These days, everyone and anyone can label themselves or their tourism project / idea / tour operator as “Ecotourism”. It’s usually a marketing ploy to attract more business - everyone feels good if they can consider themselves to be travelling responsibly.
When I ask people “what is ecotourism?” or “what’s the definition of ecotourism?” the responses normally centre around descriptions on tourism based on nature / natural parks and a few people will mention conservation. Yes these are true, but ecotourism is a far more complex concept than this……
Ecotourism essentially is a mix of inter-linked concepts that all depend on eachother in the hope of achieving a type of tourism that is sustainable in the long term. The three key concepts are the environment, the local population and education.
Ecotourism is indeed normally (though not necessarily) a type of tourism based on nature (eg. rainforests or other environmentally threatened ecosystems). The idea of ecotourism is that that environment should not be damaged by the presence of tourists who visit to experience it. In fact, an ecotourism projects goal should be that the mere presence of tourists actively contribute towards the local conservation issues. Ideally, more tourists (up to a certain threshold) should mean more benefits / conservation / contributary funds towards the environment.
To achieve positive impacts upon the local environment in which tourists are enjoying themselves, the local population have got to be actively involved. Their vision is inherently more long-term than that of the visitors, and the local population will need to see tourism as an alternative source of income to their traditional practices. With significant economic benefits provided by a small scale tourism industry a local population can come to see their natural surroundings as a source of income, but only if they conserve their local environment. A local population needs a specific incentive to preserve it’s environment, rather than the western world telling them not to chop down all their rainforests because it contributes towards global warming. The best incentive is invariably money - ecotourism is normally found in communities that are often very poor. The role of the local population is intrinsic to any form of sustainable tourism / ecotourism, and they should have active control of matters concerning tourism in their locality. The locals should be in control, managing the project in a democratic fashion if it is to be truely sustainable in the log term. Control is crucial.
A means to these ends is education - of the local population as a whole, explaining why it’s important (and economically beneficial) to conserve their environment. Local tourists should also be educated as to why local ecotourism is important and should leave their travel destination with a greater understanding of conservation issues.
Ecotourism is important, otherwise we’ll wreck the world we love to explore, and travel experiences of future generations won’t live up to our own experiences. Ecotourism is also important ethically - many people who travel often spend a small fortune on their holidays, but little of that mone yis actually seen by local people who actually need it. I sleep much better at night in a small community run cabana in the rainforest than in a luxury hotel owned by the Hilton Group, because I know that the money I’m spending is going towards those that really need it.
I’ve never truely understod the mindset of someone who would choose to stay at a Hilton hotel or similar chain. For starters, they’re almost always tasteless and have no local cultural input whatsoever. And why would anyone want to give their money to Paris Hilton? Surely she has enough already? Why not book a locally owned hotel?
Here’s some tips for more responsible travel:
1. Do ecotourism - get off the beaten track. Be adventurous.
2. Book locally owned hotels, not chain hotels.
3. Respect the local culture you’re visiting.
4. Fly with local airlines rather than your own national carrier. Flying ot Brazil? Book the flight with Varig, or Tam rather than British Airways / American Airlines etc… You’re contributing to the local economy by doing so.
5. Offset your carbon emissions on your flights.
Some people rant along the lines of travel being inherently bad for the environment, and all travel is as such. True, flying isn’t good for the environement, but once you arrive at your holiday destination, if you practice responsible travel, the damages you’ve done by arriving can be outweighed. Travelling can and should ideally benefit the environment, it just needs to be done responsibly.
See the directory of genuine ecotourism projects and ecolodges in Latin America and travel responsibly.