How do you know if an eco-friendly tour is all that friendly to the environment?

With overcrowded beaches, large resort hotels and tourist-packed cities losing their allure many passionate travelers are looking to experience a more exotic adventure. Ecotourism is a type of tourism geared to exhibit areas of natural or ecological interest and this adventure-style vacation is growing ever more popular for outdoorsy travelers.

In places that may seem a bit off the beaten track, the avid traveler is finding a whole new way to explore because of the increase of ecotourism opportunities. Around the globe ecotourism is becoming a booming industry, bringing in wealth and tourism for less developed countries, and gaining popularity in more modernized countries as well.

What is ecotourism?

Having activities designed to showcase an area’s pristine beauty, countries stand to make more of a profit by leading nature-focused tours and preserving the environment than by developing the land for business. By allowing the local population to make a profit through sharing their natural world, ecotourism is often championed as the answer and alternative to making an income through the destruction of the environment by industrialization.

Unfortunately, in many circumstances ecotourism is not all that it appears to be and can often be nothing less than the complete exploitation of an indigenous people and a detriment to the environment. This brings the wary, responsible traveler to the question: How do I know if I am supporting a positive form of ecotourism?

How to choose

While it can be difficult to determine what sort of activities are positive forms of ecotourism, keep in mind that the extra effort to ensure you chose an a eco-friendly company goes a long way. Prior research on the companies leading the activities you wish to take part in can be very helpful in making sure you pick a responsible form of ecotourism. According to The Ecotourism Society, a true ecotourism company is, “responsible for travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people.”

However with so many different tours and companies for every type of ecotourism activity, it sometimes can be difficult to make a proper choice. Nevertheless, whether you are looking to hike through the rainforest in Costa Rica, snorkel off Bali, or even dive with Great Whites in South Africa there are a few helpful ways to know you are going with a company or tour group that cares as much about the environment as it does turning a profit. Keep in mind just because you are on a guided hike though the rainforest doesn’t mean it is ecotourism unless it somehow benefits the environment and the local people who live there. The same rule applies with a snorkeling trip, or shark-diving adventure. It is only ecotourism if it raises awareness and finances the further protection of the area and wildlife you are experiencing.

Making certain to only support companies that have an educational purpose and avoid others that care only to entertain and make a profit is a good general guideline to follow. Tours designed to teach the visitors about the environment and why it is so essential to be protected is the key differences between ecotourism and an “adventure” tour. Without supervision and instruction by licensed tour guides, tours that bring in large groups of tourists who do not properly understand their own impact can be very detrimental to the environment and indigenous people.

A responsible traveler should make the best effort to find tours and activities that are certified as legitimate ecotourism companies. In many countries it doesn’t cost any more to advertise as “ecotourism” but it typically does cost a little more to be officially certified. An ecotourism certification may increase the price of a company’s tours, but at the same time the company has extra costs they must cover to ensure they are practicing truly eco-friendly policies. Often travelers find themselves on a tight budget, however it is worth it to pay a little more to guarantee it is truly ecotourism and that you are not harming the environment or the local population.

Ask

In some cases there are some great organizations that are not certified, however they are typically practicing all the principles of proper ecotourism and have yet to receive certification. A helpful hint to make sure you are choosing correctly is to shop around and pick the company you feel comfortable supporting. There is nothing wrong with asking questions to an ecotourism company prior to agreeing to support them. Find out key pieces of information such as:

  • Does the company respect and benefit the local people and provide decent employment and income to the local employees?
  • Does the company focus on minimizing their impact on the environment to the best of their ability?
  • Does the company keep group sizes small in order to better monitor and make sure as little impact as possible results from the tour?

Asking yourself and the ecotourism companies questions like these can help ensure you have an eco-friendly adventure and a much more enjoyable experience. Ecotourism is a fantastic way to learn and enjoy the beauty of the natural world around the globe, but remember: if ecotourism is not being practiced correctly it can do more harm than good.

Your thoughts on "Ecotourism or Ecoterrorism?"

  • You make some good points and help me to realise how easy it is to judge a book by its cover. Is ecotourism the new "green-washing"? Probably and unfortunately so. Charles' bulleted questions are excellent ones to ask, but does anyone have any research tools to help us find answers? Are there independent research sites working on this kind of thing?

    on July 23, 2009 at 1:56 am Reply
  • I think many people see the word "eco" and assume something is environmentally friendly. It's hard to tell as you travel around as well since the requirements for certification, as you mention, vary from place to place. It really comes down to research, not sure if there's a good single set of independent research sites either.

    on July 24, 2009 at 1:12 am Reply
  • This is an important subject. People need to be sure they are not being taken in by the latest craze. Any hotel can call itself "ecotourism" and I have found some with that label cannot even explain what it is they do that is eco friendly. As for the questions for eco tourism companies, those that are a sham sill have ready answers to pacify the traveler, so it takes a great deal of thought to choose wisely. Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC)gives some additional guidance, according to the web site Green By Design. Thanks for starting this conversation.

