The No-Bullshit Benefits of Ecotourism
2020 has been a whirlwind of a year. A year that’s stopped us from doing things we love like hosting family gatherings, crossing international borders, and impulsively booking plane tickets for our next vacation.
If you’re currently dreaming of—and planning—your future travels (because let’s face it, we all need something to look forward to) then you should consider ecotourism destinations. There are so many benefits that come with this type of travel. Benefits for the economy, for the environment, for the local communities, for you. In this article, we’ll go over these and explain why ecotourism is so important.
What is Ecotourism and Why is it Important?
Not sure what ecotourism is? Well, it’s a division of tourism that aims to look after fragile ecosystems, indigenous cultures and local communities, support human rights, and inspire environmental awareness and education. It is closely linked to nature tourism, rural tourism, and cultural tourism. The International Ecotourism Society's official definition is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015).
Destinations that are hotspots for ecotourism are usually rural, remote, culturally rich, and breathtakingly beautiful. Rainforests, mountains, coral reefs, deserts. National Parks, protected areas, private reserves. These places are often natural habitats for hundreds of wild animals and endangered species. So it’s a no-brainer that these are the kind of places we’d like to visit—and need to look after.
Unlike adventure tourism, which is driven by the desire to complete challenging physical activities outside—multi-day hiking, sky-diving, anything that gets the adrenaline pumping—ecotourism focuses on a gentle appreciation of natural resources and local culture. It’s all about travelling in a way that has a minimal impact on an area’s environment, wildlife and people. Ecotourists enjoy learning about conservation efforts, staying in eco-friendly lodgings, and positively engaging with the local community.
To be as non-obtrusive as possible, ecotourism companies are small. Tour operators limit numbers to a maximum of 25, while hotels offer no more than 100 beds. Businesses must adhere to the principles below (also mentioned in our What Is Ecotourism article, along with the history of the movement):
- "Minimize physical, social, behavioural, and psychological impacts.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
- Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
- Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
- Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
- Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.” (TIES)
What Are the Economic Benefits of Ecotourism?
By paying to stay at a locally owned eco-resort or participate in a locally run ecotourism activity, our money feeds the local economy and directly benefits the community. Residents are paid their wages and spend those wages at other local businesses. This is so so so much better than giving your cash away to large corporations who don’t give back to the community they’re profiting from.
Through guided tours and knowledgeable ecotourism staff, visitors are also encouraged to purchase products from local vendors and artisans. Buying handmade goods and traditional foods are the perfect way for us to support the local neighbourhood when we’re abroad—and these products conveniently make the perfect souvenirs. No more plastic knock-offs, or culturally appropriated merchandise.
Ecotourism also helps fund conservation and research initiatives. This often comes in the form of entrance fees, license fees, or conservation fees. In the Galapagos Islands (a UNESCO world heritage site), entrance fees have directly contributed to the maintenance of the islands’ delicate ecosystem while allowing visitors to appreciate all the region has to offer. Over in South Africa, travellers pay a conservation fee for every day spent inside Kruger National Park, and this goes towards maintaining the park’s heritage so it can be enjoyed for years to come.
What Are the Benefits of Ecotourism to Local Communities?
New jobs generated by ecotourism projects must be given to residents and indigenous people. With an increase in employment and ownership opportunities, communities can fight against poverty and support sustainable development. In South Africa, close to half the population lives below the poverty line but the country is home to Kruger National Park, one of the it’s top tourist attractions. The National Park employs around 60,000 people. How amazing is that? Such a large number demonstrates the importance of the National Park, and ecotourism, to the community. It is helping to keep locals working, and financially stable.
Residents employed in ecotourism positions also experience a renewed sense of environmental responsibility. Their jobs depend on protected areas and conservation sites remaining untouched and endangered wildlife species being kept from extinction—as this is what makes the destination unique and attracts tourists to the area. Instead of participating in illegal activities like poaching or hunting, individuals can now earn money through being park rangers, eco guides, guest services attendants, etc. These professions not only limit the loss of wildlife, but they also work to save it. And they empower the people in the process by teaching them new and valuable skills. Win, win.
What Are the Social Benefits to Ecotourism?
In addition to providing communities with new jobs, ecotourism boosts interactions between indigenous people and travellers. Through activities like learning a language, staying with a host, cooking dinner with a local, or visiting a small family-run shop, a special kind of cultural exchange takes place. This educational dialogue is rewarding for both parties. Both ecotourists and locals leave these experiences with new knowledge or a new perspective.
Joining a tour operated by a local tour guide is a one-of-a-kind experience. These trips can include walking, biking, trekking, tree planting, and artisanal workshops, as well as visits to discovery centres, museums and local villages. Tour guides can share personal stories, family histories and sacred traditions while making genuine connections with travellers. Guests are educated on the land’s history and culture through the eyes of someone who has likely lived in the area since they were born. No guidebook or travel blog can provide you with such an eye-opening adventure!
