So What Exactly is Ecotourism?
How can we travel the world in a way that doesn't impact the natural environment or local populations in a negative way? Ecotourism strives to answer this exact question by maximizing adventure and minimizing harm. Sounds good, right?
Here are a couple concrete definitions of ecotourism from leading environmental NGOs and responsible tourism organizations:
"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." - The Nature Conservancy & World Conservation Union (IUCN)
“Ecotourism encompasses nature-based activities that increase visitor appreciation and understanding of natural and cultural values. They are experiences that are managed to ensure they are ecologically, economically and socially sustainable, contributing to the wellbeing of the natural areas and local communities where they operate” - Queensland Department of Parks and Recreation
How You Can Practice Ecotourism
The United Nations declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, making this the perfect time to learn how to become an ecotraveler. Engaging in ecotourism means exploring nature-based locations with the objective of learning about the environment and traditional cultures. The best way to learn about a new place is to engage with tours or sightseeing run by locals who are familiar with the surrounding ecosystems and community history. Ideally, when you chose a tour operator or hotel, you should look for specialized, locally-owned organizations to get the most out of your experience while helping the economy of the place you are visiting.
All too often, tourism companies, hotels, or major attractions are run by wealthy foreigners, so your money ends up going to those who need it the least. For example, avoid staying at a major resort like the Hyatt or Hilton because the majority of the money you spend there is not supporting local business or economy. Supporting your host community is an important part of ecotourism since it encompasses social, cultural and environmental sustainability. On top of social and cultural sustainability, try to find an accommodation that practices environmental sustainability through the use of solar or wind power, water and energy efficiency, recycling and composting, and biodegradable cleaning products. When you arrive at a hotel,be sure to ask about their carbon footprint and what the hotel is doing to decrease it.
Furthermore, if you are going to be sight seeing or taking a tour, the locally run organization you choose should always aim to preserve the natural environment and wildlife instead of exploring it for quick, unsustainable cash from tourists. Some obvious examples of wildlife exploitation that you should always avoid because they are harmful and sometimes illegal are people selling tiger selfies, elephant rides, or swimming with dolphins. If you want to get close to wildlife without putting an animal, yourself, or the person in charge of the operation at risk, then choose an option where you can see these animals in the wild or in a responsible sanctuary that obeys local laws.
Why does ecotourism matter?
Let’s be real… long distance travel is HORRIBLE for the environment. Harmful fuel guzzling airplanes, all those travel sized plastic bottles, water wasting hotels that use an excessive amount of cleaning chemicals, an unreal amount of plastic straws that come in every single cocktail/fruity drink you order… the list goes on and on. Wasteful behavior while on vacation combined with the growth of the tourism industry and global warming makes the practice of ecotourism increasingly important today.
In 2015, the World Travel and Tourism Council recorded that one in 11 jobs world wide was related to tourism and this number will grow rapidly in the coming years. While the multi-trillion dollar tourist industry continues to grow at an unprecedented rate tourists, airlines, travel companies, and hotel owners can work together to promote emission reductions and ensure the preservation - and even betterment - of a vacation destination. As it turns out, the sustainable tourism industry is also seeing rapid growth with one in five consumers saying they would be willing to pay more for a trip with a company that has a good environmental and social record, according to the Center For Responsible Travel 2015 Travel Trends & Statistics report.
Awesome Examples of Ecotourism
Staying at a Carbon Neutral Hotel - If you find yourself in a city, search for a carbon neutral hotel. Being carbon neutral means that the carbon created by your stay is offset in someway by the hotel. To be carbon neutral, a hotel must first reduce their carbon energy as much as possible - through the use of solar panels, energy efficient lighting and air conditioning or heating - and after your stay the hotel pays to offset any excess energy used by financially supporting carbon-reduction projects such as reforestation initiatives. Check out this awesome carbon neutral hotel in Belize to learn more.
Finding a REAL ecolodge - “Ecolodges” and “eco-hotels” have recently started trending on the internet. However you will come across many accommodations that use these titles without actually practicing sustainability. Typically, ecolodges can be found in well-protected natural settings that are not plagued by rapid development. A true ecolodge is defined by its ability to play a role in protecting biodiversity, wildlife, and pristine landscapes. To see an example of a good ecolodge, check out Rainforest Expeditions in the Peruvian Amazon.
Going on a Responsible Safari - See wild animals in the wild! What could be better than that? Forget going to the zoo or paying for a photo with an exploited animal captured from the wild; instead get out of the cities and find a responsible tour operator. Check out expeditions hosted by Wilderness Safaris - the winner of the 2018 African Responsible Tourism Awards - which operates in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Visiting a National Park or State Park - Government run parks are usually an amazing way to immerse yourself in a natural setting and contribute to its preservation. Remember: if your visiting a park, always follow the rules set out by that park (i.e. stay on the trail, don’t litter, only camp in permitted areas). These rules are put in place to protect the natural environment and visitors from harm. Check out this article about the 10 Best US National Parks For Your World Travel Bucket List by Green Global Travel for trip ideas.
Follow These Tips on Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Abroad - There is so much you can do while traveling to minimize your impact by making small, well informed decisions. Read 36 Tips for Traveling Green and 5 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint While Traveling for more information.