Ecotourism: the way forward?

By Lauren Chan

In 2015 the number of tourists worldwide totalled 1.18 billion, and ‘ecotourism’ is quickly becoming a mainstream way of travelling. With governments of 195 countries finally accepting climate change to be a real issue at the Paris climate conference, should you jump on the bandwagon and make your next holiday a sustainable one?

Unfortunately, the rising popularity of ecotourism is partly due to the use of the term as a marketing gimmick. As with voluntourism, some eco tours attract participants by playing on people’s consciences, with no intention of offering any real benefits to the destination. Has ecotourism evolved from a real concern for the environment into a label to attract business and double taps on Instagram? An eco tour requires no accreditation before branding themselves as such, and although The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) asks all those who market eco activities to adopt their principles, there is no enforced regulation.

A quick search on the internet yields many companies offering so called ‘eco tours’ or ‘eco holidays’. They look attractive, promising to bring you to some of the most exotic and remote regions of the earth: from a ‘Deep Amazon’ canoe experience where you will be ‘traveling well beyond the areas of civilisation’, to a tailor-made tour of a private wildlife sanctuary in India.

These tours seem to embody pretty well the principle of ecotourism. According to TIES, ecotourism is defined as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education’. To put it simply, an eco tour, at least in theory, is a guided holiday to remote regions that minimizes negative impact on the physical environment and local communities. It also allows visitors to learn about the conservation of wildlife and indigenous culture and ‘empower’ the local population through increased cultural awareness and economic benefits.

ecotourism is not only a victim of its own success, but its very existence undermines its values

One charity tackling empowerment, a rather vague term, is Friends International, a charity which aids children in underdeveloped parts of South East Asia. In a plea highly relevant to many Durham students, it asks people to not participate in ‘voluntourism’. This is because the best way to support vulnerable children is not by visiting orphanages or schools, but through community-based projects which bind families together.

But can travelling to faraway lands ever be sustainable? A round trip from Britain to Kenya creates around a tone of carbon emissions. How can any kind of savings while at the destination make up for this? With more people opting to go on tours to previously untarnished places, any kind of tourism spreads pollution into these areas due to the necessity of transportation: that canoe expedition involved flying on a chartered plane to get you into the jungle.

But since people will always travel, isn’t choosing the least damaging method the responsible thing to do? Well, ecotourism is not only a victim of its own success, but its very existence undermines its values. Its emphasis on visiting underpopulated regions damages wildlife and local culture. Although TIES claims eco tours allow tourists to see wild places in a way that ‘conserves the environment’, studies have shown that animals often exposed to humans become less alert. In off-season when there are less humans to shield them from predators, these animals become more vulnerable. While living among tribes on the Maasai Mara for a few days (any longer and we would miss the comforts of modernity too much) opens one’s eyes to their traditional way of life, treating indigenous people as cultural attractions is patronizing and affects their lifestyle. Just imagine how you would feel if you had to go about your day in Durham while being observed and hassled for photographs.

However, even if many eco tours lack concern for the environment and damage local communities, any holiday can be made more sustainable by simple actions. Travelers should respect local customs by abiding to their dress codes. Tips for an eco-friendly lifestyle, such as to take shorter showers and eat local produce, are equally effective in preserving your destination’s environment.

Although any kind of tourism brings money into the region, a proper eco tour ensures all profit goes to the local population, through donations and use of local businesses. To maximize economic benefit to the area you are visiting, consider staying in local guesthouses or even residents’ homes. Having a local tour guide is essential because it not only provides a sustainable source of employment, but it also ensures the most effective education for the visitor on local wildlife and culture.

A more counter-intuitive practice is to not buy from children selling on the streets. A common sight in under-developed countries, it is hard not to be moved into believing that you have a responsibility to help by purchasing their goods. However, Friends International warns that this fuels the long-term cycle of poverty by keeping children out of education.

So, whilst greener travel is certainly something to be advocated and adhered to, consider the real benefits of a self-proclaimed eco tour before you buy into another tourist gimmick.

Photograph: Maxim Luan

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