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  • Nicole Renaux

Ecotourism: What is it? And is it right for you?

When the weather gets this hot in Austin, I often spend my time fantasizing about other, less hot places I could be. To be completely honest, international travel is typically on my mind from late July through mid-August. My desire to leave my 100+ degree city got me thinking about how to apply my environmental and social impact values to my travel experiences.

Ecotourism is often considered a rapidly growing sector of tourism. Its goal is promote travel to pristine, protected areas using practices that are lower impact and smaller scale than typical mass tourism operations. Ecotourism focuses on conserving natural habitats, benefiting local economic development, empowering indigenous communities, and providing unique and authentic cultural experiences for the traveler. This can sound like a win-win-win-win for people who want to exercise their values through consumer behavior.

Since the definition of ecotourism varies by source, it’s important to keep in mind some of the nuance in ecotourism practices. Some of the goals of ecotourism include enhancement of human rights and environmental conservation. When done well, ecotourism can help to reduce poverty in less-developed countries. This can empower local communities to become advocates of their resources and direct owners of tourism enterprises. But there are some operations (I’m looking at you, large hotel chains) that tout themselves as eco-friendly, where local workers are paid low wages while working in foreign-owned businesses that are less incentivized to keep earnings in the local community. 

Ecotourism typically involves travel to natural areas, creating valuable cultural and environmental experiences for tourists. As a practice, ecotourism can potentially ward off environmentally damaging land development in sensitive areas. It can even promote environmental justice for indigenous people by increasing access to recreational spaces, clean air, and water, and by limiting exposure to pollution and hazardous waste. At the same time, ecotourism runs the risk of jeopardizing environmentally sensitive ecosystems, as humans are known to trample about and break stuff.

Through their patronage, ecotourists, often visiting from developed countries, tend to encourage local people to remain close to their land. Although the intention may be to contribute to the destination’s local economy, the impact on locals may undermine some of the benefits of industrialization, ranging from urbanization to trade, 24-hour drive thru windows, even travel for recreational enjoyment. Basically, by placing incentives on locals to conserve their land, they may miss out on some of the benefits enjoyed by people from more developed countries. The farther we wander down this path, the closer we are to understanding how travel can be a little imperialistic. 

My point is that there’s a gray area. There are some positives and negatives. For instance, some criticize the  fuel consumption and carbon emissions involved in air travel to worldwide ecotourist destinations. Some may argue that ecotourism is possibly more sustainable than your typical mass tourism operation. Let’s just consider your last all-inclusive resort, cruise, or theme park experience. Although the emissions from air travel can have more of an environmental impact than local travel, you may counter with the impact of mass travel on freshwater. Or you may argue that there’s greater potential for reversing the effects of ecotourism compared with mass tourism.

What really irks me is the marketing that goes into promoting green ideas, a concept often referred to as greenwashing. It’s difficult to know how products and services provided in less developed countries are really striving for sustainability. Since there’s a lack of standardization in the definition of ecotourism, it shouldn’t surprise you that there are different standards in practice. And the data that’s used to support these standards is often challenging to quantify. 

So… another gray area. The concept can be wonderful; another opportunity to align your virtue with your behavior as a consumer. But, there’s some murkiness. Are you engaging in empowering practices that support local communities? Are you practicing sustainability and lessening your environmental impact on pristine, natural ecosystems? And how do you know that the locals you’re working with are committed to ecotourism standards?

To ensure your tourism dollars are creating reliable employment and revenue for locals, look for operations where locals are the direct owners. Try to find small scale operations that adhere to an travel ethic of minimal impact. It seems like the most widely respected ecotourism data comes from The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). Their certification process includes third-party audits compared to their standards for destinations and accommodations. 

Beyond who you choose to work with when traveling, you can incorporate sustainability into travel when choosing how to transport, minimizing water use, packings responsibly, and leaving no trace to minimize impact.

I hope fellow Austinites are fortunate enough to find reprieve from the heat. And if you’re looking to get away, consider how you might limit your footprint and generate positive social impact in the process.

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