Ecotourism: Is it Just Another Buzzword?

18 SEP 2015
by: Adam | posted in: Project Expedition, Travel | comments: 0
Cheap flights. Luxury hotels. Eco-friendly tours. The modern traveler’s checklist, all describing what sounds like a great place to go. The first two have been used in travel advertising for about as long as there has been a travel industry. The last one, meanwhile, is still a relatively new development.

Ecotourism itself only came into being in 1990 when The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) set up shop and wrote out the principles to guide it going forwards. In the last 25 years those original tenets have been revised and updated. Here is where they stand today (look for an upcoming post breaking these principles down further). For now, we'll use TIES broader definition: ecotourism is "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education."

Ecotourism began to catch on as society’s awareness about our collective effect on the Earth increased, and eventually the year 2002 was named the International Year of Ecotourism by the UN and its partners. By 2006, The New York Times Travel section deemed ecotourism their travel buzzword of the year.

Like watching your favorite quiet beach be swamped by tourists, this designation as a buzzword both gives ecotourism legitimacy because of its obvious importance and popularity, and simultaneously robs it of some of its meaning. Suddenly the term appears everywhere, even when it maybe isn’t applicable. Every hotel, resort, and tour operator wants to be seen as ecotourist friendly and may try to market themselves as such. So this begets the question: is all of ecotourism just a well-crafted marketing trend? Or is that amazing beach still out there, just with slightly more people?


Celebrity Endorsements

Besides being an actor just about everyone has heard of, Leonardo DiCaprio is a well known environmentalist. He sits on the board of the World Wildlife Fund, narrated a movie about climate change called The 11th Hour, and recently donated $15 million dollars to conservation efforts around the world through his charity organization. Like many others, he’s also getting into the ecotourism game.

In 2005 he bought a 104 acre caye off the coast of Belize. Recently, he announced plans to build an eco resort on the island with his business partner, a New York City-based property developer. The stated objectives leading their venture is to both repair the island after years of overfishing and deforestation, and to change the way island resorts are built. They plan to do this by adhering to the Living Building Challenge designed by the project’s architect and by featuring native building materials as much as possible.

Perhaps you’re wondering if the best way to save an island is to build on it and open it up to hundreds of people. Okay, now you definitely are. With a name like “Blackadore Caye, A Restorative Island” and most of the amenities available to guests focusing on their own health and wellness (with programs designed by Deepak Chopra), they are certainly targeting a certain demographic. And with other features like “state of the art LED circadian lighting” you get the feeling this experience is not for your average traveler.  Yet part of that program will include an ecology orientation program, and they also plan on training local workers in green building techniques that they can take with them to their next job. This project therefore fulfills a lot of the tenets that TIES describes.

When DiCaprio’s name is attached to something, it’s always going to be a success. By trying to adhere to the high standards ecotourism calls for, DiCaprio and his partners are going to use a lot of more money than they might otherwise have to spend. DiCaprio’s environmental track record speaks for itself, and I’m sure he’ll be happy to both push ecotourism forward and pull down a tidy profit on the undertaking. This is a fair compromise in today’s business climate.


A Humble Homestay

As ecotourism grows, having lots of choices to travel in an eco-friendly way is a net positive for travelers. And fortunately for most of us, this means ecotourism isn’t necessarily limited to ultra exclusive resorts. In fact, a lot of eco tours are cheap specifically because they aim to fulfill an important tenet of ecotourism: supporting the local population and learning about their culture.

In Trang, a rural province in the south of Thailand not far from the luxury resorts of Krabi, the Bo Hin homestay is credited with reviving a struggling community and doubling the income for the group of families that operates the homestay. For 650 baht, roughly $20 dollars, you get two nights room and board, and daily activities. These include going out on a boat with a fisherman to catch shrimp, enjoying the hot salt springs, and walking through mangrove forests. The entire community chips in and helps maintain the homestay, all the while continuing with their normal daily life and work.

This enterprise has proven to be so successful many nearby villages have adopted the same model. One could see something similar working in struggling communities around the US too. Spending a night in a cottage on the Maine coast and waking up early to accompany a lobsterman on his morning haul. Looking out over herds of livestock as the sun sets on a ranch in Montana. This is ecotourism at its purest. The goal here isn’t mass tourism and huge profits. They want to educate others about their way of life, and add some extra income to make sure it stays sustainable.


