worse, overrun with big businesses looking to make a quick buck by exploitation of environments rich in resources or with the potential to generate high profits. It provides supplemental income to local populations as they get involved in ecotourism endeavors, and keeps that money local. And in the best of scenarios, interactions between visitors and local indigenous people can provide a better understanding of cultural ideas and differences.
The Cons of Ecotourism
Some environmentalists believe that certain parts of the world should be “No Visitor” zones, as tourism can and does upset the delicate ecosystems of the area (many environmentalists feel this way about tourism to Antarctica, which has seen a huge rise over the last several years). Ecotourism can, even when incredible care is taken, displace indigenous peoples from their land as those areas become preserved for ecotourism; this has been an issue in various African countries, as people are forced off their land as National Parks are created for the booming Safari industry.
The concerns about potential negative effects of ecotourism are legitimate, and there are mixed opinions about Ecotourism, understandably so. But personally I look at it this way: People are not going to stop traveling. It benefits everyone, and the environment, to promote a type of travel that protects the environment, minimizes our carbon footprints, benefits local communities, and promotes biodiversity. But as a traveling community, we should carefully work together to make sure that the cons of ecotourism don’t overtake the pros, and be conscientious of whether our travels truly promote ecotourism ideals.