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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.