What Is Ecotourism? (2021 Ultimate Guide)

Travel and sustainability are quite the contentious pair – an unlikely couple locked in perpetual proximity and conflict. The question is, will we ever find a way to comfortably unify them? How can we make peace between a system of ideals and the mega-industry that often undercuts it? Answering that question lies at the heart of Hidden Lemur’s mission. By understanding the best practices of responsible ecotourism, we can learn how to integrate our personal enjoyment with the greater good, bringing tourism and sustainability closer together.

What Is Ecotourism?

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Ecotourism is a fast-growing sector within the tourism industry that prioritizes the protection and conservation of the natural environment. For a growing number of countries, including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nepal, Kenya, Madagascar, territories such as Antarctica, and more, ecotourism represents a significant portion of the gross domestic product and economic activity.

At its best, ecotourism contributes to conservation efforts by engaging tourists with the natural world in a sustainable way. At its worst, irresponsible ecotourism perpetuates harmful practices by luring unsuspecting tourists into environmentally or economically damaging experiences with greenwashing: deceptive marketing used to persuade the public that an organization's products, practices, or policies are environmentally friendly

So how can we spot the real thing? According to an extensive 2009 report from Sustainability Watch, responsible ecotourism combines most or all of the following characteristics: 

• Visitor management that does not exceed the carrying capacity of the site.

• Minimal environmental impact to the site. 

• Direct financial benefit for conservation. 

• A local community invested with control.

• Increased length of stay from visitors. 

• Small-scale development.

• Use of sustainable resources for energy, such as solar panels. 

• Local economic diversification, so that the area does not depend solely on tourism for revenue. 

• A comprehensive approach to flora and fauna education, rather than a focus on one or two “flagship” species. 

• Coordination with NGOs  

If THAT wasn't enough to make your head spin, there are also many terms associated with ecotourism, making it all the more difficult to define. Here are some of the most widely used terms, and their meanings:

Community-based Ecotourism: Ecotourism that is controlled by and provides benefits  to local communities. It could be considered synonymous with “ecotourism,” but emphasises the involvement of local communities. 

Ecotourism: Travel to natural areas with a focus on conserving the environment, and empowering and benefiting local people.

Mass Tourism: Travel that is widely accessible (financially and geographically) to the largest segment of the population. 

Nature Tourism: Travel to natural areas that does not necessarily involve interaction with local cultures or conservation. 20-25% of leisure travel is nature based. 

Sustainable Nature Tourism: Travel to natural areas, with a focus on sustainable activities. This category may involve heavily traveled areas and may or may not involve interaction with local people. 

Sustainable (or Green) Tourism: Any travel involving operators and facilities with sustainable or green practices. Not necessarily to natural areas. 

Volunteer-based Ecotourism: Ecotourism participants volunteer their time and efforts to a local conservation project. These programs usually involve significant interaction with the local community. 

Until the concept of ecotourism finds a universal definition or official classification system, it’s up to us as conscious travelers to cultivate discernment between positive ecotourism and exploitative tourism disguised by greenwashing. As you can see, the definitions above indicate that “nature experiences” do not necessarily constitute ecotourism, even if tour operators would like you to believe otherwise. 

For example,visiting animal sanctuaries or camping may seem like eco-friendly activities because advertisements often make use of buzzwords like “green” “wild” or “natural” – but as we know, these sometimes reveal themselves to be greenwashing tactics. It helps to keep in mind that appreciating the environment doesn’t mean you’re helping the environment – on the contrary, your impact could be unintentionally negative if you aren’t vigilant. To avoid feeling duped by faux ecotourism, savvy travelers ask detailed questions before committing to any experience. 

Let’s say you want to book a guided jungle tour in Costa Rica, for example. Here are some examples of what to ask: Does this tour help nature or the locals in any way? Does the website claim that a percentage of income goes towards conservation…if so, is it 1 percent? 10 percent? 70 percent? Is this a large group activity? Will the group be feeding or touching animals? How many times a day is the tour offered? 

Once you’ve gotten direct answers to all of your questions, trust your gut, about whether or not to sign up. 

How To Become An Ecotourist

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When traveling, difficult contradictions are bound to arise because any time we engage with the natural world, we affect it — even as observers. When we interact with nature in ostensibly harmless ways, such as feeding animals or picking flowers, we interfere with the natural order. 

