What is ecotourism and why we need more of it

Ecotourism is a form of sustainable travel that supports the local environment instead of putting more pressure on it and exploiting its resources.

Ecotourism is a complex concept growing in importance more and more each year and if you care about protecting nature and having a positive impact, you should make sure that your travels are done sustainably.

What is ecotourism anyway?

There are a few definitions which stand out. The one which is generally accepted in most circles is the one from the World Conservation Union (IUCN):

“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.”

Another, simpler and more to the point definition is given by the The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), which says that ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” In practice, this implies several things.

The first thing it implies is a level of awareness from the tourist. The tourist should be aware that he or she is having an impact both on the local environment and on the local community, and should try, within reasonable limits, to reduce this impact. Furthermore, the tourist should not only try to do as little damage as possible but also to support the local community whenever this is possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the whole experience becomes less pleasant – on the contrary. This appreciation attitude often leads to the traveler enjoying his experience even more.

Looking at things in a wider perspective, it’s also about the size of the groups. You can’t do mass-ecotourism, ecotourism has to be done in small or medium groups. There is also usually a strong educational component associated with ecotourism (though not mandatory), and common themes in this context are recycling, responsible water consumption, local craftsmanship, and cycling or walking as opposed to driving.

Why we need ecotourism

According to the Air Transport Action Group, the world’s airlines carried a total of over 3 billion passengers in 2013, a figure which has steadily increased since. Oxford Economics expect that figure to almost double, reaching 5.9 billion by 2030. All these people are not only emitting huge quantities of CO2 (indirectly) but also putting a great pressure on many environments.

Tourists also require additional infrastructure, such as water treatment plants, sanitation facilities, and lodging. Often times, local communities are not able to sustainably offer these conditions and the results can be devastating. In many parts of Africa for example, large-scale tourism led to the improper disposal of campsite sewage. This, in turn, resulted in the contamination of the nearest river where wildlife, livestock, and people draw drinking water. But that’s just the start of it.

Especially in vulnerable areas, the increase of visitors can lead to significant environmental degradation. Local communities can also be harmed by an influx of tourists as the money influx is rarely directed towards them. Wherever people go, we leave behind garbage – and even if it is left in bins, it can still create a dangerous imbalance. Safaris and animal photographing can scare creatures. Feeding wildlife can teach them bad habits and leave them depending on humans. Even just walking can lead to soil erosion and destruction of animal paths. It can be hard to accept, but everything we do has an impact on wildlife – we should be conscious of this.

Examples abound. In the Antarctic, one of the planet’s most vulnerable areas, it can take hundreds of years for any rubbish to decompose and tourists leave behind plenty of garbage. In Australia, tourists are accelerating the downfall of the Great Barrier Reef, and in Africa, tourism jobs are poorly paid, yet tourism is pushing the prices up – the money isn’t going to the locals, but prices are rising. It can be really easy to make a difference, and giving up on mass-tourism is a much-needed firsts step.

The world absolutely needs more ecotourism. It teaches travelers to be more responsible to the pristine areas of the world, it helps educate people, it provides funds for conservation as well as for local communities (often indigenous). Also, because a state of respect and awareness is awakened in the tourist, the quality of his travels is also increased significantly.

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Source: ZME Science