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Counting the Benefits of Ecotourism

Women on the Road
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Everyone is talking about the benefits of ecotourism, but do you even know what that means?

Yes, you want to do right by the environment and by local communities when you travel, but everyone is pushing ecotourism, from campsites to luxury hotels.

How can you tell whether your choices really make a difference? And...

What IS ecotourism, exactly?

Sorry to say but there’s not even any agreement on a definition.

To some, it means travel that is environmentally friendly.

To others, it is a synonym for ethical or responsible travel.

It is a relatively new field and definitions are still evolving.

My own definition of ecotourism falls somewhere in-between: tourism that has as little impact on the environment as possible, that respects local culture and that helps promote livelihoods.

3 Definitions of Ecotourism

  1. "Tourism directed towards exotic natural environments, intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife." (Oxford Dictionary)

  2. "The practice of traveling to beautiful natural places for pleasure in a way that does not damage the environment there." (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

  3. "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." (International Ecotourism Society)

I crossed more than a dozen countries overland in Africa and I fell in love with much of what I saw. The most humbling? Nature, whether national parks in South Africa, coastal marine life in Eritrea, the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, or the shores of Lake Malawi.

Along the way, I stopped in villages and often stayed in local homes rather than hotels or hostels, providing some income for villagers and living close to the land. I would like to think that my carbon footprint on that trip was not too horrendous, and that I made a contribution of some sort along the way.

What are the principles that guide ecotourism?

While there are plenty of do’s and don’ts of ecotourism, abiding by a few principles will take the guesswork out of your vacation choices.

  • Give respect – to local communities, their traditions and their way of lifeHelp fund communities and conservation by spending your money in local businesses rather than on global corporations 
  • Protect and conserve: don’t leave a place worse than how you found it; do no harm
  • Raise awareness – people often would like to do the right thing but simply don’t know: tell them
Responsible travel means getting to know communitiesUsing local transportation like these taxis in Malawi means staying close to the land

Who exactly benefits? What are the advantages of ecotourism?

Ecotourism can benefit a wide range of publics – you, me and pretty much everyone else.

The local community and its economy

  • Keeping money inside a community will benefit the local economy. Usually, corporations repatriate profits and little stays inside the country. By applying ecotourism principles, most of the money will stay where it is spent.
  • Huge numbers of people in tourist areas work in the tourism sector, directly or indirectly. Our spending will provide jobs and help pull people out of poverty.
  • Tourism can help maintain traditional cultures. When I visited Sabah, I was told local dance and music had been disappearing until local arts were revived to entertain tourists.
  • By treating communities with respect, we enlarge both their worlds and ours, acting as ambassadors for cultures which they may see as exploitative (because they are - I’m just suggesting we can shift that perception by our own actions).

YOU

  • Ecotourism helps raise individual awareness about conservation and the environment. By understanding the dangers and what makes things the way they are, you – the individual – may feel more compelled to protect it.
  • You also learn about local communities and cultures in a way you never would from the balcony of your luxury hotel. By interacting with local people, you learn about how they live and they learn about you, whether it is musical taste or food preferences or simple everyday similarities and differences.
  • You can expand your personal horizons by learning about local plants and animals, coming closer to nature, opening up to new ideas, uncovering off-the-beaten-path places and becoming healthier as you get more active.
Wild elephants - ecotourismWild elephants in Africa, impressive and glorious. Watch them in the wild, where they belong (Photo Annabel Haslop)

The planet and its environment: why is conservation important?

When you pay for an environmental event, whether entry to a national park or contribution to an ecotourism project, that money will go towards conservation.

Why is conservation so important?

  • Biodiversity is the bedrock of life on our planet, for example through food webs, and destroying one part of nature could affect another, or even destroy it.
  • Agriculture relies on many natural processes: we disrupt those by destroying the environment at our peril.
  • Remember the rosy periwinkle? And how it helped cure leukemia? It was found in the wild. Who knows how many unknown remedies exist to cure our modern-day ills...
  • Conservation is important because species are disappearing (and once they’re gone, there’s no bringing them back) and because we should consider the moral duty of leaving future generations a world that is at least in as good a shape as the one we inherited.

That said, conservation does not occur in a vacuum and is intertwined with the people who live in a specific environment. Conservation can improve their lives, while they can protect the environment – it’s a symbiosis that is difficult to miss.

Nothing’s perfect: here are the disadvantages to ecotourism

Yes, there are potential negative impacts of ecotourism but as you’ll see, they usually arise when the principles of ecotourism aren’t respected.