With the knowledge that impact is unavoidable, travelers take the first steps toward becoming better ecotourists. Deepening that awareness and seeking out responsible tourism is the lifelong journey. And while we wish we could say “That’s all there is to it, folks,” practicing responsible ecotourism goes far beyond minimizing the impact of your touristic excursions alone. It’s complicated. And it applies to all aspects of travel, from where you sleep, to how you get there. To eco-optimize your next adventure, use the following checklist as your guide!

  • Research travel companies that market themselves as green or eco friendly. Can you easily find more information about the company’s sustainable business practices on its website? Is there credible information to substantiate its green claims? A key tactic of greenwashing is omission. So if the information you seek is not readily available, this could be a red flag.
  • Look for a seal or certification mark from a recognized, independent third-party organization that specializes in verifying green advertising such as the U.S. Green Building Council or Rainforest Alliance. Check with the certifier to verify the company’s marketing claims. Please NOTE, however, that the lack of a certification does not always indicate an irresponsible organization. Certification is often expensive and time-consuming and can exclude smaller entities that may be just as eco-worthy. In the absence of an official certification, inquire about specific actions such as offering guests filtered water in glass instead of plastic bottles, composting food waste, using renewable energy, employing locals in positions of leadership, or sourcing foods locally. 
  • Ask hotel staff and tour operators directly about their waste-management and conservation policies, as well as the percentage of employees who are local residents. For extra points, ask if they support any projects that benefit the local community or environment. 
  • Speaking of waste: Always come prepared with reusable items to help minimize personal waste. Waste an enormous problem in the tourism industry, due to the tendency we have as travelers to overconsume. The good news is, we can all do our part to help mitigate waste by increasing our vigilance. Campers and hikers live by the “leave no trace” philosophy, and that shouldn't just apply to national parks and wilderness! 
  • Avoid (or exercise extreme caution with) experiences that involve interacting with wild or captive animals. Don’t assume that riding an elephant, holding a monkey, or petting a lion cub is safe for the animal – or you for that matter! Of course, there are exceptions to everything, but experiences such as these should always be well considered. 
  • Arrive with sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.  A lively tourist economy may seem dandy, but hustle and bustle is not always good for everyone involved. In fact, tourism has led to some irreparable damage in some of the world’s most sought after destinations: Venice, Reykjavik, Cozumel and Machu Picchu come to mind. So if you plan to travel to any of these places, it is important to do so with respect. 
  • Make supportive purchases. This might be as simple as going over to the next block for lunch, or buying gifts from local craftspeople instead of shopping in more commercial stores. If you have found yourself in a place that relies heavily on expensive imports to satisfy the preferences of tourists, consider who or what these goods are displacing.Is there a way to procure food from a local vendor or farmers? If you enjoyed a fantastic meal, performance, or service from someone who could use the publicity, can you promote them?  When purchasing an experience, does the company exploit local laborers, or is the business owned and run by the people providing the service? The latter is what savvy eco-tourists look for! 
  • Opt for green transit! If walking or cycling is available to you and the weather permits, choose those options before renting a car or hopping in a cab! Walking is my absolute favorite way to get my bearings in a new place, and it’s an easy activity to overlook while planning an itinerary. I have found that budgeting extra time to walk, bike or use public transportation can lead to serendipitous experiences. It also helps me stay present, and makes the mundane effort of getting from point A to point B feel full of possibility.
  • Share your learnings! Your friends, family and community can benefit from hearing about your travel experiences, whether they are planning a trip of their own or want to integrate the practices of ecotourism locally. 

Benefits of Ecotourism

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Many have argued that ecotourism is an oxymoron by definition. The more popular a destination becomes, the more difficult it is to limit the cultural and environmental impacts of tourism, “eco” or not. Local communities also tend to face hardships associated with ecotourism such as crowding, restricted access to agricultural land or water, dilution of local culture, indigenous erasure, and inflated prices of goods. In addition to raising these issues, however, ecotourism does offer benefits to travelers and locals alike. In overlooking these benefits, we miss opportunities to contribute to positive change in the tourism industry. The more we can learn to travel with awareness, moderation, and humility, the more we can reap the benefits of responsible ecotourism, which include: 

  • Greater environmental awareness.
  • Financial resources channeled directly to conservation efforts.
  • Financial empowerment and jobs for local populations.
  • Amplified local cultural traditions.
  • Shared socio-economic benefits with local communities and indigenous peoples by obtaining informed consent and encouraging their participation in ecotourism enterprises.
  • More nature-related activities that have minimal impact on the environment.
  • Does not produce excessive waste as a byproduct of luxury.

