The Definition, History & Principles of Ethical Travel: What Is ECOTOURISM? + 17 Responsible travel tips

The Definition, History & Principles of Ethical Travel: What Is ECOTOURISM? + 17 Responsible travel tips

NordenBladet – In recent years, the growth of interest in responsible travel has outpaced that of traditional sun/sand tourism by an increasingly wide margin. What is ecotourism? How does it work? Why does it matter? And how can we, as travelers, put the core principles of ecotourism into practice?

With some experts estimating that ecotourism now represents 11.4% of all consumer spending, these sorts of questions have become more and more common. And, as we continue to see more negative impacts of mass tourism on beloved destinations around the world, the answers to these questions will become increasingly vital. Part of the confusion surrounding sustainable travel is the plethora of names being used for it within the industry.

Ecotourism, a movement that began to take shape back in the 1980s, is the oldest and most commonly used word for it. More recent industry buzzwords include sustainable tourism, green tourism, nature tourism, responsible tourism, ethical tourism, mindful travel, conscious travel, pro-poor tourism, and many others.

Regardless of what you call it, the central concepts that these philosophies share in common are that the travel industry as a whole should adopt more environmentally friendly practices, protect the natural and cultural heritage of a destination, and support local communities.

1. What is ecotourism?
2. Ecotourism´s history
3. Responsible travel tips

What is eco tourism?
Ecotourism is a form of tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas, intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial mass tourism. It means responsible travel to natural areas, conserving the environment, and improving the well-being of the local people. Its purpose may be to educate the traveler, to provide funds for ecological conservation, to directly benefit the economic development and political empowerment of local communities, or to foster respect for different cultures and for human rights. Since the 1980s, ecotourism has been considered a critical endeavor by environmentalists, so that future generations may experience destinations relatively untouched by human intervention. Several university programs use this description as the working definition of ecotourism.

Generally, ecotourism deals with interaction with biotic components of the natural environments. Ecotourism focuses on socially responsible travel, personal growth, and environmental sustainability. Ecotourism typically involves travel to destinations where flora, fauna, and cultural heritage are the primary attractions. Ecotourism is intended to offer tourists an insight into the impact of human beings on the environment and to foster a greater appreciation of our natural habitats.

Responsible ecotourism programs include those that minimize the negative aspects of conventional tourism on the environment and enhance the cultural integrity of local people. Therefore, in addition to evaluating environmental and cultural factors, an integral part of ecotourism is the promotion of recycling, energy efficiency, water conservation, and creation of economic opportunities for local communities. For these reasons, ecotourism often appeals to advocates of environmental and social responsibility.

Many consider the term “ecotourism”, like “sustainable tourism”, an oxymoron. Like most forms of tourism, ecotourism generally depends on air transportation, which contributes to global climate change. Additionally, “the overall effect of sustainable tourism is negative where like ecotourism philanthropic aspirations mask hard-nosed immediate self-interest.

Ecotourism is tourism which is conducted responsibly to conserve the environment and sustain the well-being of local people. It…

1) Builds environmental awareness
2) Provides direct financial benefits for conservation
3) Provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people
4) Respects local culture
5) Supports human rights and democratic movements such as:
– conservation of biological diversity and cultural diversity through ecosystem protection
– promotion of sustainable use of biodiversity, by providing jobs to local populations
– sharing of all socio-economic benefits with local communities and indigenous peoples by having their informed consent and participation in the management of ecotourism enterprises
– tourism to unspoiled natural resources, with minimal impact on the environment being a primary concern.
– minimization of tourism’s own environmental impact
– affordability and lack of waste in the form of luxury
– local culture, flora, and fauna being the main attractions
– local people, who benefit from this form of tourism economically, and often more than mass tourism

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education”.

For many countries, ecotourism is not simply a marginal activity to finance protection of the environment, but a major industry of the national economy. For example, in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nepal, Kenya, Madagascar and territories such as Antarctica, ecotourism represents a significant portion of the gross domestic product and economic activity.

Ecotourism is often misinterpreted as any form of tourism that involves nature. Self-proclaimed practitioners and hosts of ecotourism experiences assume it is achieved by simply creating destinations in natural areas. According to critics of this commonplace and assumptive practice, true ecotourism must, above all, sensitize people to the beauty and the fragility of nature. These critics condemn some operators as greenwashing their operations: using the labels of “green” and “eco-friendly”, while behaving in environmentally irresponsible ways.

Although academics disagree about who can be classified as an ecotourist and there is little statistical data, some estimate that more than five million ecotourists—the majority of the ecotourist population—come from the United States, with many others from Western Europe, Canada and Australia.

Currently, there are various moves to create national and international ecotourism accreditation programs, although the process is also controversial. National ecotourism certification programs have been put in place in countries such as Costa Rica, Australia, Kenya, Estonia, and Sweden.

Ecotourism´s history
Ecotourism is a late 20th-century neologism compounded from eco- and tourism. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ecotour was first recorded in 1973 and ecotourism, “probably after ecotour”, in 1982.

