What Is Ecotourism?

Many terms are used these days to refer to similar overlapping ideas about responsible tourism.  Wikipedia defines Ecotourism as “tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas….Ecotourism focuses on socially responsible travel, personal growth, and environmental sustainability. (It) typically involves travel to destinations where flora, fauna, and cultural heritage are the primary attractions.”

Many considerations are included under this umbrella concept. Let me unpack some of the issues.

Fragile, pristine undisturbed natural areas– The Galapagos Islands are a prime example of an area that needs protection from the interference which mass tourism can

Marine iguana in the Galapagos Islands
Photo by Photodynamics

bring. The islands are valuable to us all because their location has kept them out of the “traffic” of the biosphere. Ecuador was one of the first nations acting to protect this unique laboratory of natural selection and adaptation. Because of Ecuador’s foresight, the human traffic to the islands is carefully controlled to minimize the negative effects.

Personal growth– Education goes hand in hand with ecotourism. Scholars can learn from a threatened location only if it is protected. And the rest of us humans benefit because we get to see these wonders of the world which might well disappear if they are not protected. One objective of ecotourism is to provide an opportunity for non-experts to be introduced to concepts and species which are normally out of the range of everyday experience.

Gorillas have benefited from tourism
Photo by Paul Van Den Berg

This helps to build enthusiasm for funding conservation efforts to maintain habitats which might otherwise be destroyed. The government of Uganda has learned that protecting mountain gorillas and allowing highly controlled tourism to see them pays off in general tourism and economic growth for all as well as allowing the gorilla population to survive in a hostile world.

Green travel is a variation within the umbrella of Ecotourism.  Green travel focuses on using fewer resources and helping travelers leave a smaller carbon footprint. Every hotel with any conscience at all now informs their guests that towels will be replaced only as requested, as a gesture toward using less water and electricity. (My own experience is that the cleaners often go by the old rules anyway, undoing the good intention of the management.)  But many hotels do much better. The new Aria hotel and City Center in Las Vegas has six LEED certifications; they scrutinize the source of their building materials, alternative fuel for limousines, most responsible use of water, and energy use for heating and cooling. Other locations have different challenges. One jungle lodge I have visited in the Amazon rainforest generates their own electricity but turns all power off for most of each afternoon.

Guest cabin at Inkaterra Amazonica in Peru

Sustainable tourism considers a slightly different set of issues. Operators must assess how many visitors would be too many (and stop well before they get to that point). How will proposed buildings affect the land, the plants and animals, and the water in an area? Will this place still be viable in fifty years’ time? Related to these questions is the issue of what a particular operation might do to the people who live in the area. Are local people being employed, or are they being driven from their home as a result of increased tourism? Sustainable tourism would have the minimum negative impact on the local community, both economically and culturally.

All these concepts are in the Ecotourism family. It could just as easily be called Responsible Tourism. Just as we agree that it is no longer acceptable to litter along the highways, all operators are aware of public opinion about being wasteful or inconsiderate. Currently there is no industry standard for any of these categories (except for LEED certification). Virtually everyone agrees “green is good” but there is no consensus or seal of approval to confirm who is and who is not green enough. Some operators have responded wonderfully to the challenges. Others still need to hear that their old ways are unacceptable. Naturally I make every effort to book with the right people!

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

About Travel Unites

A travel agent since 1994, I want people to get together for greater understanding across boundaries.
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