Costa Rica's Success

A rural community doubling its income using ecotourism explains why lots of countries with low GDPs per person and relatively under industrialized countrysides are also starting to embrace ecotourism. Laos, with a GDP per capita of $1,600, is hoping an emphasis on ecotourism will draw more Korean visitors to the country. Research has shown that Ethiopia, with GDP per capita of just $555, could earn as much as $1 billion dollars a year from ecotourism, which is a huge increase from it’s current level of about $3 million a year. Both would result in huge boosts to these two countries’ GDPs, thus improving the quality of life for their respective inhabitants. On this countrywide scale, the success of Costa Rica is probably what is inspiring these countries to go in the direction of ecotourism.

Costa Rica is undoubtedly ecotourism’s biggest success story. It all started in the 1990’s when they turned their focus to promoting Costa Rica’s untouched beauty. Costa Rica is aided by its proximity to the US and it’s amazing biodiversity, but it’s management of these assets is what led to it becoming the jewel it is today. It has gone from around 300,000 tourists in 1988, to 2.34 million tourists in 2012, a tidy figure that generated 2.34 billion USD for its 5 million citizens. It’s GDP now sits at 10.1k, an increase from 2k in 1987.

Belize, which has only gone from 1.5k to 5k in the same time span, is also close to the US and enjoys an abundance of wildlife. Only more recently has it turned its focus to ecotourism. Over 27% of Belize is now protected by national parks, reserves, and sanctuaries. It remains to be seen if countries like Belize, Laos, and Ethiopia can capitalize on ecotourism as entering the increasingly competitive market is no small task. The fact that the certification process is always clear and can vary wildly from region to region makes it even tougher.


Green Certified

As ecotourism continues to prove it’s effectiveness, everyone, countries and businesses alike, understandably wants to join in. Ecotourism is a useful way for businesses to elevate themselves above their competitors. Ecotourism gives the two-sided benefit of not only offering a great experience, but it also offers the traveler an experience where they feel better about themselves once having finished.

When you go out searching for an eco friendly tour you may find tons of results. Maybe too many. If there are so many hard to reach standards, how come it seems like everyone is reaching them? Like in other green industries like green buildings and cars, there is a certification process that will declare a business an ecotourist friendly place. It’s just a lot more confounding.

There is no global authority when it comes to ecotourism. This means that there are more than 50 different certifications, all depending on what country or region of the world you’re in. Every country or region might interpret the criteria set forth by TIES a little differently, so not every certification cares about the same tenets. This also implies that not every certification demands the highest of standards. Check and make sure the country you're visiting offers the type of ecotourism you really desire. Once you know what that country's certification is called you can also check on the businesses you plan on using. This is the best way to ensure you get the highest quality ecotourism experience. Here's a reference guide that compares some of the world's ecotourism certifications and what they require from the local businesses.


Ecotourism and Tourism

Increased income, sustainable management, happy locals and travelers. It all sounds almost too good to be true. In a way, it is. Besides its certification process, ecotourism does have other flaws, but they mostly relate to the “tourism” part of its name.

In order to get to the far-flung places that you seek to explore, you usually have to fly. The carbon emissions from planes puts you in a large amount of carbon debt that is impossible to overcome. Another downside is that any country that heavily invests in tourism is going to be hit especially hard in economic downturns, and job opportunities will be somewhat limited in terms of diversity. Lastly, like anything popular, as the numbers of tourists increase, so will the profits, and sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on the original goal when temptations abound.

Ecotourism is not perfect, but none of these flaws should not be seen as fatal. Ecotourism demonstrably helps people, and preserves both culture, land and the wildlife that inhabit it. Like with Leonardo DiCpario’s island eco resort, there is a fair compromise with ecotourism. People who have the income and an interest in traveling are always going to do so. t least they’re traveling to places with good intentions, and the locals are directly contributing to and benefiting from the travelers’ experiences. With that money people can improve their standard of living, send their kids to better schools, and eventually diversify into other industries besides tourism.

Ecotourism is a trend in the right direction. Not all ecotourism is created equally though, so it’s up to you the traveler to make sure it doesn’t become just a marketing buzzword. Make sure to do your research about the country you plan on traveling to and the businesses you may be using to ensure you’re actually supporting ecotourism. Future generations of locals and travelers alike will thank you.


Source for title image.
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