Ecotourism – Leave Nothing but Footprints and Goodwill
Perhaps you’ve dreamed of vacationing at a resort on a tropical island, surrounded by a luxury hotel with every convenience you could desire: Food and drink served in abundance in any number of dining locations. Beach chairs and umbrellas on the pristine sands of an exclusive beach. A swim bar in the middle of a sparkling pool for guests only. Nightclubs with live entertainment right on the property. Sophisticated staff from countries around the world. And a direct shuttle to carry you safely between the airport and the hotel.
Why would you care to venture out and see the island, with everything you need right here? And why would you want to meet the local people, when their extreme poverty would put a damper on your luxury vacation?
Then again, perhaps your idea of a vacation is a bit more about getting in touch with the earth and the local people. If so, the more authentic experience of ecotourism may appeal to you. The real point of ecotourism, according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), is to help “protect the natural and cultural heritage of our beautiful planet” — and, of course, to give you an adventure you’ll never forget.
Ecotour destinations are, by definition, places with exceptional beauty, unusual flora and fauna, rare ecosystems, unique traditional cultures, or some combination of these interesting and attractive drawing points. Theoretically, a quality ecotour provides an opportunity to experience and learn about our natural world, while appreciating and protecting these wild treasures. At the same time, the ecotourist’s travel budget provides local communities with a reliable source of economic support without disrupting or harming their traditional culture. That is a tall order.
In practice, some ecotour companies are careless or even exploitative on both counts. If you’re considering an ecotour adventure, do the research necessary to find a destination through a tour company that lives up to its pledge to protect the local culture and the environment.
Even well-intentioned ecotourism can be severely damaging, if the providers don’t take into account the area’s ability to support additional people. As environmental scientist Jagdish Poudel warned earlier this year in a post about his home country, Nepal, “Before starting to increase the number of tourists, we must do research on the balance of supply and demand of natural resources in the area. In order to improve the economic status of rural people, we should not degrade the [natural resources] and wildlife habitat, as that is not sustainable development.”
Examine Your Options
Ecotourism opportunities exist all over the world. In Europe, ecotourism tends to center on a farm or a house that functions as a kind of ecology-focused bed and breakfast. In Italy, ecotourism is likely to be called agriturismo, an acknowledgment of the agricultural focus of many destinations. In France, ecotourism is also called tourisme vert (green tourism). Ecotourism in the Americas is generally more concerned with outdoor adventuring, such as mountain climbing, hiking, or kayaking.
Extreme nature ecotours take adventurers to places like Antarctica, Galapagos Islands, or Patagonia. At some destinations, visitors are free to experience nature up close without much concern for minimizing their environmental impact. If you are looking into a tour of this sort, be sure that it truly is eco-friendly, and isn’t simply being greenwashed for marketing purposes.
Yet on other tours, such as those visiting Galapagos, tourists must follow strict guidelines about where they are allowed to walk and what they can touch, in order to protect the very fragile ecology. Carefully regulated excursions to Galapagos provide a model for ecologically conscious tourism in sensitive areas.
Ideally, ecotour companies should focus on both protecting the environment and providing a memorable experience. Each destination will be different, and the wise ecotourist will thoroughly examine the options before signing on for the journey.
Consider Your Impact
We believe that true ecotourism protects local cultures and empowers local and Indigenous peoples — while providing visitors with unique opportunities to learn about the community they visit and contribute to its success.
— Kores Ole Musuni, Maasai Cross Cultural and Ecotourism Programs, quoted on the TIES home page
In addition to the “leave nothing but footprints” (and, hopefully, good will) philosophy associated with ecotourism, comes a host of politically charged issues. Responsible travelers avoid giving their tourist dollars to countries that abuse human rights and disregard conservation. Ecotourism organizations ask travelers to consider the impact on the local economy when purchasing products, tours or other services. The goal is to choose the options of most benefit to the local people — not to huge corporations.
Organizations such as TIES and the Eco Club can be helpful in identifying which destinations and ecotour companies provide truly sustainable travel. You also can find a wealth of resources from the Nature Conservancy. So, start dreaming. Then do your homework, and take an eco-vacation that will give you memories you can cherish and a travel experience you can be proud of.
Have you taken an eco-vacation? We’d love to hear about it.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)