Eco tourism is the new buzzword these days with travelers opting out of traditional locales in favor of pristine lands undisturbed by human activity. It seems a shame to turn these spots into tourist hubs but there are benefits to this that outweigh risks.
The debate about eco tourism’s impact on the environment and the ecosystem is ongoing. Opponents are of the view that fragile habitats are disturbed and don’t gain from human activity even if measures are taken to keep out poaching, littering, noise and crowds. This is true of all locales, not only environmentally sensitive areas.
Advocates, on the other hand, state that conservation of biological diversity is increased, local communities profit and local awareness and participation show alternatives to logging and poaching. Since the reduction or elimination of both logging and poaching hinges on awareness and alternative livelihoods, it’s safe to say that eco tourism can be a boon.
Trusted eco tour organizers not only try to create awareness of our natural habitat and stress the importance of conservation but attempt to get people connected with the environment. Unlike mainstream tourism which is practiced on a large scale, most eco tours are small and incorporate locally owned activities. It’s believed that creating an understanding of the diverse world we live in and how species and forest conservation benefit us in the long run can change mindsets and, hopefully, encourage more to do their bit for the planet.
Currently, there exists no international standard or accreditation to regulate eco tours and manage the number of tourists who visit a particular place and how organizers should plan tours. National accreditation, however, has been put in place in Australia, Sweden, Costa Rica, Kenya and Estonia.
Well-established eco tours ensure that the traveling experience is enjoyable while resulting in minimal carbon footprint, employing and profiting locals, protecting wildlife habitats, using a percentage of the profits for conservation, educating tourists on the importance of social, political and environmental issues pertaining to the area being visited and encouraging the implementation of ideas and practices learnt in tourists’ homelands.
Conversely, badly managed eco tourism can result in devastation not only on the environment but local inhabitants. The use of greenwashing – misleading information in the form of marketing to conceal an eco tour organization’s destructive environmental practices – is responsible for spreading and making false impressions on many. It’s the onus of every traveler to do a thorough background check on tour operators and organizations to find out the truth about their claims.
In Australia, the Australian Trade Practices Act directs that companies and organizations engaging in greenwashing be heavily penalized and must market themselves around the truth of their environmental impact. Repeat offenders may have their certification, if any, revoked.
The popularity of eco tourism – it’s one of the fastest growing sectors in the tourism industry today – has given rise to demands of accreditation, stricter regulation, honest marketing and the inclusion of local inhabitants as stakeholders.
Like all trends, eco tourism has a ways to go before setting itself into a well-managed sector that benefits all stakeholders including wildlife and habitats. If tourists are able to come away with new experiences that motivate to turn them into environmentally friendly practices, and if tour organizers understand that they can profit more from practicing actual green tourism, the sector will flourish and even rope in naysayers.