When you visit a new place, do you set out to make a difference or, like most people, do you go on vacation to have a fun and relaxing time? If you answered the latter, you would not be alone. The travel industry as a whole is undergoing an enormous growth spurt; it is hardly affected by changes in the economy and has been growing at a rate of 1 to 1.5 percentage points faster than the global economy. It’s estimated that in 2015, world travel grossed more than 7 trillion dollars.
Ecotourism, or what The International Ecotourism Society defines as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education,” is not a new concept. It first arose in the 1970s, spurred by the global environmental movement. As climate change gains broader recognition, however, and recent political developments have increased the attention it is getting from people around the world, there is a renewed interest in this environmentally-responsible form of travel.
Unless one is traveling as part of a mission group or studying abroad in a foreign country, most people probably don’t think about their environmental impact. More and more people, however, are starting to recognize the environmental impacts of travel, and how travel might be used to benefit the environment rather than disrupt it. Ecotourism is growing right alongside the overall tourism industry; one consulting firm, Deloitte, has asserted that the number of travelers who desire to leave a place they visit in better condition than when they arrived increased by a third over the last decade.
What does ecotourism look like? Traveling with sustainability in mind can come in many forms, with various branches such as agrotourism and voluntourism (about which I recently wrote), but ecotourists seek to benefit local communities by helping to create jobs and bolstering the local economy. According to an article in USA Today, “Ecotourism provides a longer-term solution to poverty than the ‘quick fix’ of a charitable handout.” Ecotourism also entails environmental conservation, cultural preservation, and human rights. Ecotourists promote environmental conservation through visiting and funding national parks, and paying for nature excursions such as camping and safari tours. By providing alternative sources of employment for local residents, ecotourists serve to help mitigate the damage caused by unsustainable practices such as overfishing and land clearance. By interacting with local peoples, sensitive ecotourists help to preserve and promote indigenous cultures. Ecotourists also learn about human rights issues through their travels and many work to raise awareness after they return home.
If you think it’s just tree-hugging hipsters who are supporting this growing industry, think again! The travel industry is catching on, with international hotel chains across the globe adapting more sustainable practices through recycling, renewable energy, water conservation, and safe waste disposal initiatives, and, tour operators and attractions offering eco-based travel opportunities.
Whether you plan to take an eco-centric trip or not, always be mindful of the impact your presence in a foreign place has on the environment. You can practice at least some eco-friendly behavior whenever and wherever you travel simply by buying local and fostering positive relations with the local community.