– ecotour, n. … A tour of or visit to an area of ecological interest, usually with an educational element; (in later use also) a similar tour or visit designed to have as little detrimental effect on the ecology as possible or undertaken with the specific aim of helping conservation efforts.
– ecotourism, n. … Tourism to areas of ecological interest (typically exotic and often threatened natural environments), esp. to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife; spec. access to an endangered environment controlled so as to have the least possible adverse effect.

One source claims the terms were used earlier. Claus-Dieter (Nick) Hetzer, an academic and adventurer from Forum International in Berkeley, CA, supposedly coined ecotourism in 1965 and ran the first ecotours in the Yucatán during the early 1970s.

17 Responsible travel tips:

1. Eat local
t’s fun to try the famous restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet or ranked highly on TripAdvisor, but try some small, Mom-and-Pop shops too. This way, you’re contributing to small businesses where your money is needed more than the eateries that are always bustling with visitors.

2. Shop local
Shop at local food markets whenever possible. Buy souvenirs from artisan as opposed to big shops. Spread your money around, and support the “little guy.”

3. Find non-profits
Research non-profits in the area you are visiting and support in any way you’re able. For example, along our travels we’ve found many places there are restaurants that hire staff of all abilities, serve only locally-produced food or give a portion of proceeds to charity. For instance, when we were in Cambodia, we found several cafes and hotels that gave back to those in need.

4. Share your experience
Pay it forward and shout out great companies. When a restaurant, hotel or tour organization is doing good things (paying staff fairly, protecting the environment, giving back to their community), tell the world!

Write them a glowing review on TripAdvisor, and if you’re active on social media share your experience there too. If something just doesn’t feel right about a company, share that as well. The only way we as travelers can make informed decisions is by hearing from others’ experience.

Help others choose good companies. With our support, those companies doing the right thing will grow while those following unsavory practices will realize they need to change.

5. Be wary of animal attractions

Do thorough research on any attraction that involves animals. More often than not, they are destructive to the creatures involved. When you partake in these activities your money supports the harm of animals, and this tells the people running these attractions that it’s okay.

Do your own research about animal attractions that interest you and make a well-informed decision. A few of the popular animal tourism attractions that we have chosen NOT to support are: Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines, Riding on the back of elephants anywhere in the world, Visiting Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai etc.

6. Use reusable Bag
Bring reusable bags (or an old plastic bag) to convenience stores or markets to prevent waste. Travel with these Eco-Friendly Products to help reduce waste and conserve water.

7. Don’t litter
Ever. Even if the locals do. For every local who litters, there are many who don’t. Seeing a foreigner throw trash on the ground in their home can be seen as very disrespectful.

8. Drink from the tap
Use a water purifying system to cut down on plastic bottle waste. (We love our SteriPen!)

9. Recycle when possible
For some reason, it’s easy to forget about recycling when you’re not at home. We know this all too well. But we are trying to make a conscious effort to remember to recycle no matter where in the world we may be.

10. Lights out
Save electricity by turning off the lights and air-conditioning when you leave your room.

11. Say no to straws
Order your smoothies and iced coffees WITHOUT a straw. Did you know that straws are in the top 10 items collected in beach cleanups. In fact, plastic products make up 90 percent of trash floating in the world’s oceans. We aren’t perfect, but we’re trying our best to say no to straws and reduce the amount of single-use plastic we use.

12. Order food wisely
Only order as much food as you can eat and try not to waste. A lot of the time our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, so we start slow and know that we can always order more if we’re still hungry.

13. Give maps a second life
After using a map or brochure of a city, leave it at your hotel desk for future guests to use instead of throwing it in the trash. Better yet, if you’re tech-savvy, download your location in Google Maps on your phone when you’re in wi-fi, turn on your GPS tracking abilities, and you’ll be able to get your location even when you’re out of cell service! Yeah, it’s pretty much the best thing ever. And there’s no paper wasted!

14. Use public transportation
Hop on the metro, the train or a bus when possible to minimize your impact on the environment. Or even better yet, rent a bicycle for an excellent way to see a city while getting a bit of exercise in!

15. Use reef safe sunscreen
Did you know that most sunscreens contain chemicals that bleach coral reefs? Whether you’re on a scuba diving holiday or you just want to go for a swim, be sure to use a sunscreen labeled as “reef safe” if you plan on being in the ocean at all. The fishies and coral they call home will thank you!

16. Consider carbon offsetting
There’s no denying the toll air travel takes on the environment. It is a huge source of pollution, and by flying around the world you are contributing to it.

The next time you book a flight, consider offsetting your carbon footprint. Basically, this means for each ton of CO2 your flight will emit, you can prevent the same amount from polluting the atmosphere elsewhere. Don’t worry, there are programs that can calculate your carbon emissions for you, and this article explains carbon offsetting and some reputable organizations you can donate to.

17. Follow the rules
Pay attention and respect signs at tourist attractions. When it says, “Don’t climb” – DON’T CLIMB. When it says, “Don’t take photos” – DON’T TAKE PHOTOS. It’s simple, but many tourists overlook this. Often times these signs are in place for a good reason: to reduce erosion, to protect a holy site for future generations, or even to keep people safe. Respect these rules. Remember that you are a visitor.

Featured image: Pexels/Nappy

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