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Ecotourism

An Overview of Ecotourism

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Woman hiking outdoors
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Ecotourism is broadly defined as low impact travel to endangered and often undisturbed locations. It is different from traditional tourism because it allows the traveler to become educated about the areas - both in terms of the physical landscape and cultural characteristics, and often provides funds for conservation and benefits the economic development of places that are frequently impoverished.

Ecotourism and other forms of sustainable travel have their origins with the environmental movement of the 1970s. Ecotourism itself did not become prevalent as a travel concept until the late 1980s. During that time, increasing environmental awareness and a desire to travel to natural locations as opposed to built up tourist locations made ecotourism desirable. Since then, several different organizations specializing in ecotourism have developed and many different people have become experts on it. Martha D. Honey, PhD, a co-founder of the Center for Responsible Tourism, for example, is just one of many ecotourism experts.

Principles of Ecotourism

Due to the growing popularity of environmentally related and adventure travel, various types of trips are now being classified as ecotourism. Most of these are not truly ecotourism however because they do not emphasize conservation, education, low impact travel, and social and cultural participation in the locations being visited.

Therefore, to be considered ecotourism, a trip must meet the following principles set forth by the International Ecotourism Society:

  • Minimize the impact of visiting the location (i.e.- the use of roads)
  • Build respect and awareness for the environment and cultural practices
  • Ensure that the tourism provides positive experiences for both the visitors and the hosts
  • Provide direct financial aid for conservation
  • Provide financial aid, empowerment and other benefits for local peoples
  • Raise the traveler's awareness of the host country's political, environmental and social climate

Examples of Ecotourism

Opportunities for ecotourism exist in many different locations worldwide and its activities can vary as widely. Madagascar, for instance, is famous for its ecotourist activity as it is a biodiversity hotspot, but also has a high priority for environmental conservation and is committed to reducing poverty. Conservation International says that 80% of the country's animals and 90% of its plants are endemic only to the island. Madagascar's lemurs are just one of many species that people visit the island to see. Because the island's government is committed to conservation, ecotourism is allowed in small numbers because education and funds from the travel will make it easier in the future. In addition, this tourist revenue also aids in reducing the country's poverty.

Another place where ecotourism is popular is in Indonesia at Komodo National Park. The park is made up of 233 square miles (603 sq km) of land that is spread out over several islands and 469 square miles (1,214 sq km) of water. The area was established as a national park in 1980 and is popular for ecotourism because of its unique and endangered biodiversity. Activities at Komodo National Park vary from whale watching to hiking and accommodations strive to have a low impact on the natural environment.

Finally, ecotourism is also popular in Central and South America. Destinations include Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala and Panama. In Guatemala for instance, ecotourists can visit the Eco-Escuela de Espanol. The main objective of the Eco-Escuela is to educate tourists about the historic cultural traditions of the Mayan Itza, conservation and the community living there today while protecting the lands in the Maya Biosphere Reserve and providing income to the area's people.

These destinations are just a few where ecotourism is popular but opportunities exist in hundreds more places worldwide.

Criticisms of Ecotourism

Despite the popularity of ecotourism in the abovementioned examples, there are several criticisms of ecotourism as well. The first of these is that there is no one definition of the term so it is difficult to know which trips are truly considered ecotourism. In addition, nature, low impact, bio, and green tourism are often interchanged with ecotourism, and these do not usually meet the principles defined by organizations like the Nature Conservancy or the International Ecotourism Society.

Critics of ecotourism also cite that increased tourism to sensitive areas or ecosystems without proper planning and management can actually harm the ecosystem and its species because the infrastructure needed to sustain tourism such as roads can contribute to environmental degradation.

Ecotourism is also said by critics to have a negative impact on local communities because the arrival of foreign visitors and wealth can shift political and economic conditions and sometimes make the area dependent on tourism as opposed to the domestic economic practices.

Regardless of these criticisms though, ecotourism and tourism in general are increasing in popularity all over the globe and tourism plays a large role in many worldwide economies.

In order to keep this tourism as sustainable as possible however, it is essential that travelers understand what principles make a trip fall into the category of ecotourism and attempt to use travel companies that have been distinguished for their work in ecotourism - one of which is Intrepid Travel, a small company that offers worldwide eco-conscious trips and has won a number of awards for their efforts.

International tourism will no doubt continue to increase in the coming years and as the Earth's resources become more limited and ecosystems suffer more damage, the practices shown by Intrepid and others associated with ecotourism can make future travel a little more sustainable.

See page two for definitions of ecotourism.

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