Ecotourism: can tourism pay for conservation and development?

With the Christmas holidays ahead, it is tempting for many of us to start to think about new holiday destinations. With the recent popularity of green living and sustainable lifestyles, more and more people opt for ecotourism destinations. A few images that directly come to mind when thinking about ecotourism are of unspoiled natural landscapes, ecosystems devoid of human impact and encounters with local communities. The term ‘ecotourism’ gained popularity around 25 years ago and now makes up a substantial part of the international tourism industry. Although ecotourism is now relatively commonplace, there are a number of uncertainties and criticisms around the subject.

What is ecotourism?

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’. From this definition, ecotourism seems to be a win-win situation: tourists can enjoy natural and cultural environments, whilst contributing to nature conservation and the development of local communities. Sounds great right?

The TIES Principles of Ecotourism

Is ecotourism too good to be true?

Despite the popularity of the term, ecotourism is not as straightforward as it seems and has been subjected to fierce critiques. One source of problems is the fact that ecotourism is a typical example of a ‘fuzzy concept’, meaning that the exact application of the term can vary significantly in different contexts. Ecotourism is often interpreted differently by different stakeholders, including tour operators, travel agents, businesses, governments and tourists themselves. The  TIES and UNEP have developed principles and guidelines for ecotourism businesses, but in practice there is no way to enforce them. This means that businesses can advertise themselves under the label of ‘ecotourism’ whilst actually contributing little towards the cause of ecotourism. This is a process also referred to as ‘greenwashing’.

Greenwashing by larger tourism businesses can lead ecotourism away from the ideal of small scale and ecologically friendly tourism towards a form of tourism also referred to as ‘mass-ecotourism’ or ‘eco mass tourism’.  I vividly remember going on a hike last summer in one of Slowakia’s green tourism destinations. Instead of enjoying the surroundings by walking the trail in a comfortable pace, it rather felt like I was in line in a theme park. The path was packed with fellow tourists that not only moved extremely slowly but also left a trail of rubbish behind in the once unspoiled forest.

In line in one of Slowakia’s national parks – author’s image

Many more examples show that there are many contemporary tourists who do have an interest in green travel, but also want to use the benefits of the mass tourism infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, if this form of tourism is not well-implemented, it can lead to considerable environmental impacts ranging from environmental degradation as a result of tourism infrastructure to disturbance of flora and fauna and pollution of the environment.

If not well-implemented, ecotourism can also have negative economic and socio-cultural impacts on local communities. Ecotourism has in most cases failed to achieve the promised empowerment of local communities due to a combination of factors. These mostly relate to a lack of a mechanism to ensure equitable distribution of income between local communities and other stakeholders. It can also lead to land insecurity of local communities and is sometimes associated with compulsory displacement. The ecotourism business can also have an effect on local culture.  It may be  altered as a result of ecotourism by bringingin foreign influences or by a commodification of traditional cultural symbols.

Then there is also a set of critiques focusing on the character of tourism itself. Ecotourism has been described by many as an oxymoron, implyiing it is impossible to be an environmentally friendly tourist because tourism in any form will alter the environment. A critique in the same spirit is that the people who are drawn to ecotourism are often also people who have to travel long distances to get to their exotic destinations, often by plane. Greenhouse gases emitted during long distance travel will offset the positive environmental impacts of ecotourism.

Are the prospects for ecotourism really that bleak?

From the above it may be clear that ecotourism is not the panacea that many had hoped it to be. But I don’t believe that that means that ecotourism will go away: in today’s society it becomes more and more popular to have so-called ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ lifestyles. An example is the increased number of people with vegan or vegetarian diets, often motivated by celebrities or social media stars. Amongst businesses it is also increasingly necessary to work according to green practices as more and more consumers demand ‘green’ products. There is no denying it: the popularity of a sustainable lifestyle isn’t going away. It is therefore possible that this movement can play a role in improving ecotourism.

To achieve successful ecotourism, it is important that the label ‘ecotourism’ is used correctly and not as a marketing method. The International Ecotourism Society has already set a number of standards ecotourism destinations should adhere to and has done important work in identifying legit ecotourism providers. Ecotourism providers that work according to the standards can obtain ecotourism certification.

But how to pick your new holiday destination? Here are a few things you as a tourist can do when choosing to find out if your holiday destination is as eco as it presents itself to be.

  1. Make sure you understand the principles of ecotourism
  2. Look for destinations with eco certification, such as that of TIES
  3. Ask the destination clear information on how their activities contribute to sustainable development and nature conservation
  4. Ask how the money you spend on your holiday is used towards these activities
  5. Stay away if the destination has a strong focus on entertainment – avoid direct interaction with protected species
  6. Look at the scale of your tourism destinations – try to stay away from mass activities

Happy holidays!







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