  • Those same traditional practices which are revived by tourism can also be corrupted. Locals may “stretch” or dilute local traditions to give tourists what they want.
  • Workers who might have been employed in traditional trades or farming might leave their work to join the better paying tourism sector.
  • Tourism development may destroy the environment or relocate people, like the Masai in Kenya or the former residents of Bagan in Myanmar.
  • Expanding ecotourism facilities may force locals to move or may damage delicate ecosystems.
  • Bringing people into pristine areas can derail a fragile environment and upset the natural balance. It can make demands on resources like water (for water or golf courses, for example), land or energy that the region cannot sustain.
  • Traveling to ecotourism destinations can in itself cause environmental damage by flying or driving, for example.
  • Overcrowding in tourist venues may actually endanger protected areas, as in the Galapagos Islands, where too many tourists are visiting; in Tibet, the number of tourists who visit Tibet is higher than the number of Tibetans who actually live in their country. Many other venues have enacted laws that limit tourism despite its clear economic benefits.
  • Wildlife habitat may be destroyed to make way for tourist facilities.
  • Excessive viewing of wildlife can disturb animals' feeding and breeding: in Oman, the Arabian Oryx was threatened with extinction. They would run until exhaustion, chased across desert sands by tourists in 4WD vehicles.
  • Demand for rare birds or animals or for souvenirs can promote trafficking in endangered species: on a recent trip to Panama, wildlife rescue workers told me they'd found young toucans for sale for $30 along the roadside, being sold in plastic bags!
  • Local people's land may be expropriated at unfair prices because of a deal struck between wealthy corporations and government authorities.
  • Unemployment can rise in local communities, if most staff is brought in from overseas.

So yes, there are pros and cons of ecotourism but... the pros far outweigh the cons.

Wondering how to be a perfect ecotourist? Here are just a few ways!

  • Sleep in a local village – you'll be helping the economy and connecting with local people; ask one of the women in the house to show you how to cook a traditional dish (and make sure you pay for the ingredients!)
  • Buy something made by a local craftswoman; better yet, buy something she's making in front of you.
  • Visit a rural area rather than a city – cities get plenty of tourists but towns and villages are often bypassed by the big operators.
  • Visit a national park or protected area: your fees help support park maintenance, and trails are often well marked; make sure you report to the warden before starting your hike, so he'll know where you're headed (and when you're due back).
  • Walk from one town to the next through a forest or over a mountain (the Quetzal Trail linking two towns in Panama is one of my most memorable hikes) instead of driving, and get into shape. 
  • Do your research and make sure you choose an ecotourism trip that helps conserve the environment and local culture and benefits the community.
  • Try to practise green travel, by limiting your use of electricity, recycling everything you can and reusing products like towels or cutlery.
  • Reduce your carbon footprint, but that goes without saying.
  • Don’t pay to see captive animals. Go see them in their natural habitats: you may see fewer of them, but you won’t be contributing to their stress levels or life span.

I did many of the above during my trip across Africa and spending months in rural areas living with local people away from everything familiar was one of the outstanding experiences of my life.

Ultimately ecotourism is about reducing your impact as much as possible, even if you can't eliminate it altogether. Simply flying to our destination means we damage the environment but for long distances most of us have little choice.

That said, we can offset our carbon footprint by buying carbon credits. In other words, we can pay an extra tax for the damage we do, and that money goes to projects that repair the environment. And where possible, we can take the train.

To preserve the environment it is important to support the local communities who live nearby. If communities are poor, they may chop down forests for firewood and kill endangered wild animals for food.

Here are some of the things that can happen when you travel 'close to the ground':

  • your money flows back into the community
  • endangered habitats and biodiversity are conserved
  • people, both local and visitors, become more aware of the surrounding environmental wealth
  • providing employment will ensure fewer people leave for the cities
  • poor countries often sell their primary resources to survive - water, trees, minerals, wildlife... so ecotourism provides people with an alternative source of income which keeps them from eroding their own environment to survive
  • local investment provides financial incentives that encourage people to protect their environment

Business and ecotourism: playing by the rules

Ecotourism is travel's fastest growing sector and it's no wonder, with environmental awareness on the rise and climate change finally on the world agenda. Of course business is trying to cash in on the bonanza.

There are plenty of valid ecotourism businesses, but to qualify, they have to provide long-term benefits to a community and fulfil conditions such as these:

  • have little or no adverse impact on the environment
  • provide local employment
  • generate as little waste as possible and take away what is created
  • center around natural attractions such as animals, plants, water, forests
  • provide an educational or enlightening experience for you
  • in the best of all worlds, an ecotourism business will train local people with new skills to expand their opportunities

Plenty of commercial firms offer ecotourism experiences but have no business using the term: plunk a hotel near an animal watering hole and you have a so-called ecotourism lodge. 

These 'less honest' businesses, by claiming to be involved in ecotourism, are guilty of 'greenwashing', pretending to practice ecotourism to attract clients but ultimately focused only on profits.

Businesses that are unethical or don't pay attention can do much harm to wildlife, the environment and its communities:

Communities should not be deprived of development or be encouraged to maintain traditions strictly for the benefit of visitors. On the contrary, true ecotourism is all about respect: it is about providing people with an opportunity to make their own choices - including the choice of staying at home and not being forced to move to cities because there is no work or food where they live.

That is why, whenever possible (and it isn't always), my money is better spent on local people, offering everyday pleasures, in surroundings that are managed sustainably rather than destroyed for short-term excessive development.

Ultimately, market forces will ensure businesses give us what we ask for. If we refuse to pay for environmentally destructive tours or energy-wasting hotels or facilities, we'll be voting with our wallets, and business will listen.

We do have a role to play.

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