    on July 24, 2009 at 1:30 am Reply
  • Hey Craig and Linda -- actually had never heard of the term greenwashing -- which I now know describes companies that spinn their products and policies as environmentally friendly. How some companies might cut costs and then trumpet their reductions in the use of resources. An online directory of resources to help make informed decsisions would be great. Wonder if there's anything out there? Regardless, a worthy article and thanks for making it available!

    on July 24, 2009 at 3:18 am Reply
  • Daniel, Greenwashing's been a real pain in recent years. Sometimes scratching the surface of an environmental claim reveals...not much beneath. While some companies are making an effort, many are simply re-wording their marketing campaigns -- efficient but does nothing for the environment. I (Craig) am glad Charles brought this up so we can highlight some companies doing well and be aware of the pitfalls.

    on July 24, 2009 at 11:56 am Reply
  • Charles- you make some fantastic points in your writing. It really makes sense to do some greater research into these as advertised companies and read some customer reviews before taking the plunge. I look forward to reading some of your next work. Safe travels.

    on July 26, 2009 at 2:36 am Reply
  • Great article, Charles, and very important points. However saying, "Unfortunately, in many circumstances ecotourism is not all that it appears to be and can often be nothing less than the complete exploitation of an indigenous people and a detriment to the environment" is somewhat misrepresentative. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as: "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." (TIES, 1990) www.ecotourism.org/what-is-ecotourism If a travel product does not meet this definition, then it is NOT ecotourism and should not be used as an example of why "ecotourism is not all that it appears to be." Travel that is "the complete exploitation of an indigenous people and a detriment to the environment" is obviously not ecotourism, so using such as an example of ecotourism is disingenuous at best. I have recently read a number of blogs and articles with similar use of definitions and examples as their premises. Perhaps saying, "Unfortunately, in many circumstances claims of ecotourism are not all that they appear to be"--or something similar is more accurate rather than blurring the distinctions and lumping "green-washers" in with legitimate operators and casting a shadow over an entire sector. The work of helping travelers make distinctions and good decisions is important, and your article goes a long way in highlighting this, big kudos for you, and as Vera Marie points out, the GSTC is a great effort toward addressing a wide range of issues. And for your readers, TIES Ecotourism Explorer is another very useful online resource for researching operators around the world: http://www.ecotourism.org/ecotourism-explorer

    on August 7, 2009 at 8:35 am Reply
  • Paul, Thank you for your comment and taking the time to read my article. Yes, in retrospect I could have rephrased the sentence in question, yet at the same time I felt that I needed to really drill home the point that many companies that call and consider themselves "ecotourism" are actually not. By making such a bold statement I was trying to bring to light that travelers must be careful not to always assume that because something calling itself "ecotourism" actually is. You are correct, that if indeed a company is in fact just exploiting indigenous people and a detriment to the environment then it is certainly not a true ecotourism company. However, this is where travelers must become aware determining companies that are truly eco-friendly from those that are not. I really appreciate your post and I am glad conversations like these are helping to raise awareness about this most pressing issue. I hope all travelers will keep in mind that being inquisitive and staying environmentally friendly can make all the difference. Thanks again Paul for keeping the issue alive and i truly value you points and tips about ecotourism!

    on August 7, 2009 at 9:28 am Reply
  • Thanks, Charles, and you are absolutely right. Keep up the great writing! Cheers, Paul

    on August 7, 2009 at 9:37 am Reply
  • A useful clarification, Paul. One that we thought was obvious from context, but perhaps not and we completely understand your frustration. Thanks for the additional resource too.

    on August 7, 2009 at 9:05 am Reply
  • Hey Charles, I agree with what you think about eco-tourism and I hope you would visit Ujungkulon with Admire Ujungkulon some day in the future. I promise we'll give you a special price.. By the way, may I copy your article to be republished on my blog?

    on August 15, 2009 at 12:17 am Reply
    • Hi Mirza, completely copying blog posts is rather bad form (although as the author Charles is completely free to sell you the rights if you reference us as first publisher). It would be better to include a small excerpt with your own thoughts -- adding to the conversation -- and link back here so our readers can follow the track- or ping-back.

      on August 15, 2009 at 12:14 pm Reply
  • Thank you Craig and Linda for your useful suggestion, but the problem is that I'm not good in writing even a short English conversation. Best regards

    on August 15, 2009 at 5:06 pm Reply
  • so interesting. many people say they are going green, but so few really actually dig in.

    on August 24, 2009 at 3:30 am Reply
  • My prefered national newspaper has an entire section about green travel - http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/green but as many commentators here have said it's on thing saying you are going green but very much another to actually do so.

    on June 8, 2010 at 9:57 am Reply

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