What Are the Disadvantages of Ecotourism?
The obvious disadvantage of ecotourism is that it involves people travelling. While ecotourism is low-impact travel, it is not no-impact. Airplanes, cars, boats and other motorized forms of transport have negative effects on the environment. Secondly, ecotourism lets humans enter pristine areas that have remained relatively untouched for decades. If not handled carefully, this could lead to environmental degradation. A tricky balancing act, for sure.
However, by supporting ecotourism businesses, eating food caught and cooked locally, and bunking down in super cool eco-lodges (be sure these are locally owned or if owned by foreigners, they hire local staff and give back to the community)—buildings expertly designed to blend in with their surroundings—you can lower your overall carbon footprint.
Another problem is that communities become reliant on ecotourism. When an area is dependent on visitors, like Monteverde in Costa Rica, it becomes difficult for them to function if tourism drives to a halt… *cough, cough* like if a pandemic hits. With a small population of 6,000 people, to sustain a healthy economy, this area needs the thousands of ecotourists that arrive in the region every year. Usually, thanks to attractions like the Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, this is no problem. But the current pandemic conditions mean that no one is visiting Costa Rica. Therefore, no one is staying in hotels, visiting attractions, or eating out in Monteverde. When a community that needs tourists does not have them, residents lose jobs and income and find themselves with heaps of empty tourism infrastructure. Sad, right?
What are the Challenges to Ecotourism?
With ecotourism rising in popularity, it is important to note the challenges.
Increased development in ecologically sensitive areas can displace indigenous people from their lands. In the United Nations Environmental Program's report on ecotourism policies, there is mention of an instance in Southeast Asia where “millions of ethnic peoples were resettled from their homelands and compensated with so-called “ecotourism jobs” in new locations.” Removing residents from their homes goes against ecotourism’s principles of working in partnership with indigenous people, and minimizing physical, behavioural, psychological and social impact.
Then there is the issue of ‘greenwashing’. Businesses may list themselves under the umbrella of ecotourism without actually adhering to any of the movement’s principles. With no substance behind the words, it becomes a marketing tactic. So, how can we find the true ecotourism providers?
Luckily for us, some ecotourism sites have systems in place to help travellers identify eco-friendly options. Costa Rica marks sustainable businesses with several leaves as a Certification for Sustainable Tourism. If a lodging company or tour operator has five leaves (the top classification), you know it cares for the environment, gives back to the community, promotes traditions, conserves energy and reduces waste. Ecotourism Kenya also has an eco-rating certification scheme with three levels: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. The company’s website lists organizations that have qualified for these certificates and provides details on what these rankings mean—which is incredibly useful for us ecotourists when we are looking at where to go and where to stay.
We hope, in the years to come, that more countries adopt these principles and guidelines, sooner, rather than later.
How Does the Future Look for Ecotourism Right Now?
Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the entire travel industry has come to a standstill. Travel restrictions have impacted all regions. International tourism is down by approximately 70 percent.
With the loss of travel comes a loss of revenue. The very reason that places are ecotourism hotspots is the same reason they are so remote—they are nature at its absolute finest. Often isolated and less built-up, ecotourism destinations are harder to access than main cities, requiring connecting flights, land or boat transfers. Without tourists, these places experience financial difficulties and have to slash jobs. In Kenya, where people visit the Maasai Mara to sneak a peek at the Big Five, around 3 million jobs have been lost since the pandemic started. A devastating blow to the local community.
Unemployment threatens ecotourism because locals could turn back to illegal activities, such as poaching and logging, to put food on the table. These unsustainable practices leave vulnerable species at risk and could reverse recent conservation efforts.
However, because of a recent surge in environmental awareness, and climate change’s relationship with Covid-19, National Geographic predicts that sustainability will drive travel decisions and trends in the coming years. There will be an emphasis on travelling to smaller communities, avoiding mass tourism, and supporting local economies.
Ever heard of virtual ecotourism? We hadn’t either. Initiatives include nature cams, online games, and virtual tours. We might see an increase in promotion for these as the travel industry takes time to recover from the current crisis. Though virtual ecotourism is not as exciting as arriving in a tropical location, embarking on a safari game drive, or walking through the rainforest canopy, it can be useful. It can create greater awareness and push environmental concerns into the spotlight, inspiring people to do what they can to help save the planet.
Why Does Wakeful Travel Encourage Ecotourism When The Travel Industry Opens Back Up?
As Wakeful Travellers, we believe in sustainable and ethical practices. We support ecotourism because it inspires visitors to be respectful when they travel. We can make a positive impact by supporting ecotourism businesses and helping them rebuild after this worldwide tourism industry shutdown. Don’t know where to go first? Start with any of these: Kenya, South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Madagascar, or Costa Rica.
But, if we’re going to tread, let’s tread mindfully.