It may be a huge catchword these days - but the benefits of ecotourism aren't obvious to everyone. And they aren't always benefits.
There isn't even 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.
I crossed more than a dozen countries overland in Africa and nature, the environment, was the greatest attraction in every single one, whether the national parks in South Africa, the 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 kind of activities constitute ecotourism? Here are a few.
I did all of the above during my trip across Africa and spending months in rural areas living with local people away from everything I knew was one of the outstanding experiences of my life.
Being an ecotourist can be fun, wondrous and eye-opening. It can also...
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. First, we calculate how much carbon we've emitted and second, we pay for those emissions. The money is then spent on environmental projects that promote energy renewal, forest conservation and similar environmental activities.
To preserve the environment it's important to support the local communities who live nearby. If communities are poor, they'll chop down forests for firewood and kill wild animals for food.
Here are some of the things that can happen when you travel 'close to the ground':
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:
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 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.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about ecotourism - whether you agree with mine or not! Please connect with me through Facebook comments below.