Fancy an eco-friendly trip to the Amazon, Alaska or the Kimberley region of Western Australia? Highly respected organizations such as National Geographic and WWF (World Wildlife Fund) offer many enticing travel options, such as Antarctica.
In its promotional material, National Geographic boasts of its sustainable travel opportunities:
…Wildlife encounters and hands-on conservation experiences provide information and inspiration for travelers to protect the world and its creatures long after returning home.
Many people see ecotourism positively and associate it with environmental protection and the conservation of endangered wildlife. There are many envious images when looking for ecotourism: sunbathing on secluded, pristine beaches; snorkeling in enchanting coral reefs; trekking in remote wilderness and mountains; Tourists immersed in local culture.
There have been many attempts to define the term. In Australia, for example, Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science, the custodian of the state’s national parks and forests, has a detailed statement:
Ecotourism encompasses nature-based activities that enhance visitors’ appreciation and understanding of natural and cultural values. They are experiences managed to be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable, contributing to the well-being and conservation of the natural areas and local communities in which they operate.
Similarly, Wikipedia says:
Ecotourism is a form of tourism that involves responsible travel (using sustainable modes of transport) to natural areas, protecting the environment and improving the well-being of local people.
Responsible ecotourism programs include those that minimize the negative effects of conventional tourism on the environment and strengthen the cultural integrity of local people.
Ecotourism often involves expensive small-group travel with high-quality accommodation and meals. Visiting remote parts of the planet is high on many people’s wish lists.
The idea of sustainable and environmentally conscious travel is seductive. We protect what is particularly important to us economically. The PBR (Population Reference Bureau) claims that:
At its best, ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that protects ecosystem integrity and brings economic benefits to local communities that can promote conservation. At the interface of people and environment, ecotourism is a creative way of combining the goals of environmental protection and economic development.
But this type of travel often has potential downsides: it can lead to pollution and other environmental damage; they often result in large carbon footprints from air, sea and other transport; and they can cause social and cultural disruption in local communities.
Here are some of the places experimenting with ecotourism.
The Discovering Galapagos project creates educational materials about the islands for high school students. It examines the impact of tourism:
Some of the good things are that the tourists bring money to the islands and are a source of income for many Galapagueños. However, there are bad sides too. As more tourists visit the islands, they will need more places to stay, meaning large hotels could be built, potentially endangering nearby wildlife.
A study titled “Rethinking and resetting tourism in the Galapagos: Stakeholder views on the sustainability of tourism development” was recently published in the Annals of Tourism Research Empirical Insights. It raised a number of worrying questions:
A key finding of the study is that stakeholders share the view that unrestrained tourism growth is counterproductive due to both social and environmental impacts. Addressing the impacts of overtourism in the Galapagos, as on other tropical islands, may involve degrowth strategies or a transition to slow-paced tourism that provides a mechanism to increase revenue and employment benefits from tourism but reduce the per capita impact island resources decreased.
For a tourism destination to be successful with sustainable tourism, social and environmental concerns must be taken into account; If tourism is seen as a catalyst for sustainable development, the quality of life and individual well-being of local residents must be taken into account, even when nature conservation priorities are taken into account.
The Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru draws huge crowds every year. Many people hike the legendary Inca Trail to get there. The online community CATALYST is “a source of travel and social action content for activists and travelers with a global consciousness.” It warned in May 2022:
The lack of infrastructure to support these numbers leads to an even greater impact. There is only one bathroom at the entrance and human waste is a huge problem. The nearest village, Aguas Calientes, has taken to pumping human waste into the Urubamba River. The increase in trash, particularly plastic water bottles, on the Inca Trail also contributes to uncontrolled waste.
The term ecotourism is now overused. Expanded from its original purpose to include all nature-related travel, it is synonymous with sustainability for many.
Overtourism on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has also drawn criticism:
Tanzania’s government has sparked an uproar in recent years after announcing plans for a cable car system on the south face of Kilimanjaro to increase tourist numbers and allow access for those unable to climb it. Expedition groups, porters who help mountaineers and climate experts said the project would endanger the mountain’s delicate ecosystem and harm the local economy.
Advantages and disadvantages
There are many sites online that advocate the positive aspects of ecotourism and sustainable travel. Softback Travel, which presents itself as a “minimalist approach to nature”, sees the following advantages:
- sustainable rural development based on environmental protection
the creation of jobs
- Education and awareness raising about endangered animals and climate change
- improving the quality of life of local people
- Understanding and sensitivity to other cultures
The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is one of the organizations that provides guidance on the potential environmental benefits of ecotourism. It aims to “develop global standards for sustainable tourism and create tools to verify legitimate claims made by sustainable businesses while fighting false claims, sometimes referred to as greenwashing”. His work is explained in this video:
However, many commentators dismiss the idea of ecotourism, believing it to be contradictory. Architect and engineer Smith Mordak argued in Architectural Review that:
Ecotourism is an oxymoron [seemingly self-contradictory]. Trying to fix tourism’s environmental degradation is like trying to fix a black eye with a right hook. It’s a total sham, but also a helpful case study. Ecotourism is an example of the broader phenomenon of climate protection: the interests of economic development are all too often diametrically opposed to the interests of environmental protection.