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26 May What is ecotourism and why do we need it?

There are a number of different interpretations and definitions of ecotourism. It can fall foul of similar issues as greenwashing because travel brands know that it’s important and in demand. For us at Wearth, ecotourism is travel which sits in line with our core values. This means it is a way for people to visit different places and experience the natural environment in a way which minimises damage to the environment, conserves the local area, and also contributes to the local community.

The world is immensely global. And with the pandemic starting to enable tourism to be considered once more, at least in some areas of the world, it’s vital that we consider ecotourism again and seriously, before travel becomes much easier again.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) gives the following definition of ecotourism:

“Ecotourism is 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.”

The problems of over-tourism

We need to consider ecotourism, in the first instance, because with the ease and affordability of global travel, many tourist destinations are suffering from over-tourism. Simply put, too many people visiting in ways which aren’t eco-conscious have a hugely detrimental impact on some of the world’s most beautiful and fragile ecosystems and communities.

We need to take responsibility for the way in which we travel and that’s why ecotourism is so vitally important.

Ecotourism requires active and conscious decisions

With ecotourism, it’s essential to think about how travel to (and within) an area impacts the environment and local community. It needs to be actively driven and conscious in its approach. 

Fundamentally, it can only work when it is low impact and the driving force of this is that it needs to be small-scale. In this way, local communities and ecosystems are more easily protected and conserved.

Behind this, sits education and knowledge. It is impossible to take an ecotourism approach without learning about and understanding the specific nature of that environment and culture. This is especially true as the destinations where ecotourism is most needed and most important tend to be naturally fragile. Whether it’s a cultural enclave or a biodiverse region, or both, the fragility needs protecting.

So, why is ecotourism important?

Ecotourism ensures that we are actively respecting, preserving and conserving some of the most fragile, beautiful and ecologically important places on the planet. It is important because instead of travel ‘taking’ from the local area, it actively contributes to sustainability and conservation. Ecotourism ensures that tourists don’t just pass through the area, impacting the area negatively, but makes sure tourists actively contribute and visit in a way which doesn’t harm the environment or community.

An example of where ecotourism has become vital is Machu Picchu in Peru. This incredible site was experiencing damage which was in danger of being irreversible. By limiting the numbers of visitors, ecotourism is helping to conserve the site and support local communities.

The reasons why ecotourism is important will vary, to some degree, from place to place. Or, at the very least, the emphasis of the ecotourism principles will vary. However, the main reasons why ecotourism is important are:

Enables natural environments to remain pristine

Natural environments, by their very nature, are vulnerable to human impact. Ecotourism limits the impact of humans on the environment, helping that area to stay close to its natural form.

It develops greater awareness

Because ecotourism is conscious tourism, it contributes to environmental and cultural awareness. Greater awareness leads to greater compassion, empathy and respect.

It supports local communities

Ecotourism is good for providing financial opportunities to local communities through employment and trade. Less of the tourist dollar ends up in the hands of impersonal travel brands, but instead it goes into the local community.

It boosts conservation

Ecotourism often actively focuses on contributing to conservation, perhaps through specific projects which form part of the experience itself. Additionally, money raised through tourism is ploughed back into the local area with conservation aims.

It enables people to travel in line with their values

There is growing demand in the travel industry for people to be able to uphold their values whilst travelling. This means that being able to visit somewhere which, for example, follows zero-waste principles, prioritises recycling, or actively ensures support of the local community, is vitally important.

It’s a great way to travel

In addition to all of the positive impacts of ecotourism, there’s also the benefit that ecotourism experiences are extremely enjoyable and rewarding, offering a more meaningful and memorable way of experiencing an area.

How can you tell if a trip or experience upholds ecotourism values?

You do need to do a little more research to be certain that you are booking a trip or experience that ties in with your travel principles. This isn’t a regulated sector, and there’s no international body that even agrees fully on what ‘ecotourism’ definitively means. As said at the beginning, because the term ‘ecotourism’ is appealing and in demand, some unscrupulous travel companies will use the term simply as part of their marketing act. 

When doing your trip planning, try to determine what the eco-commitments of your chosen provider are and ascertain how they follow through on these in practice. Look to see how they operate sustainably and how they work with the local community. You’ll need to determine authenticity and check that they really do walk-the-walk, rather than simply know how to use the terminology to get you to part with your cash. 

It’s possible to be an ecotourist and feel good about how you’re contributing to and impacting the planet, as well as have a good time and experience. It just takes a little more conscious thought.