The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”
But what is it really?
Ecotourism requires conscious travel with consideration of impacts on local communities and the environment. It gives a positive and educational experience not only to the tourists, but also to the members of the local community they interact and work with. Many conservation projects rely on funding from ecotourism to continue their work.
Examples of ecotourism range from conservation work with direct impact on the local environment, such as forest management, to educational carbon-neutral tours which inform travellers about indigenous cultures and the importance of biodiversity.
In short, ecotourism aims to minimise the environmental impact of travel, boost conservation, and educate people from all around the world for a more sustainable future.
There are many benefits of ecotourism when it is carried out with consideration and care. Ecotourism can have a direct positive impact on the environment through physical conservation, such as planting trees or laying new coral reefs.
It can also have positive impacts through financial means. The money western travellers bring can be essential for underfunded conservation projects in developing countries. They can also contribute to sustainable development by spending money in small-scale local businesses.
Education is another key benefit to ecotourism and is perhaps one with the most longevity. Ecotourism projects aim to educate travellers of the importance of biodiversity, conservation, and sustainable development. They also aim to educate about the rights and spiritual beliefs of indigenous groups, creating a global community which cares for the environment.
One of the main issues with ecotourism are the opportunities which claim to be offering ecotourism when in fact they are environmentally damaging. Many initiatives are in areas where the environment is very fragile and increased human presence in the form of tourists can sometimes be more damaging: more animals are disturbed, more vegetation destroyed, more domestic waste generated.
Where animals are involved, questions of ethics are raised. It is often impossible for tourists to know if animals in sanctuaries would be better off in the wild. For example, many opportunities exist in Southeast Asia where travellers can come to work with elephants. But it is disputed as to whether these animals should be left alone in the wild, with their habitat protected, or taken into a sanctuary which profits from tourists.
Volunteer tourism can often be sold to travellers as ecotourism but lead to minimal benefits to the local community. Some travel agencies owned by western shareholders offer tours involving activities such as building toilets in impoverished areas. The tourists are often inexperienced in construction and the work they do is of minimal benefit to the locals. How much of their considerable fee goes into the local economy remains unknown.
So how can you travel more sustainably? One of the biggest impacts of travel on the environment is air travel. A simple solution to reduce your carbon footprint is to spend a little extra and travel by train. And if flying is essential, find a reputable company which will allow you to offset your carbon.
Ecotourism is a brilliant way of travelling the world in an environmentally conscious way and can be more enriching and educational than conventional tourism. If you want to minimise your environmental impact but still travel, ecotourism is a great option, with rising popularity meaning there are more opportunities every year.
The most important thing you can do to travel sustainably is to make sure you thoroughly research your destination and the initiative you are intending to join. The more research we carry out before we travel, the more we can be sure to limit the impact on the environment.