A large component of my PhD project focuses on ecotourism, and many of the concepts and development strategies that have evolved around this idea. The more I read about it, the more convinced I am that we, as tourists, aren’t as informed about the concept as we should be.
The primary misconception that many people I have talked to, as well as myself before my research started is that ecotourism is simply nature tourism. The working definition, however, is much more complicated, and implies considerations that are very important to me as a traveler. First, ecotourism is not only nature-based, but the money earned through ecotourism should help support conservation efforts and sustain the natural resources supporting tourism in the area. This can be done in a variety of ways. Visitor fees for national parks can be partially used to pay for conservation research, management and protection of native species, and the expansion of protected areas, among other things. Some ecotourism companies will also use some of their revenues to support conservation organizations, or purchase land that they plan on protecting themselves. Whatever the strategy utilized, a true ecotourism venture will not only use nature to entice travelers to visit, but they will care for the resource as well.
Second, the local people should be supported by ecotourism. In many cases, especially in developing countries, people from outside of the destination community benefit from tourism including foreign investors and development companies. This channels much of the money earned by tourism businesses out of the countries that travelers are visiting, and this can be made worse in areas where the goods needed to support the industry must be imported as well. In some cases, such as certain Caribbean countries, this can be so bad that nearly 70% of the money spent by travelers in these nations will be lost to outside entities. Ecotourism, on the other hand, should support local people by providing jobs and training opportunities, while also supporting local agriculture and businesses. Strategies for supporting local people will vary, but this is an integral component of ecotourism nonetheless.
Finally, ecotourism should provide relevant environmental education for visitors, and, when possible, to the local people as well. This aspect of ecotourism not only makes the experience of travelers more enjoyable, but it has the potential to help concerned visitors to improve their behavior, and get involved in protecting the aspects of the natural world that entice them to explore. Local education opportunities can do likewise, while improving local support for conservation, and serving as a chance for capacity building.
While it is hard to tell how many of these things are actually being accomplished by the ecotourism businesses that we choose to purchase from, there are a few different certification schemes that can help travelers such as myself sort through all the different options. Travelers may also make their individually planned trips into more of an ecotourism experience by seeing and donating to protected areas/species, staying in smaller, locally run accommodations, and seeking out businesses that train and hire local people.