Eco-tourism is more than a mere escape; it’s a deep dive into the heart of what it means to travel responsibly, with the intention of conserving the beauty that surrounds us while enriching the communities that call these places home.
My first encounter with ecotourism was in Thailand when researching ethical elephant sanctuaries. What a minefield to navigate! From heartwrenching pictures to carefully crafted websites with just the right amount of greenwashing to make you go “Oh, this sanctuary MUST be ethical’. Spoiler alert, there are but a handful that truly are, captivating pictures notwithstanding.
After what felt like weeks of research, I finally settled upon visiting the BLES Elephant Sanctuary. This experience sowed the seeds of curiosity about how ecotourism could transcend mere observation and become a force for conservation and understanding.
Caroline Muller is an award-winning travel blogger. She writes and photographs full-time while oscillating between Sicily and Brussels as a home base. She has documented over 60 countries across six continents and does not plan to stop any time soon. A staunch vegetarian for over 25 years, she loves exploring local cuisine in search of that perfect (plant-based) mouthful.
With this blog, she hopes to help you travel slower, more sustainably and a hella lot more meaningfully. Pack your bags!
The Definition of Ecotourism
Ecotourism, as I’ve come to learn, is the precarious balance of travel and conservation. The goal is to experience the Earth’s natural wonders while ensuring they remain unspoiled for generations to come. It’s about choosing to explore the rainforests, mountains, and coral reefs in a manner that respects their inherent value and fragility.
This form of travel is not just about where you go; it’s about your actions while you’re there. It’s selecting lodges that prioritize sustainability, engaging with guides who are local to the region, and participating in tours that fund conservation efforts. It’s a commitment to travel that demands conscious choices and invariably wading through a fair amount of greenwashing.
Principles of Ecotourism
According to the UNWTO’s definition, “ecotourism refers to forms of tourism which have the following characteristics:
OBSERVATION AND APPRECIATION: All nature-based forms of tourism in which the main motivation of the tourists is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.
EDUCATION: This type of tourism contains educational and interpretation features.
SMALL SCALE: It is generally, but not exclusively organized by specialized tour operators for small groups. Service provider partners at the destinations tend to be small, locally owned businesses.
MINIMAL IMPACT: It minimizes negative impacts on the natural and sociocultural environment;
SUPPORTS LOCAL ECONOMY: It supports the maintenance of natural areas that are used as ecotourism attractions by: Generating economic benefits for host communities, organizations and authorities managing natural areas with conservation purposes; Providing alternative employment and income opportunities for local communities; Increasing awareness towards the conservation of natural and cultural assets, both among locals and tourists.”
The Difference Between Ecotourism and Sustainable Travel
Along my travels, I have often asked myself “What does ecotourism mean?” as it is so often used almost interchangeably with “sustainable travel” and “responsible travel”. While there is most certainly an overlap, each of these terms has a slightly different focus worth highlighting.
ECOTOURISM: Ecofriendly tourism is a niche segment of tourism specifically tailored towards the conservation of natural environments and the well-being of local people, often through educational efforts focused on natural heritage.
SUSTAINABLE TOURISM: Sustainable travel, on the other hand, casts a wider net, encompassing not only environmental conservation but also the socio-economic stability of travel destinations at large. The GSTC Criteria serve as the global standards for sustainability in travel and tourism.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL: Interchangeable with conscious travel as a term referring to the behavior and style of individual travelers.
The Pros and Cons of Ecotourism
Pros of Ecotourism
EDUCATION: Educates travelers about the importance of nature: Understanding the components of an ecosystem can lead to a better appreciation for different species and natural formations.
PROTECTION OF FRAGILE ECOSYSTEMS: Instead of depleting resources and destroying nature, ecotourism suggests adopting a conscientious mindset to extract natural resources.
EMPLOYMENT: Ecotourism creates alternative employment for local communities and has the potential to lift them from systematic poverty. I witnessed this firsthand when traveling to the Amazon Rainforest in Bolivia and staying with a local indigenous community.
CONSERVATION EFFORT: By investing in ecotourism, travelers inadvertently also help fund conservation efforts (reforestation, protection of critically endangered wildlife,…).
Cons of Ecotourism
HUMAN WILDLIFE CONFLICT: An increased risk of human-wildlife conflict is one of the top risks.
GREENWASHING: As ecotourism grows year on year, greenwashing practices become exceedingly prolific. Make sure to check if your tourism operator is connected to rooted in the local community and do not be afraid to ask the hard questions before booking. Browse through the International Ecotourism Society to get a feel of what practices your tour operator should be using.
DISPLACEMENT OF INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES: It is a fine balance between the creation of employment and the displacement of indigenous communities. As destinations become more popular, large companies swoop in and buy land to create hotels resulting in local communities being displaced from their homes.
ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION: By taking tourists into unspoiled patches of nature, ecotourism runs the risk of environmental degradation by increasing pollution, soil erosion, and disruption of the natural hunting pattern of endemic species.
How To Be a Responsible Ecotourist
FOLLOW THE MONEY: Make sure the organization you have booked with offers financial contributions that benefit conservation and the local community.
PROTECT THE ENVIRONMENT: Before booking request information about the sustainable practices the organization has put into place. Are they recycling, avoiding single-use plastic, and using electric cars versus gas-guzzling 4×4 trucks.
IS IT LOCAL: Double and triple-check with whom the organization is working: Local guides, local community, and local suppliers. Are they empowering the local community through their work?
RESPECT WILDLIFE: If you are booking a tour that includes wildlife always make sure the interactions are non-invasive and do not have a negative impact on the wild animals. Just to clarify that means no bathing, feeding, riding, or touching in any way.
RESPECT LOCAL CULTURE: Are they respectfully working with the local community or is it exploitation for economic gain? Do not be afraid to ask what the community is getting out of their tours
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL
CONSCIOUS TRAVEL: 10 Tips to be a more conscious traveler
SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL: What is sustainable travel & why is it important
THAILAND: Guide to ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand
CURACAO: Alternative things to do in Curaçao
EUROPE: 20 Epic train journeys across Europe
ITALY: Sustainable guide to South Tyrol (Dolomites)
NETHERLANDS: 6 Biking trips around Amsterdam