Travel

Is Eco-Tourism Really Environmentally-Friendly?

Is Eco-Tourism Really Environmentally-Friendly?

Eco-tourism has become a buzzword in recent years, in the travel and tourism sector. People have become more environmentally aware and are seeking to do what they can to protect the environment. As such, travel and tour companies are promoting eco-tourism and tourists are willing to spend more for it.

In fact, eco-tourism has become so big that TreeHugger reported a study that offered a conservative estimate of $600 billion a year in revenues for the industry.

Eco-tourism has been defined by the BBC as a form of environmentally friendly tourism which involves people visiting fragile, unspoilt areas that are usually protected. According to the International Ecotourism Society, the concept has three pillars – conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.

Ecotourism - Share positive travel stories

Photo by Rubén Bagüés

The society has also identified eight principles of eco-tourism that must be followed:

• It must minimize physical, social, behavioral and psychological impacts;
• It must build environmental and cultural awareness and respect;
• It must provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts;
• It must provide direct financial benefits for conservation;
• It must generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry;
• It must deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates;
• It must design, construct and operate low-impact facilities; and
• It must recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in the community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.

In an ideal scenario and if these principles are strictly followed, there is no doubt that eco-tourism will indeed redound to positive impacts on the environment and the local communities. And there are a lot of anecdotal evidence that point to its positive effects.

Eco tourism should benefit communities, not exploit them

Photo by Sharon Christina Rørvik

What is alarming however is the fact that we are also confronted with various horror stories of eco-tourism. Take for example the report of The Daily Mail which showed evidence that spotting tours of whales and dolphins are harming these creatures. In New Zealand, the population of bottlenose dolphins have reportedly plummeted because they are driven away by tourists from their feeding areas. The Guardian has also noted the human cost of eco-tourism as people are being driven away from their homes to make way for the building of eco resorts, green hotels and other sites.

Big companies who run eco-tourism tours are also guilty of pocketing a big chunk of the revenues instead of giving it to the local economy. A perfect example of this is the report of how the porters on the Inca trail are treated.

Ecotourism is affecting the Inca trail - not always in positive ways

Photo by Nad Hemnani

Aside from these, nature-loving tourists are also being conned by what is termed as greenwashing, a marketing spin to deceptively promote company products and policies as environmentally-friendly. Some examples of this include the tendency of so-called eco hotels or resorts to promote their environmental practices such as the use of recycled toilet paper or encouraging the re-use of towels, but are actually dumping their wastes haphazardly.

Related Post: What You Need to Know About Greenwashing

Compounding these issues is the fact that eco-tourism regulations are considerably lacking and wanting. This is the major reason why a lot of companies are able to get away with their abuses not just on the environment but also the local people.

But is there anything that can be done?

I’d like to put forth the idea that the key lies with us as environmentally conscious travelers. I have put together a few key practices that we can all follow as we explore the world:

1. Do your research

Before booking anything with any travel operator or any accommodation provider, do your research. A travel operator that flaunts their environment-friendly policies does not mean that they are indeed doing so. Remember that it can be greenwashing at work. By consciously avoiding bogus operators, we are putting pressure on them to clean up their act. As much as possible, seek out reviews and guest feedback. Many travel websites encourage tourists to post honest feedback.

Eco-Tourism - Report tourist operators that are unethical

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography

2. Avoid any direct animal interactions

This is a rule that all conscious travelers should keep in mind. Direct interactions especially with wild animals put a lot of stress on them and further encourages the operators to continue with said shows. If these types of shows or tours continue, it will definitely have a negative impact on the populations of these animals.

3. Go local as much as possible

Tap local operators instead of multinational ones. In that way, you are helping drive the local economy, instead of giving your money to the big companies.

Eco-tourism- Uses local operators instead of big multinational tour companies

Photo by Luca Bravo

4. Be mindful of the tours that you take

Ask questions, check the attractions, investigate how animals and people are treated. That way, you can help champion for their better treatment and put an end to unethical business practices.

5. Spread the word

Don’t remain silent. If you see signs of unjust treatment of animals and people in any attraction or tour that you’re part of, find the best platform to talk about it. You may want to report it to the authorities or if you don’t feel comfortable doing that in the country or area you’re in, perhaps share your concerns through social media. And if you’ve seen best practices that need to be supported, find a way to promote the positive stories.

Eco Tourism - the new buzzword in travel

Photo by Sharon Christina Rørvik

Are there any other ways that we can do to help ensure environmentally-friendly eco-tourism practices? Please share. If we all contribute in our own little ways, we’ll be able to conserve the environment for other conscious travellers.

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About the author

Polly Michelle Cunanan

Polly Michelle Cunanan

Polly Michelle Cunanan is a results-driven media and communication expert with over 15 years of experience and proven track record in working with the Philippine Government and donor agencies such as the USAID, World Bank, UN-FAO, ADB, European Union (EU) and media. Political and strategic communication, messaging and campaigns are among her expertise. She spearheaded the communication program on the Bangsamoro peace process which led to a conducive environment for the signing of the historic Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. She is a graduate of BA Broadcast Communication from the University of the Philippines and has completed the academic requirements for MA Communication Research from the same university. She is a UK Chevening scholar currently studying MA International Public Relations and Global Communications Management at Cardiff University.

3 Comments

  • Thank you for this post. I was recently in San Andres and I was offered a manta ray experience and I was extremely annoyed that they let people touch the manta rays. I have gone scuba diving with them and you are not supposed to do that! Their skin is protected by a slimy layer and that´s why you are not supposed to touch them…have you travelled much around Colombia and South America? I want to do more of this ecotourism (but the good one, not the greenwashing kind)! Would love your suggestions!

  • My suggestion is that you should check out the room amenities/toiletries. Most hotels have no interest in stocking fully biodegradable amenities, and instead use synthetic based surfactant type soaps, body wash shampoo etc. We make amenities from plant oils only with any synthetics. These products are placed in some eco properties, but it is a hard sell to so called eco resorts.

    Similarly, we have trained a group of rural based intellectually disabled to make liquid and solid cleaning materials from recycled cooking oils. Popular with some tourist places, but again, a difficult sell.

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