We can no longer pretend the travel industry isn’t a destructive force in its conventional form. Just as well then, writes Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos of UCL, that ecotourism is on the rise.
“Ecotourism produces more conscious, responsible individuals as it raises awareness of the political, environmental and social issues that a country may face”
When thinking of a typical holiday, relaxation, enjoyment and exploration tend to be the first things that come to mind. However, looming over the global tourism industry is a dark cloud of destruction, affecting both the environment and local cultures around the world.
Today, with unprecedented access to information and media exposure, we can no longer plead ignorant to the negative impact travelling has on the environment, whether it is airplane CO2 emissions or the pressure tourism puts on natural resources in areas where they are already scarce. This increased awareness of the damaging influence tourism can have on the environment has paved the way for the concept of ecotourism and green travel.
Ecotourism presents a sustainable way to travel, characterised by its aim to respect and protect the environment and local communities that are visited. This form of tourism encourages travellers to be responsible, support conservation efforts, appreciate the local culture, and focus on educating themselves and the local communities.
One example of such tourism comes from the Galapagos Islands, consisting of 120 islands off the coast of Ecuador. These islands are home to unique species of animals and plants that are protected through ecotourism. For instance, local employees are hired, visitors pay a fee that is donated to local conservation organisations, the number of tourists is restricted to reduce overuse of resources, and transport is limited. This ecotourism has helped support the Galapagos National Park by gaining the funds needed for scientific research and conservation projects.
Another example of ecotourism comes from Thailand, where tourism brings in over $15 billion a year. Ecotourism standards were put in place in a response to increased tourist traffic that was rapidly deteriorating the environment and local resources. The Tourism Authority of Thailand intervened and initiated an ecotourism project in order to allow tourist activities to continue to prosper, while at the same time preserving the natural environment.
They provided eight measures to meet ecotourism principles. For instance, these measures consisted of limiting tourist numbers to meet the area’s capacity, requiring permission to enter nature reserves, reducing litter, donating to conservation work, and handing out information leaflets about how to be a responsible visitor. One specific example of an eco-friendly resort in Thailand is the Golden Buddha Beach Resort in Ko Phra Thong. The houses in this resort are all built by local craftsmen from sustainable hardwood sources and contain no hot water, no air conditioning, and no swimming pool, as these energy-consuming features were deemed unnecessary given the sea breeze and proximity of a bay fit for swimming in.
In addition to protecting the environment and local cultures, ecotourism produces more conscious, responsible individuals as it raises awareness of the political, environmental and social issues that a country may face, and calls for action to overcome such challenges.
Nevertheless this environmentally friendly way to explore the world comes with a warning sign. Many companies are currently advertising themselves as providers of ‘green’ or ‘responsible’ travel, yet fail to meet the criteria set out by the Mohonk Agreement, made in 2000 in order to ensure standards are met to certify ecotourism. This marketing ploy has been labelled as ‘greenwashing’ and could potentially mislead consumers into paying for a faux eco-friendly experience. Hence, it is necessary to develop an official set of guidelines in order to deem a tour operator or holiday provider an ‘ecotourism’ supplier.
A bright future
Regardless, true ecotourism appears to have a bright future. One report examining the history of ecotourism in the Asia-Pacific region found that ecotourism has grown faster than general tourism in this area and it is predicted to continue to grow at a faster rate for the foreseeable future.
This growing popularity can be explained by a shift in the consumer mind-set towards preferring more holistic leisure experiences, in which they are less focused on themselves as an individual and more concerned with how their behaviour fits into the grand scheme of things. Such a change in consumer preferences signals that the future of travel and holidays will involve experiences which enable visitors to feel like they are part of something greater and can really make a positive difference to the world.
Whether it is simply to gloat and out-do our friends, or to truly attempt to save the planet, ecotourism is certainly here to stay.
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