Earlier this year I was invited to give a presentation at the annual Women in Travel Summit about Ecotourism and the importance of sustainable travel in today’s world. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, to talk about ecotourism with those who weren’t able to hear my presentation at the conference.
Today I am finally getting to it and am hoping to start a good conversation about responsible travel within our community. Combining environmental consciousness with travel is the entire foundation of Airplanes & Avocados, and I’m excited to finally have the chance to dig deeper into this and share my thoughts and experiences about sustainable travel with you.
The International Ecotourism Society defines “ecotourism” as: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”.
As an eco-tourist, you choose to travel consciously, in a way that respects nature and local communities and has a minimal environmental impact/contribution to degradation/negative impact.
Visually, the differences between ecotourism and mass tourism are striking.
Based on the above definition, ecotourism can be broken into five main principles:
- Minimizing the environmental impact of tourism
- Building environmental and cultural awareness
- Providing direct financial benefits for conservation
- Providing financial benefits and empowerment for local people
- Raising sensitivity to the host country’s cultural, political, social, and environmental climate
These five principles encompass the environmental, socio-cultural, and economic factors associated with ecotourism. That’s right, sustainable tourism isn’t just about environmental sustainability. In fact, the most crucial part of ecotourism’s success relies on socio-cultural sustainability and the impacts on local communities.
From an environmental standpoint, ecotourism has a lot of benefits in regards to conservation of the natural environmental, preservation of biodiversity, and the protection of natural resources.
Ecotourism focuses on minimizing each guest’s individual environmental impact, as well as the overall impact of lodges and excursions. A lot of ecotourism accommodations promote “green behaviors” such as minimal laundry service, biodegradable soaps, and cleaning products, and reducing their plastic usage by offering guests amenities in reusable glass containers.
Ecotourism helps facilitate a better appreciation of the environment between travelers and their destinations, stemming from the education and awareness that ecotourism promotes.
In order for ecotourism to be successful, local people need to be involved in every stage of development. The main societal goal of ecotourism is to bring local communities to a better standard of living, thus their needs should be accounted for at every step. In many cases, ecotourism has been successful in improving the quality of life for locals by bringing electricity to communities that previously did not have power, building sanitation and water treatment facilities in communities that were previously without drinking water, and introducing improved roads and transportation conditions in other communities. Ecotourism also strives to create greater interaction between locals and travelers, to enable education among foreign visitors and eliminate the “zooification” of culture and staged authenticity that often occurs to appeal to Western tourists.
More meaningful interactions between locals and guests allows visitors to experience the local culture and lifestyle firsthand, which helps to preserve the region’s heritage. In addition, these interactions can give travelers a better understanding of political and social issues in these local communities, that often get watered down by Western media.
The biggest economic benefit of ecotourism is that the money stays within local communities. As opposed to mass tourism, where outside companies come into local communities to build and collect profit, taking their earnings back to their home countries – a cycle which harms the local community. In this situation, local workers are often underpaid and overworked and the introduction of outside contractors devalues the local currency, which decreases the standard of living for locals.
By bringing ecotourism to local communities it creates new job opportunities that pay fair wages and maintain a fair value on the local currency. In addition, because tourist money stays within the community more of this money can be allocated to conservation efforts in order to protect the local environment.
Why Should You Care?
I am assuming that if you’ve landed on my blog that you’re not oblivious to the dangers of climate change and the reality that our world is changing. With global warming and risks like sea level rise, greenhouse gases entering out atmosphere, glacier melting, and biodiversity loss threatening our planet’s survival, the world absolutely needs more eco-tourism. Ecotourism teaches travelers to be more responsible and gentle towards the most pristine locations in the world and it allows them to create deeper connections with local communities and culture. We are so fortunate to be able to travel and explore new places, and it’s not something we should take for granted. As someone who has fallen in love with so many beautiful places across the world, I think that travelers have a personal responsibility to protect these special places and do all that we can to conserve them for future generations to experience.
Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of tourism, reporting growths of 10-15% annually worldwide. As long as we abide by the following principles, ecotourism can easily become the most successful and popular form of travel.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness
- Minimize impacts
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
- Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
If you love to travel as much as I do, then try to incorporate some of these ecotourism practices into your next trip. Look for eco-lodges as accommodation, buy a carbon offset for your flight, experience local public transportation instead of renting a car, and support small, local tour companies.