We are currently living a turn in paradigms when it comes to the way we relate to our environment, from the uttermost basic and mundane questioning of business practices that are detrimental to our natural surroundings and how we can change them, to far more complex issues intertwined with our daily habits (our plastic consumption, for example). So here is a long due reflection on ecotourism and the role it plays within the larger picture of advancing sustainable development. As we celebrate this year's World Environment Day, we have asked ourselves: What is ecotourism? And what is not?
A good starting point to delve deeper into what ecotourism really is and its importance, is the very own definition given by the International Ecotourism Society (TIES):
"Responsible travel to natural areas that preserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education".
According to this internationally recognized and widely embraced vision, ecotourism focuses on preserving environmental capital and sustaining local livelihoods, by putting people and nature at the forefront of tourism. Coupled with conservation, ecotourism must balance the provision of financial benefits for local communities. But it also implies an additional layer of action, which is using tourism as an educational vehicle that makes travelers more aware of the beauty and value of the natural and cultural heritage of the destinations that they visit. Ecotourism celebrates nature and culture and enhances the travellers' journey by integrating natural and cultural heritage into the core of their travel experience.
In order to clearly understand what ecotourism stands for, we should not overlook other key terms that overlap and share somewhat similar objectives, but lack some of the above mentioned ingredients. Sustainable Tourism is one of them. On a broader sense, as we derive by looking at the definition given by the UNTWO (United Nations Tourism World Organization):
“Sustainability principles refer to the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development. A suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long term sustainability” . So sustainable tourism also focuses on the tripple bottom-line of tourism development, but does not necessarily touch on the experiential dimension of tourism, which is at the core of ecotourism.
There are some travel companies that blur the lines and perhaps very eagerly blend in words such as “green” “natural” or “eco conscious”. One of the main reasons for certain companies to self-label with such terms is undoubtedly the massive growth of the ecotourism sector within the travel industry. Its extraordinary development has creaed expectations that it might even outperform some of the large players of the industry in the coming decade (such as the ever-powerful cruising industry, for example). According to Ecotourism Australia:
“In Australia, ecotourism has rocketed from unknown entity to global phenomenon in the last 30 years and nature-based tourism already makes up 75% of the international tourism market. Not only do more than a third of travelers now prefer environmentally friendly tourism, they’re willing to pay up to 40% more for it".
With the best intentions in mind, travel related companies sometimes use certain terms in a somewhat confusing way, but if you read in between the lines you can perceive a genuine interest in communicating their efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of their activities.
This is legit, but we cannot turn a blind eye to those companies practicing “greenwashing” or “green sheen”. Greenwashing is a term derived from “Whitewashing” and in short its definition is:
Greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service or technology.
So rather than getting lost in the never-ending debate over definitions, we vote for travel companies and tourism operators that put their best foot forward and undertake specific, accountable actions to reduce their environmental impact, leave a positive footprint for local communities, contribute to research and conservation efforts, and inspire travelers to support a greener, wilder Planet, while enjoying and discovering nature.
Why is ecotourism important, if not fundamental?
We may all have different reasons and motives to embrace and support ecotourism. Here's an outline of the reasons that move us to endorse it and to invest our efforts into upscaling it at a wide scale in our home, Europe:
1. Ecotourism is an strategic ally of environmental conservation.
Would you enjoy kayaking in a sea of plastics? Sea kayaking companies know you most likely won't. So they're the very first ones to team up with local administrations, NGOs and other public and private stakeholders to preserve the landscapes that provide the scenario for their activities. The same goes for diving centres, surf shops, whale watching companies and a large etcetera of players in the ecotourism industry who are eager to stand up for its best business partner: nature. They will go the extra mile to ensure that they can continue providing an excellent experience to their customers for years to come. A great example of ecotourism operators coming together to improve their standards in support of responsible whale watching and cetaceans' conservation is the family of whale watching operators associated to the World Cetacean Alliance.
2. Ecotourism champions are deeply rooted in local communities.
Have you ever heard of the fear of delocalization? That is what big companies sometimes do when the going gets tough in certain markets. Most ecotourism operators are micro or small enterprises that are very closely intertwined with the local communities where they operate. When the going gets tough, they stick around. And that is how economic resilience is built into local communities.
3. Ecotourism brings innovation and new skills in the tourism sector, delivering a multi-tiered economic impact.
Don't you get the feeling that we have been discussing the need to revisit tourism development for too long? Rather than continuing to apply the same business models that have created the problems that we now face, how about giving some credit to the boys and gals that are bringing fresh air into the tourism realm? Knowing your wildlife and being able to communicate nature's beauty and how it connects with local traditions, history and gastronomy is not something that happens naturally. Having the skills to interpret natural and cultural heritage and to guide tours on land and at sea requires training, dedication and passion. Welcome innovators! Ecotourism is fundamental for a sustainable economic development, as it supports new, sustainable business models and attracts conscious, green investment.
4. Connecting with nature in a respectful way improves our collective health on a deeper, larger level.
Breaking news; we humans are part of nature. Regardless of the internet, 3D printers, skyscrapers and any other man created element, we still belong to nature; we are not above nor below, but in. That is why exposure and interaction with nature brings so many benefits to our wellbeing. According to this study by Deborah Cracknell from the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth:
“Exposure to natural environments can have calming and stress-reducing effects on humans. Moreover, previous studies suggest that these benefits may be greater in areas with higher species richness”
And here you have only a few of this health benefits for your health, as stated by The Guardian. Aside from the physical and mental qualities, it allows for personal growth: from gaining awareness of your surroundings (being less in your own head/bubble/reality et al), you are pushing yourself to experience new adventures under the sky.
5. Ecotourism is a driving force in support of nature & Ocean literacy.
As discussed, a fundamental part of ecotourism is education and interpretation, which in turn builds up our knowledge of the World's natural assets and treasures. By gaining knowledge about the different species that inhabit this Planet, we are no longer alienated from wildlife and we are more prone to commit and contribute to protect it. And to celebrate it!
At the end of the day, ecotourism is an act of self-love. The old "what goes around comes around" type of thing. A reasonable meeting point between ethos and tourism, one of the favourite children of our economic system.
Of course, it still opens up questions that are not easy to answer. Would it not be better for the environment that we did not travel at all? Is ecotourism a sort of oxymoron? Or a paradox put to practice? What if ecotourism paces the way to "mass ecotourism"? (argg!). These questions ought to be studied in a different article, however it is critical to ponder the possibility that even with the best intentions, ecotourism without self-criticism could fail to see some of its own flaws. But for now, let's agree that ecotourism is a giant step towards a new way of traveling and evolving tourism - and most certainly the best path to follow if we want to enjoy the beauty of the Planet with our own eyes, without compromising it.
At WILDSEA Europe, we have made it our mission to nurture Ocean literacy through responsible, marine ecotourism. It's our humble contribution to supporting ecotourism development in Europe, seeking to transform our very pressured but yet beautiful and lively coastal destinations.
If you want to learn more about the initiatives and actions that we are undertaking to upscale marine ecotourism in Europe, sign up to our newsletter and we'll keep you posted. Happy World Environment Day!