Not just nature

OUR PLANET 10.1 - Tourism

Not just nature


define ecotourism and discuss its benefits and drawbacks

Ecotourism is not just a marketing gimmick. It is increasingly recognized as a tool for sustainable development. Achieving genuine ecotourism is a challenge, as high standards have to be met. But when it is achieved, communities and natural environments are the immediate beneficiaries.

Though the word 'ecotourism' has only come into common use in the last 10 years, it describes a goal towards which entrepreneurs, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities have been working for more than two decades. A short definition put forward by The Ecotourism Society in 1991 describes it as 'responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.' Professionals working within the field of ecotourism generally agree that it is characterized by:

- Travel to a natural area.

- Travel that supports the conservation of biodiversity.

- Travel that brings benefits to local host communities.

- Travel that leads to greater understanding of the natural or cultural environment visited.

Including these four components in a travel package significantly restricts the number of products that can genuinely be labelled ecotourism. Many confuse the term with nature tourism or adventure travel, but they are not the same. Rather, ecotourism is one niche market within the larger, and rapidly expanding, nature tourism market. By our estimates, nature-based tourism now comprises 20 per cent of the world travel market, and ecotourism 7 per cent.

Ecotourism is not just visits to the rainforest. It can be activities in a traveller's home country, as long as these visits are responsible and benefit conservation efforts and local communities - and the visitor has participated in some learning experience. One example might be camping at a national park, paying an entry fee, following park rules of conduct, buying supplies at a gateway community outside the park, and participating in a natural history lesson.

woman with seal

A crucial role

There is an encouraging 'greening' of mainstream tourism, and this trend should be supported at every opportunity. Greater sustainability in the industry as a whole will have the largest impact on overall environmental protection, and on communities and individuals. But ecotourism will play a crucial role in the communities and natural environments under the greatest pressure from development. These include rural, often indigenous communities, and 'pristine' natural environments such as coral reefs, tundra and rainforests - the destinations that ecotourists want to visit.

Daily the demand grows for these unique cultural and natural resources to be brought into the global economy. As this pressure increases, ecotourism can help make the process more beneficial, empowering communities and their resource managers with an alternative to more invasive practices.

Ecotourism, of course, is no panacea. Indeed, it introduces its own set of problems. Such impacts as cultural erosion and atmospheric pollution are ever-present, as in any tourism product. Planning and managing destinations, setting up institutional partnerships and the continued development of environmentally friendly technology will provide some solutions.

Call for interaction

Ecotourism institutions and professionals easily form alliances with their cousins in sustainable tourism, and in the larger sustainable development community, and there should be greater interaction between them. The Ecotourism Society is among the institutions working on this by bringing ecotourism professionals together and facilitating communication with other sustainable development partners such as conservation NGOs, government tourism and resource management agencies, community groups and the private sector. The Internet has been invaluable to this process, facilitating a much easier exchange of ideas, and enabling the society and other organizations to teach professionals and institutions about the field.

The time has come for a more cohesive effort within the tourism industry to make itself more sustainable. This agenda item must be given priority at all levels, not just within the ecotourism smaller niche markets.

Elizabeth Halpenny is Workshop and Marine Program Coordinator and Nicole R. Otte is Membership and Book Program Director of The Ecotourism Society, Bennington, Vermont, United States of America.

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