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.
CAVEAT (and it's a big one for me): I do respect local cultures but they must also respect mine. I won't respect a culture that engages in harmful practices or that diminishes women, for example.
Wild elephants in Africa, impressive and glorious. Watch them in the wild, where they belong (Photo Annabel Haslop)
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.
Visiting African villages mean staying close to the land (World Bank Photos)
How can you reap the benefits of ecotourism?
What kind of activities constitute ecotourism? Here are a few.
- 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!)
- 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)
- Buy something made by a local craftswoman; better yet, buy something she's making in front of you
- Go birdwatching (one of my favorites, but it means getting up at the crack of dawn - not too many birds under the hot midday sun)
- Visit a rural area rather than a city - cities get plenty of tourists but towns and villages are often bypassed by the big operators
- 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, or take public transportation rather than a car
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...
- be educational by teaching you about local plants and animals
- give you a deeper understanding of local culture
- be spiritually uplifting and bring you closer to nature
- open you up to new ideas
- take you off the beaten path
- help you lose weight! (by getting you out of the car, on your feet or on your bicycle!)
Not my finest moment but if I can do this, anyone can
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':
- 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
- 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:
- local people may be displaced to build resorts, like the Masai in Kenya or the former residents of Bagan in Myanmar
- the same can happen if water is diverted from rivers to service beautiful turquoise swimming pools or lush green golf courses
- 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 visiting Tibet is higher than the number of Tibetans who actually live in their country
- rare species can be endangered - unusual plants can be picked or trampled, vehicles and planes can and do pollute
- energy sources can be depleted to accommodate tourist hordes
- habitat may be destroyed to make way for tourist facilities - just drive through northern Laos to see how tree cutting for timber has razed the land
- 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
- animals can be harmed in a bid to attract tourists
- 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
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.