What Is Ecotourism? Definition, Pros and Cons

Before planning an ecotourism adventure, here's everything you need to know about the travel buzzword

‘Ecotourism’ is the buzzword of the moment, but it’s a confusing term. Knowing what we do about the polluting nature of the aviation industry in particular, how can tourism be ‘eco’? Let’s demystify.

Let’s start by getting one thing straight: ecotourism is not the same as sustainable travel. Ecotourism can be sustainable, and many sustainable trips incorporate ecotourism, but the two are not intrinsically linked. It’s vital to understand what ecotourism is, so that we don’t fall prey to travel companies’ greenwashing. Staying at a jungle lodge and eating meals from a banana leaf plate, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that your trip can be categorised as ecotourism.

“Ecotourism can be sustainable, and many sustainable trips incorporate ecotourism, but the two are not intrinsically linked”

Ecotourism and sustainable travel are different things. Photo: Getty Images (iStock)

If ecotourism is not the same as sustainable travel, what is it?

Ecotourism is travelling with the purpose of bettering your understanding of an ecosystem / animal / culture with the aim of preserving it. Although the word ‘ecotourism’ is quite new (coined in the 60s), as a concept it has been around much longer, before we knew anything about climate change.

“Ecotourism is travelling with the purpose of bettering your understanding of an ecosystem/animal/culture with the aim of preserving it”

If you travel to Brazil, for example, to observe the effects of deforestation on indigenous communities first-hand, this is ecotourism. If you take a diving trip to learn how rising sea temperatures is bleaching coral reefs, this is ecotourism. If you go to foundations to learn about saving Silverback gorillas from extinction in Rwanda, this is also ecotourism.

Since climate change is disproportionately affecting the developing world, many ecotourism destinations involve a long journey for Europeans. Herein lies one of the inherent problems of ecotourism, the fact that we could be doing more harm than good by travelling to our destination.

Done correctly, ecotourism can be a powerful tool. Photo: Getty Images (iStock)

If I’m flying to go on an ecotourism trip, am I a hypocrite?

This isn’t the answer that any of us want, but yes. If you’re flying to Brazil, even if it is with the aim of learning about the effects of deforestation, the flight that you’re taking is burning fossil fuels, so you’re directly contributing to the very problem that you’re studying.

But whilst there are many problems with ecotourism, done correctly, ecotourism can be a powerful tool in educating the public about the damaging effects of climate change, and in funding conservation. And with some destinations, flying really is the only option to get there, unless of course you’re a skilled sailor with an abundance of time (sadly, not most of us).

An orangutan in Borneo. Photo: Getty Images (iStock)

So if my trip is so polluting, why would I go on an ecotourism trip?

In short, to learn. Travel can be hugely educational. What if seeing the plight of Bornean orangutans who have lost their homes causes you to make permanent changes to your own lifestyle? What if you talk to family and friends and encourage them to do likewise, all because of the profound impact of your trip? What if the revenue generated from your trip went directly to supporting critical habitat protection in your destination? You could argue that the benefits now outweigh the negatives.

Ecotourism is a big part of Costa Rica’s economy. Photo: Getty Image (iStock)

Other than educating myself, what are the benefits to ecotourism?

There are many, but one of the biggest benefits is economical. Countries where ecotourism has really taken off, such as Madagascar and Costa Rica, have generated large amounts of revenue through it. In Madagascar, for example, tourism in general accounts for 13.5% of the country’s economy. Interest in ecotourism provides a strong incentive for tour operators in Madagascar to preserve natural habitats and endangered wildlife. Lemurs are the main pull for ecotourists visiting Madagascar. Without ecotourism, many conservation centres would likely fold due to lack of funding.

“Interest in ecotourism provides a strong incentive for tour operators in Madagascar to preserve natural habitats”

How do I plan an ecotourism trip without falling prey to greenwashing?

Do your research! If you’re booking through a tour company, read the reviews and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The first company that appears in a Google search might be the largest, or highest grossing tour operator that covers your destination. It doesn’t mean that they’re experts in ecotourism.

If the company is promoting unethical animal experiences, such as elephant riding, there’s a good chance that they’re not as green as they say that they are. If every hotel that they offer is a skyscraper and part of a large, international franchise, the revenue generated from your trip isn’t likely to be reaching local communities. Be savvy. Ask the company whether they employ local guides, whether they support local hotels and whether they’re engaged in local conservation initiatives. And ask for examples.

Do your research to avoid falling foul of greenwashing. Photo: Getty Images (iStock)

Remember, ecotourism doesn’t only take place on the other side of the world, and you don’t always have to fly to reach these destinations. Going on a whale conservation sailing trip in the Hebrides could be a great alternative to a turtle conservation trip to French Polynesia, especially if you’ve only got a short time frame.

“Look for sustainability certifications when you choose a travel company”

Greenwashing is a real issue in the travel industry, and trips promoted as ecotourism are no exception. However good our intentions are, our actions can be detrimental. This is one of the major pitfalls of ‘voluntourism’. We’ve all heard stories about well-intentioned teens who would fundraise thousands for the life changing experience of building a school in Sub-Saharan Africa, only to find that their efforts were being deconstructed and rebuilt by local builders overnight. How much of the funds raised from sponsored head shaves and school bake sales was reinvested in local communities?

Look for sustainability certifications when you choose a travel company, and proof that the company has been certified by an external agency. Be wary of vague buzzwords, if a hotel is described as ‘eco friendly’ with nothing to suggest why they consider themselves to be eco friendly, bar a photo of a banana leaf roof, question it.

Minke whale off the Isle of Harris. Photo: Getty Images (iStock)

Is ecotourism right for me?

Since ecotourism can even take place in your hometown, ecotourism is right for everyone. Ecotourism done correctly can be rewarding, educational and unforgettable. Just take your time to do your research before you book anything.

“Ecotourism done correctly can be rewarding, educational and unforgettable”

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