Ecotourism is on the rise, with many travellers wanting to opt for more sustainable options of travel.
It’s no secret that the world is in trouble with regard to climate change and we all need to do our bit to get it under control.
So what is ecotourism? How can you be an ecotourist and will it cost you an arm and a leg?
What is Ecotourism?
Ecotourism is a form of responsible travel which reduces the impacts of tourism on the natural environment and landscapes.
Many tourist destinations degrade over time and eventually become unappealing. When the area becomes run-down and destroyed it reduces the likelihood of more people visiting, causing a decline in revenue.
Several tourist destinations become dependent on the income of visitors and the removal of travellers can have a huge impact on the local economy.
Ecotourism focuses on being environmentally friendly and protecting wildlife. The long-standing aim of ecotourism is that if the areas are protected then they can be enjoyed by future generations to come. Natural resources are used sustainably and the amount of tourists allowed in the area is kept at a socially appropriate level.
The Aims of Ecotourism
Ecotourism focuses on connecting with green and natural spaces. Ecotourists wish to be educated on the conservation efforts being made and want to learn what they can do to help. Protection of the natural environment is not the only aim of ecotourism.
The local communities and living standards of the people in the area are also considered.
Ecotourism also involves the consultation of these local communities in planned developments and any new infrastructure must benefit both the people and not only tourists.
How to be an Ecotourist
There are a few different guidelines that you need to follow to class yourself as an ecotourist.
1. Respect the Natural Area
The prime concern of ecotourism is that you do not destroy the environment in which you are staying. Some simple tasks that you can do to respect the environment would be to pick up all of your litter when eating outside and make sure it is disposed of correctly and also stick to outlined footpaths. It can be tempting to wander off and explore an area for yourself but you may unintentionally destroy the ground beneath your feet. Some areas, particularly in Asia and Europe have very soft soils which can be easily displaced and eroded. If you’re on a trail and see a shortcut just bear in mind that you might be causing harm.
2. Don’t Interfere with Animals
We’re not all David Attenborough and don’t know exactly what diets the animals in an area should stick to. It can be exciting to witness some new exotic animals on your travels but you never know what snacks could be harmful to them. It’s best not to feed any animals that you see unless you have spoken to a local guide first, or have been given some special food to feed them. In the wild, some animals may become dependent on visitors to feed them their scraps. This causes them to forget their hunting and foraging skills – a dangerous game if the tourists stop coming!
Animal interference is a huge factor that should be considered when deciding if a safari holiday is ethical.
3. Enjoy Local Food and Drink
Indulging in the local cuisine is the best thing you can do at mealtimes. It can be daunting sometimes for those that are picky eaters but if you can find something appealing to you then go for it instead of buying from huge chains. A McDonald’s can cure a craving across the world but huge corporations don’t support the smaller local economy. Try to stick to local brands when you are shopping for snacks and drinks too – you want to contribute as much as you can to the local businesses instead of those based in MEDCs.
4. Get a Reusable Water Bottle
Something as simple as buying a reusable water bottle to take with you on your travels can make such a difference. When we go abroad we’re often wary of the water we drink as it is a known fact that many of the places tourists like to visit do not have an appropriate level of water sanitation and so the risks of getting sick are higher. But for those domestic trips or ones to areas of good water quality, taking a water bottle is essential to reducing your waste.
Boiling your water and allowing it to cool or getting it from water coolers in your accommodation is another good idea if you’re not completely trusting of the water being clean.
5. Live Like a Local
Most tourists love to take advantage of the facilities that their accommodation has to offer. At the end of the day, you’ve paid for it so you may as well use it. Right? Hmm, not really. Just because you have paid for a room with a shower and air conditioning doesn’t mean you should use them excessively. Ecotourists want to protect the resources that are available and imagining how locals live their lives is the best thing you can do. Only shower with the same frequency as you would at home – unless you really stink from all of your daily activities! Use the air conditioning until the room cools down, don’t continue to have it blasting and then cower under a blanket to keep warm.
6. Support the Local Community
Opt for locally owned accommodation instead of big chain hotels. If you can find a small house or apartment to rent in the area you wish to visit this will have a huge benefit to the local community. Don’t fall for convincing language in advertisements about sustainable hotels. Do your research and make sure that you are spending your money wisely. Similarly, you want to go to local shops to get your souvenirs, keeping an eye out for handmade items rather than cheap, mass-made fridge magnets or keyrings. Specially made, one-off items may cost you slightly more but you need to remember that many people depend on the sales of their crafts for a livelihood, so don’t try to haggle with the price unless you think it’s particularly high.
