What is Ecotourism?

What is Ecotourism?

Written by Harley Burland.

When we think of tourism, we think of pristine beaches, breathtaking views and the excitement of getting lost in a new destination. There’s the exotic smells and sounds, the rich foods and the incredible people. Tourism allows us to immerse ourselves into the environments and lifestyles of cultures entirely different than our own. But as we travel, we must also be mindful of the places we visit and the impact our adventures have on these places.

In this article, we'll go over everything you need to know about eco-tourism including:

  • What is Ecotourism and Why is it Important?
  • Who Started Ecotourism?
  • What Are the Principles of Ecotourism?
  • What Are the Biggest Benefits to Ecotourism?
  • What Are the Types of Ecotourism?
  • How Does Ecotourism Benefit Economies, the People and the Environment?
  • What Are the Challenges of Ecotourism
  • Why Should We Care About Eco-Tourism?
  • How Can We Promote Ecotourism and Where Can I Book My Next Eco-Adventure?
  • Supporting Ecotourism as a Wakeful Traveller

young woman sitting on a dock looking out over Lake Atitlan's volcanos


What is Ecotourism and Why is it Important?

Ecotourism is the concept of combining the thrill of travel with the conscious effort of support and conservation of those places. It’s about supporting local cultures and minimizing the negative impacts of the tourism industry. Ecotourism pairs sustainable tourism with environmental conservation in order to provide a low-impact travel experience. 

The definition of ecotourism is:

  1. Tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife.

Who Started Ecotourism?

The idea to combine tourism and conservation seems like a no-brainer to those of us who want to maintain the natural beauty and culture of the places we travel. But that hasn’t always been the case. In the 70’s, the negative effects of mass tourism were just being realized, and thus began the modern movement. Environmental activist Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin is thought to have coined the term “Eco Tourism” which he used to describe, “travelling to undisturbed areas in order to enjoy their natural beauty and culture.”

In 1981, Ceballos-Lascuráin founded the first Mexican ecotourism agency called ECOTOURS. A few years later, wildlife biologist Megan Eplar Wood produced “The Environmental Tourist” for PBS. Her inspiration came from her time in the rainforest, where she had witnessed the benefit tourism could have on the conservation of natural areas.  Fast forward to this decade and ecotourism is becoming a lot more mainstream. The United Nations declared 2017 the International Year for Sustainable Tourism Development. Since, many organizations and travellers have become more aware of ecotourism as a great alternative for travel. 

 

young male traveler surrounded by rice fields and palm trees in India

What are the Principles of Ecotourism?

The International Ecotourism Society has a list of principles – sort of like a checklist – that a trip must follow in order to be considered ecotourism. 

  • Minimize physical, social, behavioural and psychological impact. 
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness, as well as respect. 
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Produce direct financial benefits for conservation
  • Generate financial beneficial 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. 

What are the Biggest Benefits of Ecotourism?

Remember those pristine beaches and breathtaking views mentioned before? Ecotourism plays an important part in keeping those areas exactly as they are. You know those national parks with all the little signs explaining the local landscape and reminders to stay on the trails and to toss your trash in the bin? You can thank ecotourism for those. Supporting responsible travel not only helps to conserve the beauty of natural habitats but also to protect those who live in the area. The biggest benefits include preservations of these destinations and sustainable development for the local communities. Traditionally, the travel industry threatened the cultural and environmental integrity of areas. Travellers who aren't sensitive to local cultures and ways of life can sometimes degrade or destroy the natural and cultural assets of a community.  Ecotourism empowers communities by creating economic value in these untouched areas. 

What are the types of Ecotourism?

There isn’t just one way to make your trips more sustainable. Ecotourists can enjoy responsible tourism in many forms. Here are a few types of Ecotourism:

  • Eco-loging: Choosing accommodations that are built with environmental awareness in mind. These can be anything from hostels and hotels built with sustainable materials or in natural settings, to “Eco-resorts,” which are built in remote places and offer ecotourism activities like bird watching, hiking, or kayaking. 
  • Agro-tourism: Visiting or volunteering on rural farm communities. Ecotourists can work with the communities to provide sustainable help or to learn about the sustainable farming methods of that specific region. 
  • Community Development: Volunteering opportunities that focus on off-setting the negative impacts of mass tourism and modernization. Ecotourists can plant trees, build houses, or learn local trades. They can volunteer in schools, museums, or research centers to further cultural awareness. 
  • Eco Tours: Taking part in excursions to exotic or endangered areas in order to increase awareness of the region and support conservation. Treks can include hiking, rafting, rock climbing, caving, swimming, sailing or bird watching.

How Does Ecotourism Benefit Economies? How Does it Support Conservation and the Locals in the Communities?

By giving back to the communities, ecotourism creates new jobs in communities and stimulates the economies. More visitors means more business for local shops and restaurants. Volunteers who work to build houses or restore communities contribute to the local economy by keeping the resources and revenue in that area. This influences the well-being of the local people. 

