Eco·tourism: There’s more to the hype than you might think

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When it comes to travel most of us have at least heard the term “ecotourism” or seen advertisements for green hotels and eco-lodges. But what do these descriptions really even mean? More importantly, how do we differentiate the real deal from businesses unjustly pulling the green card in order to capitalize on a growing green demand from conscious consumers?

Definitively speaking, ecotourism is described as the practice of bringing together sustainable travel practices that protect regions by promoting the conservation of natural areas while at the same time benefiting local economies (a mouthful I know). But are those signs in hotel bathrooms that promote towel reuse and a few organic menu options enough to claim green?

Ecotourism, also referred to as sustainable tourism, actually encompasses a wide range of features, with some being more obvious than others. Accommodations build from recycled (preferably local) materials, energy from renewable sources, water saving policies, and dining practices from organic and locally sourced ingredients are some of the more common ways the tourism industry is going green. But as you probably guessed there’s a lot more to being a sustainable alternative for travelers looking to minimize their global footprint.

From a business standpoint, true ecotourism practices should be farther reaching than the obvious. While recycling plans, water and energy conservation, and minimal chemical/pesticide use are important, truly sustainable tourism options take into account things outside their day-to-day functions. Empowering the surrounding community, offering low-impact activities (think kayaking and hiking versus jet skiing and off-roading), participating in local welfare and conservation efforts, and educating travelers about cultural and social awareness are some of the ways tourism leaders are taking green travel to the next level.

According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means tour operators claiming their piece of the ecotourism pie should practice the following ecotourism principles:

  • Minimize impact
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
  • Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
  • Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate

(Source: http://www.ecotourism.org/what-is-ecotourism -Principles of ecotourism)

In addition to the more obvious “going green” methods mentioned earlier, things like fairly paying staff from the immediate area, increasing the awareness tourists have about the social conditions surrounding a travel destination, and educating travelers and locals about the value of protecting natural areas and resources, are all principles behind truly sustainable tourism. By combining travel with memorable yet low-impact experiences and educational opportunities that highlight sustainability and conversation, ecotourism is can be thought of as a more holistic approach to traditional travel. Travelers not only get to experience new places, cultures, and adventures like they normally would, but they help contribute to the longterm conservation and preservation of a destination’s beauty and resources.

ecotourism3With more and more sustainable options becoming available, reducing your (negative) impact is becoming easier and more tailored to the average traveler. These days ecotourism doesn’t mean you have to stay in a tent in the jungle with no running water or electricity, not that some of you wouldn’t find that awesome. With a little extra research and effort balancing trade-offs to match your travel wishes with the needs of our planet is easier than you might think.

When searching for greener options don’t forget to be aware of greenwashing (disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image) and whenever possible look for tourist operators that do more than just recycle… although just recycling is better than no recycling. There are a variety of eco-travel options out there and any form of responsible travel is better than traveling without regard to one’s impact on a destination and its people.

So how do you sort the green options from the greenwash? The best way is to simple ask! Don’ be shy when it comes to inquiring about a tourist operator’s practices, after all it’s your money and a destination you likely wouldn’t mind being preserved for future visits.

Here are a few helpful questions that might help weeding out the opportunists:

How do they minimize their impact on the local environment?

How do they build environmental and cultural awareness?

Do they provide direct financial benefits for conservation?

Do they provide financial benefits and empowerment for locals?

While it would be so much easier if some sort of universal eco-star rating system existed, it’s usually pretty easy to tell if a company has true ecotourism initiatives at its core. While such a system doesn’t exist just yet, the following list of resources might help you desifer the green and good from the greenwashing:

So whether you’re planning your next international vacation, or a quick and local weekend getaway, consider making your trip a little more “eco-friendly”. Your passport and our planet will thank you.

Safe travels!

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