What is Ecotourism?

by Linda  

cape-otway-koalas.jpgAlthough a relatively new travel concept in the mainstream, ecotourism is much older than you’d think. The flower power hippies of the 1960s and ‘70s were eager environmental tourists keen to preserve the natural habitats of places they visited. Existing lodges in Central America are evidence of that and some like Rancho La Puerta on the Mexico and US border predate them by a few decades.

It wasn’t until 1983 that Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, a Mexican architect, environmentalist and tourism consultant, first coined the phrase ‘ecotourism’. Since then, almost every country in the world has made efforts to cater towards the growing number of travellers looking for something more than kitsch souvenirs and a tan.

Definition of Ecotourism

Over the years, the definition of ecotourism has changed and evolved as travellers have become more aware of the impact of their travels on both the environment and communities, yet it remains difficult to define because of the various facets involved.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as, “Responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.”

So, to understand this view people need to first understand the definition of responsible travel. See the problem? It’s not as easy as it looks.

TIES says, “Ecotourism is about connecting conservation, communities and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement and participate in responsible tourism activities should follow the following ecotourism principles:

  • minimize impact
  • build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
  • provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
  • provide direct financial benefits for conservation
  • provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
  • raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental and social climate

Another leader in ecotourism, the World Conservation Union, describes it as, “Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”

They suggest much the same as the International Ecotourism Society; their principles being:

  • Conscientious, low-impact visitor behavior
  • Sensitivity towards, and appreciation of, local cultures and biodiversity
  • Support for local conservation efforts
  • Sustainable benefits to local communities
  • Local participation in decision-making
  • Educational components for both the traveler and local communities

So, it seems that definition of ecotourism today is a conglomerate of the various travel ideologies it attempts to achieve. It is sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, ethical tourism, cultural tourism, green tourism – all equally confusing labels that are seldom correctly defined but at the same time encompass the values of ecotourism. To define ecotourism is to define each one of these.

The Future

Ultimately, there needs to be a consensus on the definition of ecotourism, not only for the benefit of travellers eager to do the right thing but also for the benefit of both the natural habitats and cultures visited.

And with that, a global standard, which will ensure only those committed to the true ethos of ecotourism will be rated and therefore visited.

Beware of The Great Pretender

Beware, not all ecotourism ventures are what they seem or uphold the principles described here. Tourism generates over 2 billion USD$ a day, making it the largest industry in the world and a magnet for those only too willing to make a quick buck.

If you’re interested in ecotourism do a bit of homework on the company you’re booking through. Too many plough profits into the pockets of investors instead of the local economy or environment.

And if the tour you are booking is not educational in some way and does not directly benefit the area or people, it is not ecotourism.

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