7. Respect the Local Customs and Religion
Many tourists are so concerned about getting the perfect Instagram photos that they don’t take a step back to look at what is going on around them. Locals can be easily offended by what a tourist may think is harmless so it is important to research the customs of the place you are visiting. Stripping down to a bikini or swim shorts on the beach can be viewed as extremely inappropriate in some cultures, regardless of how hot it is. Other cultures will not accept women wearing trousers or men wearing shorts. The key to getting it right is to research where you are travelling to before you go.
Many prime tourist destinations are littered with churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship. You need to pay particular attention when visiting these places so as to not offend the locals. Most religious buildings will have attendants at the door who instruct visitors on the common practices that must be followed before entering, but some smaller venues do not. Take a moment to observe the locals that are around and see what rituals and procedures they are carrying out. Women may want to consider packing a light scarf to cover their hair when visiting Asian countries in particular.
Locals will also appreciate you learning a few simple phrases in their language, even if it is just a simple please and thank you. Educating yourself on the customs and culture of an area will also show that you are interested in the local way of life. Before I travel anywhere abroad I always learn how to greet people (both in words and action), some simple manners and how to ask someone if they speak English. It’s also a good idea to learn some simple foods and travel words in case you need directions. An important thing to remember is that the further away you go from main tourist destinations, the more patient you will need to be with locals speaking your language. Do not show that you are frustrated by their not understanding you, instead thank them for their time and search for someone else that can help you.
The Google Translate App has a great feature which will detect two different languages in a conversation and translate what is being said into the opposite language.
Travel Options as an Ecotourist
We are all aware of what methods of transport are best and worst for the environment, but sometimes long-haul flights can’t be avoided. What’s important is offsetting your impact when you get there. Don’t rush straight to the car rental desk at the airport if you don’t particularly need a car. Most countries have pretty advanced public transport systems nowadays. Buying tickets for buses and trains or just opting to walk between sites is the perfect way to offset your carbon footprint and take in the scenery. Observe what the locals do, if you see them all getting around town on a bike then do the same!
The WWF website has a carbon footprint calculator which gives you some real food for thought and helps to highlight the areas of your life that you could make improvements in – including your travel methods.
Does it Cost Me Extra to be an Ecotourist?
Making some simple changes like the ones mentioned above are not likely to impact your spending too much. In fact, they may save you money in the long term! However, if you’re looking to stay in specific ecotourism resorts you may have to fork out a little extra.
Sustainable log cabins in Asia for example would be a lot more expensive than spending on a hotel but you are paying for the experience too. You will get a much deeper understanding of the way of life that the locals follow and can rest assured that you are not damaging their environment.
Unfortunately, you do need to watch out for instances of greenwashing. Some companies take advantage of the tourists who opt for sustainable travel and advertise their resorts and accommodation as a lot more eco-friendly than it is. A good way to spot this is to read up on their policies on their website. Often you may find that the company that runs the accommodation has multiple branches across many countries and this can be a red flag. You want to make sure you are supporting smaller, locally-owned businesses in order to have the most sustainable holiday possible.
Maasai Mara, Kenya
The Maasai Mara in Kenya is particularly popular with ecotourists. The huge national park has been admired by millions of tourists but new plans have been brought in to ensure that the area is protected and is available for many years to come. The opportunity of a safari holiday draws in many visitors every year with a chance to watch the annual migration of the zebra and wildebeest across the plains. An experience like this truly is a wonder of nature.
To minimise the effects of tourism in the area, the Kenyan government has imposed strict regulations on hotel chains. The needs of the tourists must balance with the needs of the local community.
Ecotourism Kenya has certified over 86 different facilities which all have varying degrees of standard. The scheme has ensured that local people are employed in the tourism sector, an upgraded standard of education and community development projects. These projects match the funding that is put into developing tourist areas and invest it in the local community, building schools, hospitals and other important infrastructure.
Ecotourism is a relatively new form of tourism that is becoming more and more popular. This form of tourism promotes being sustainable and protecting the area for future generations to enjoy. The wildlife and plants are all considered as well as the local people. It isn’t too hard or expensive to make small changes which can have a huge impact on saving the natural beauty of an area and supporting a local community. You can start by just buying a reusable water bottle or going the whole hog and booking a trip to an ecotourism-specific resort. Be considerate on your next trip away and do your best to minimise your impact!