Spirit of Ecotourism
Albert Einstein once said, “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” His words characterize the spirit of environmental education through ecotourism. That spirit is the basis of a philosophy that promotes sustainable development through community cooperation and trans-generational communication. As a scientist, philosopher and teacher, Einstein was well aware of the need to pass on knowledge about the environment from the older generation to the younger generation in order to build an understanding of how to maintain a sustainable relationship with nature. In the last century, environmental education has grown to include more than just field studies in biology and geology. Today, the main objective of environmental education is to teach critical thinking skills that involve problem solving and decision-making for how communities can conserve, protect and promote stewardship of natural resources. Environmental education through eco-tourism is a tool to encourage thoughtfully planned community development based on a shared attitude toward stewardship of valuable natural resources. That shared attitude is a product of common environmental morals and ethics.
What is Ecotourism?
The International Ecotourism Society, defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). Since the late 20th Century, ecotourism has been one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors.
For ecotourism initiatives to be successful in both achieving their goals and being sustainable over time, the International Ecotourism Society recommends ecotourism projects be based on several guiding principles:
- Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
- Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
- Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
- Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
- Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment. (TIES, 2015)
Benefits of Ecotourism
Creates Jobs and Income for Local Communities
Since ecotourism projects are community-based initiatives planned and managed at a local level, local citizens participate at all stages of the process. This is a major step toward community empowerment. Ecotourism projects create jobs locally so young people do not have to leave their homes and families to look for work in urban areas. Local youths may work as guides, selling crafts, providing food and accommodation, or taking part in cultural performances. In the best-case scenario, ecotourism improves the standard of living through improved facilities, such as schools, clinics, potable water sources, new roads and electricity.
Through dissemination of environmental knowledge and information, ecotourism contributes to a better appreciation of the world’s natural resources, such as forests, rivers, coastlines and wildlife. New knowledge helps to change attitudes and behavior about how to protect the natural environment through the creation of national parks, wildlife preserves and marine parks. The money tourists pay in sanctuary entrance fees, camping fees, tour fees and taxes help to fund conservation work and community development. Tourist dollars can also help to fight environmentally destructive behaviors such as dynamite fishing, illegal logging, destructive farming and overfishing.
Ecotourism encourages tourists to interact with local citizens. This integrative approach to tourism differs from the segregation of the traditional tourists who barely venture out of their westernized hotels. Eco-tourists are likely to experience local lifestyles and customs first-hand. This can foster an interest that helps to preserve the region’s heritage, provide a market for local handicrafts, promote traditional festivals and increase awareness of native ceremonies and art forms.
Building Awareness of Human Rights
In addition to teaching environmental stewardship, ecotourism can raise awareness about political and social issues in developing countries.
Ecotourism is a Tool in Developing a Global Environmental Ethic
As the popularity of ecotourism grows the values and principles become contagious. Environmentally responsible practices among large tour operators and hotels is becoming the norm as more and more establishments globally are practicing recycling, use of renewable energy sources, water-conservation schemes and safe waste disposal
Ecotourism and Community Development
Human impact on the environment is motivating communities all over the world to rethink planning and development. For popular travel destinations, this means communities need to find a balance between capitalizing on the economic benefits of increased tourism and protecting their natural resources for future generations. Tourism-gone-wrong can ruin a community’s resources and create an environmental refugee situation in which locals need to leave a once pristine area due to the impact of too many tourists. Increased tourism creates a strain on potable water sources, waste management and arable land. Effective ecotourism projects should begin with educating local community members by raising awareness of detrimental practices and nurturing a new social consciousness that will result in symbiotic relationships with nature. For small island communities, mountain villages, animal sanctuaries and other common tourist destinations that advertise their closeness with nature, environmental education is fundamental to effecting change in attitudes and behavior. That change is an essential step toward planning sustainable ecotourism projects.
Unfortunately, poverty and myopia in development planning cause people to seek short-term gains without realizing the long-term detrimental effects. It is important that all levels of government take effective measures to ensure ecotourism initiatives maintain sustainable use of the natural resources and their associated ecosystems.
The Responsible Eco-Tourist
Although the eco-tourist may only spend minimal time visiting a particular destination, the tourist also has a responsibility of helping to ensure the success of an ecotourism project.
Tourists need to educate themselves so they can make informed choices before and during a trip. This is the first step in becoming a responsible traveler. Here are some tips for choosing destinations, accommodations, and tour operators for an eco-travel vacation:
1. Do the Due Diligence
Use available resources on the web or in guidebooks to learn as much as possible about destinations, places to stay and tour companies that organize trips. Some key terms for Internet searches are responsible travel, ecotourism, or sustainable tourism.
2. Check the Benefits to the Local Community
After deciding on a destination, try contacting some of the stakeholders in the ecotourism project to learn about their policies. You can ask questions about the percentage of locals among the employees or what percentage of profit stays in the local community. Look for comments either praising or criticizing ecotourism efforts on travel websites.
3. Look for Evidence of Accreditation
Are tour guides trained and certified? Do lodging business have eco-label ratings?
4. Be Pro-Active During the Trip
Communicate with the local citizens as much as possible to learn about the condition of the local environment and understand either the positive or negative impacts of the ecotourism project. If time and logistics permit, volunteer to participate in projects such as reef monitoring, resource assessments or development efforts. Get involved!
5. Be Pro-Active After the Trip
Spread the word via social media or traditional media about successful efforts and responsible ecotourism projects. Offer constructive criticism for projects that are not as environmentally responsible as they could be. Post comments about a destination or tour operator on travel websites.
6. Beware of Green-Washing
As ecotourism has gained much popularity in the last couple of decades, it becomes more difficult to understand what some tour operators mean when using the “eco” label. It is a label that sells, but it is not always a true label. Doing due diligence should help to uncover ecotours that are really just conventional package tours.