Where To Find An Eco Hotel or Eco Stay

Our decisions on where to stay play a crucial part in shaping the tourist economy– for better or for worse. As ecotourists, we try to choose the best possible options, favoring local-run accommodations when available. To find off-the-beaten-path accommodations, here’s where to look: 

  • Ecobnb: A database of over 2,000 eco-friendly accommodations from treehouses, glamping tents, and farm stays.
  • Globaltrekkers: An extensive travel blog curated by a couple with decades of sustainable travel experiences to share. Their motto is “exploring the world with gentle footsteps.” 
  • Woofing: A worldwide network of organic farms and homesteads that host volunteer travelers. 

What is an Example of Ecotourism?

Endangered wildlife tourism is a great example of ecotourism. This involves traveling with a keen awareness of endangered wildlife species and collaborating with organizations such as conservation agencies to protect these species and increase community awareness. Ecotourism plays a key role in raising funds for conservation efforts and giving back to local communities.

Ecotourism Companies

  • I Like Local – A database that curates hand-picked experiences and facilitates ecotourism by connecting travelers with locals from around the world. They also offer virtual experiences to enjoy from home! 
  • Small World Journeys: If Australian travel floats your boat, check out this company that plans multi-day educational tours for students. They reduce their own ecological footprint by adopting plots of Daintree rainforest for every group that they bring to the region, protecting that land from development. Small World Journeys also donates five percent of net profits to conservation orgs.
  • Pure Mountains: For intrepid adventurers, Pure Mountains offers bespoke mountain biking experiences in the high Sierras of southern Spain. The owners live in a solar powered farmhouse on the premises and prepare locally sourced meals for their guests. 
  • And Beyond: An experiential travel company that connects guests to meaningful local experiences via a network of luxury lodges and camps in Africa, Asia, and South America. Their website allows visitors to see their impact to date and outlines the specific achievements of their three pronged model of sustainability: Care of The Land, People and Environment. 
  • World Nomads: A sustainable travel website that offers an extensive database of destinations and guides, as well as travel insurance and travel scholarships in photography, film and writing. Their unique travel insurance program, Footprints, allows travelers to donate to an environmental project of their choice. 
  • Responsible Travel: A travel agency that focuses on tailor made, small group trips, and makes its climate and community activism goals public.  

Ecotourism Organizations

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In closing, travel will always bring us face to face with uncomfortable dichotomies. Until we come up with official criteria, ecotravel remains a bit subjective in practice. And considering the complexities of how tourism impacts environment, culture, and society, planning eco trips can feel overwhelming. Even so, ecotourism doesn’t have to feel restrictive. It can be an incredibly fulfilling and intentional way of seeing the world.

So start wherever you are! Sometimes it’s not possible for travelers to completely de-commodify their vacations, leave absolutely no trace, or go everywhere by foot. Becoming an ecotourist involves a lot of trial and error and small changes that eventually turn into sustainable habits. In my experience, making this commitment as a traveler and learning from my missteps has helped me cultivate deeper appreciation for the people and places I visit.  

For more information, the following the organizations are globally trusted for their commitment to develop and implement a framework for sustainable tourism. 

What Organizations Support Sustainable Travel Around the World? 

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the GSTC (Global Sustainable Travel Council) are responsible for promoting responsible travel and tourism, incorporating ethical practices to minimize any possible adverse effects. This organization promotes environmental sustainability, sustainable tourism policies, tourism-driven economic growth and provides thought leadership to the tourism sector. It advocates for the development and implementation of sustainable practices that provide universal socio-economic benefits.

Madison Micucci

Madison Micucci

Madison Micucci is an actress, avid traveler, and sustainability enthusiast. She believes that one can never have enough plants and that wine is an all day beverage.

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