Organizations who offer these excursions may also give a portion of the funds to support local communities. Host communities are involved with creating the eco-tours, which is great because they know the most about their natural areas. By providing tourism based education, it creates environmental awareness and builds respect for the surrounding environment. The more tourists who fall in love with the natural beauty, the more they will want to help keep it that way. 

 

young girl sitting on a retreat center bed looking out into the mountains

What are the Challenges of Ecotourism?

Ecotourism is a lot more beneficial than traditional mass tourism, and of course there are so many environmental and economic benefits, however, it can pose a threat to the ecotourism destination as well. While it’s aimed at reducing the negative impact associated with travel, it can still disrupt the local area’s natural environment, economy, and culture, greenwashing tourism and marketing it as a responsible travel experience does happen. It’s the hope that all who pursue ecotourism do so for the right reasons, but there are always bandwagon jumpers who are looking to make a profit rather than a positive impact for the people and the economic development of an area. Here are the challenges to ec-tourism:

  • Environmental Challenges: One of the main goals of ecotourism is conservation and sustainability, yet there is always a risk to the environment when tourism expands. As popularity to a specific place grows, there will be an increase in usage. This can lead to an over taxation of the resources, and a disruption to nature. Sure, eco-conscious resorts are a great alternative, but they also threaten to impact the wildlife which can have a negative effect on their natural habitats. Often, these areas are remote to get into which can increase the carbon footprint to get in and out of the areas. 
  • Economic Challenges: Ecotourism has become more attractive to larger international corporations. This can lead to a surge of outside developers in new hot-spot eco-destinations. Issues to the local economy arsie when these developers build hotels and shops that take away business from the locals. If the prices of food and water increase with the added population of tourists, it affects the well-being of the local people. Now they pay the price for the higher demand of natural resources caused by the influx of population. And while the goal of ecotourism is to give back revenue to the areas, corrupt corporations or governments can interfere and keep the money from the communities they should be compensating. 
  • Local Cultural Challenges: Towns must grow to keep up with the added population tourism creates, and this can lead to local residents losing some or all of their farm land. In order to keep up with the accommodation of tourists, locals may also give up their original jobs in order to work in the service and tourism industry. Often these are low paying jobs in hotels and restaurants. This loss of traditional income can affect their cultural ties to their homeland and to their cultural identity. Indigenous people of these areas are also at risk. As aspects of their culture - such as ceremonies - become marketed for tourist attraction, there can be a loss of authenticity and meaning to the locals. 

Why Should we Care About Ecotourism?

If you enjoy travelling at all, you should care about ecotourism. Simple as that. It ensures the places we visit and the people who live there are taken care of. It preserves the cultural heritage and natural environment of our destinations. Ecotourism supports local communities by respecting their land, creating new job opportunities, and providing more money for conservation and protection of the local environment. If we continue to support mass tourism, the places we love to visit won’t exist. The tourism industry accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Choosing sustainable travel is an easy way to slow down climate change and support the well-being of local people and their communities. It’s an easy way to give back to the planet that gives us so much. 

young woman in the passenger seat of a car with her head and hand out of the window

How can we Promote Ecotourism and Where Can I Book my Next Eco-Adventure?

You can promote ecotourism by going on a trip and being conscious about it. Be sure to research your ecotourism agency to make sure the tour operators practice responsible tourism. Book with organizations who give back to the communities and promote sustainable travel. Check that your accommodation, tours, excursions, and places you eat are sustainable and support natural tourism practices. Your tourism organization should also be transparent about their practices, and if you ask them about something, they should be able to explain how they operate and practice ecotourism. If they don’t give you that much information, go with your gut and keep looking.

Instead of planning a week lying on the beach, you could also try volunteering. However, it’s important to find a reputable volunteer organization, as many volunteer forms of tourism can be unethical, not supporting the community fully or using the funds for their own stream of income. Giving Way is a volunteer marketplace where you can find and choose your next volunteer opportunity.

There are so many different destinations to check out and ways to support eco-travel. 

Costa Rica is the number one ecotourism destination in terms of the variety and preservation practices. Many eco-tourists are drawn to the beautiful national parks and protected areas in the country. From turtle hatcheries to sloth farms, chocolate plantation tours to guided hikes and the most gorgeous eco-lodgings, Costa Rica will steal your eco-friendly heart.

Some areas which are home to very high endangered animals, insects, reptiles, plants, and fauna such as the Galapagos Islands rely on ecotourism to fund the preservation of these species and the land they live on. When you enter the Galapagos National Park, your entrance fee goes towards these type of projects. Many parks and organizations have ways you can make a difference to conservation internationally from the comfort of your own home, too. For example, you can adopt a species on the Galapagos Conservancy site. How cute is that?

Supporting Ecotourism as a Wakeful Traveller

Being a Wakeful Traveller takes careful planning and research, but in the end, you’ll feel rewarded knowing that your money and experiences are supporting whichever local cultures you decide to discover.

So go on, explore mindfully.

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