Everyone likes to go for a getaway to the nature and do outdoor activities. Particularly now when the pandemic has pushed us towards destination in open and non-crowded places. However, there’s no need to be a genius to realise that, if we don’t travel responsibly, these dream sites’ days are numbered. And here’s where the concepts of ecotourism and ecotour become important: tourism models which are respectful towards nature, culture, and local population of the destinations, and which intend to promote conservation and respect for the land and its people.
What is ecotourism and what is an ecotour about?
Definition and principles of ecotourism
As it usually happens with these international terms, each dictionary and organisation has its own approach. There are countless definitions of ecotourism and ultimately, they all agree that –big surprise– the core idea is to do tourism respecting the environment. However, the devil is in the details. If I am to pick a definition, I’ll go with the GEN’s (Global Ecotourism Network) one. The GEN says that ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved: visitors, staff and the visited”.
This definition is further translated into principles, guidelines, and criteria (for ecotourism certifications). The basic principles of ecotourism, which should be followed by all those who implement, participate in, and market ecotourism activities, are:
- Minimise physical, social, behavioural, and psychological impacts on flora and fauna.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
- Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
- Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
- Design, construct, and operate low-impact facilities.
- Recognise the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to crate empowerment.
Obviously, to deliver all this promises, ecotourism must be small scale. You can’t stuff half a million people into a little village in a Natural Park without damaging the environment, can you?
So, what is an ecotour?
Well, basically, it’s a journey which is designed, marketed, and carried on within the ecotourism framework and abiding by the above principles. We can define ecotour as a “journey to a natural area to know it, interpretate it, enjoy it, and travel around it while contributing in a practical manner to its conservation, avoiding impacts on the environment and benefitting the local people” (Daimiel Declaration of Ecotourism, 2016).
Ecotours can have multiple formats, and there are ecotourism activities which are marketed independently of the journey as well. The keys are the fact that the destination’s main attractions are natural and cultural heritage, socially and environmentally responsible travel, and the educational component. You travel to know and understand a land in all its aspects: form its natural environment to its culture and society. And from knowledge and understanding, love and respect are born and, by extension, the desire to protect.
If I do rural tourism, am I doing an ecotour?
Not necessarily. The ideal rural tourism is ecotourism, or close, since most rural tourism projects are born from love for the land and are therefore committed to its care. However, rural tourism and active tourism aren’t always synonyms for ecotour.
Still, the connection is undeniable. Most natural areas fit for ecotourism activities developing are in rural areas, so rural tourism and ecotourism often overlap. Also, many rural lodgings partner with ecotourism companies to offer activities to their guests, and many ecotours are designed to spend the nights in rural lodgings. But not all rural lodgings abide by sustainable guidelines, nor do they give priority to environmental conservation or the well-being of local people. On top of that, not all rural tourists choose their destination as a place to responsibly enjoy nature, which is key to call yourself an ecotourist.
So, let’s not get confused. Rural tourism, yes, but you need to choose responsibly where to stay and what to do while you’re there.
Why is ecotourism so important?
Tourism has many negative impacts, both on the natural environment and the local people, even if it is its main economic activity. In the short term, it can create jobs and economic development, but it causes bother and the feeling of invasion, it may contribute to the loss of traditional practices, it results in inflation, and as it damages the area it reduces its attractiveness. Not to mention the environmental impacts, of course.
We can’t let tourism and the money around it destroy the natural and cultural heritage of the host territories. Tourism must be respectful, responsible, and sustainable. Sustainable in the wider and most literal sense, in the sense of sustainable in time. Do we want to keep visiting spectacular gorges and forests, and alpine meadows crowded with chamois, 10 years from now? Do we want our children to be fascinated by the history and traditions of places they don’t know? Well then, we must take care of all that.
Buy local, take an interest in the culture and the traditions of the places you visit, travel by foot, bike, or electric car, choose lodgings which are committed to the environment, hire environmental education activities to discover the local environment and to learn to appreciate it….
Go over to ecotourism!