What is ecotourism? How to travel responsibly and sustainably.

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If you love nature, you may have tried to plan a vacation where you get to be immersed in it. Maybe you’ve explored a coral reef or visited an elephant sanctuary, or you dream of doing so one day. These activities can fall under the umbrella of ecotourism — a kind of nature-based travel that aims to protect and empower the environment, animals, and local communities — when planning vacations.

Tourism is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, accounting for 22 million new jobs last year, with a large part of that growth stemming from a post-lockdown itch for travel. As people return to packing as much stuff as humanly possible into a carry-on, ecotourism, too, will likely skyrocket to a market value of $299 billion by 2026. In the last 10 years, travelers have become more environmentally conscious and socially responsible, looking for travel experiences that reflect their morals.

Still, the question for many well-meaning tourists remains: Is ethical ecotourism even possible?

There are a few things that complicate ecotourism’s narrative, like the carbon emissions produced by flights, or the challenges of ensuring that a significant degree of profits actually do go to local communities, protecting wildlife, and cultural heritage. Nature-based travel, too, can risk losing the plot, from sanctuaries that operate like petting zoos to the development of tropical coasts into even the most nature-forward resorts.

“It really boils down to an attitude, and an ethic about how we approach the natural world,” says David Fennell, a geography and tourism studies professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Ecotourism. “Just by virtue of going to a national park doesn’t mean you’re an ecotourist, you have to have that attitude. And you have to tap into that ethic about what is important [to] not just yourself as a tourist, but about conservation and animal welfare.”

As a tourist, choosing where to go is an important decision, one that can help or hurt the environment and communities where you are visiting. There are some situations that are too good to be truly as effective as they claim, and accreditations, though helpful, may not tell the whole story. Understandably, trying to figure out what’s best for the environment, for communities, and for yourself can be overwhelming. It may be that ecotourism is a state of mind rather than a destination. Here are some ways to think about your next adventure to ensure your ethics align.

What actually is ecotourism?

An alternative to mass tourism — or when thousands of people visit a destination day in and day out (think the resort-ification of Ibiza, in which people partied so hard that legislation was passed in 2022 to change the destination’s wasteful image) — ecotourism is meant to get you off the beaten trail and into a mindset of reciprocity with the site you are visiting.

As with many sustainability-oriented services, ecotourism got its start in the ’70s. It officially became a dictionary entry in 1982, where it is defined as supporting conservation efforts, especially in often threatened natural environments. Since then though, the definition and intent have evolved to include bolstering local communities.

In the literature on ecotourism, travel can be distinguished into “hard paths” and “soft paths,” based on how many aspects of your trip follow the ethical north star of ecotourism and how demanding the trip will be of you. For example, if your trip features a strong environmental commitment and will be physically active, you’re likely on the hard path of ecotourism. If your trip is aimed at physical comfort with only a moderate nod to environmental commitment, you may be on a soft path. But taking it as an ethos means you can be an ecotourist anywhere, especially locally.

You might be wondering if a hike on a busy trail or swimming with manatees is ecotourism. Although both of those examples are nature-based tourism as they interface with the natural world, they’re not necessarily ecotourism, since both of these activities can put these destinations at risk if done in excess. Hiking a spot to death or droves of tourists putting Florida’s manatees at risk put pressure on the ecology of those places. In the 1980s, mass tourism began to wreck some of the world’s most sensitive ecosystems, such as the Riviera Maya in Mexico, where near-constant development has led to local forests being cleared.

Wildlife tourism runs the gamut from cruel breeding and hunting of lions to we-really-shouldn’t-have-cetaceans-in-captivity dolphin shows to cool, ethical birdwatching. Ecotourism including wildlife can be ethical as long as the animals you are engaging with are not manipulated or not free to disengage in interaction with tourists. “Anytime you have an animal that’s held in a captive environment, that you’re manipulating, the animal is not free to disengage that interaction, based on its own will,” says Fennell.

If you’re interested in going on adventures that are a little more sport-oriented, such as kayaking or diving, then this might be also considered nature-based tourism, since activities like climbing, sailing, camping, and snorkeling are less directly connected to ecological benefits. An example of nature tourism would be surfing lessons off Australia’s Coffs coast: You’re in nature having fun, but vibes are about all you’re contributing to the scene.

Ecotourism also has an educational component: You’re meant to learn about nature, culture, and threats to the area you’re in. Paul Rosolie — founder and Wildlife Director of Junglekeepers, a program that uses donations and tourist money to buy tracts of the Amazon along the Las Piedras River, in the Madre de Dios region of Peru — highlighted how ecotourism has brought people to the front lines of conservation.

“This is the edge of human presence on this planet,” Rosolie said via voice memo deep in the Amazon. “The battle is playing out between the progress of roads and development and the last places where there are untouched ecosystems, Indigenous communities, communities of species yet to be discovered. You get to see incredibly pristine, pure wilderness where a few people have managed to make a living.”

Ecotourism should encourage ethical considerations, like respect for the environment and host communities. For example, ecotourism aims to be biocentric, meaning that the interest of the living beings you are hoping to protect is prioritized over your own drive for pleasure. There is also the risk of too much tourism causing gentrification and raising prices for locals — see what’s currently happening in Mexico City, or consider the (fictional, but still germane) plot of HBO’s The White Lotus. Ecotourism aims to reverse the exploitative relationships between tourists and locals.

Lastly, ecotourism should strive for sustainability. In the case of Junglekeepers, which offers base station visits and ranger-accompanied hikes to tourists, this means extending employment to former loggers in their ranger program. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where there are six ecolodges for tourists to book, has anti-poaching teams who work with the Kenya Wildlife Service to stop illegal poaching for ivory, bushmeat, and logging.

The tricky questions around ecotourism

Just because ecotourism might have a broader application these days, it doesn’t necessarily mean all travel qualifies, especially since there are slews of companies and organizations attempting to make a quick buck off a catchy buzzword. Unfortunately, it’s hard to sift the wheat from the chaff. As ecotourism as a concept grows more and more popular, some experiences and excursions may not necessarily meet the intentions lined up above.

Tourism can be rife with greenwashing: vague and unsupported claims, and exaggerations about how much good a given entity is doing, like hotels highlighting their donations to ecological causes, but underpaying their staff. Some excursions put Indigenous peoples in precarious situations, and some force animals to perform or be ridden or petted in a forced and unnatural manner.

Milo Putnam — founder of Laro Ethical Wildlife Travels, a service that helps people plan eco-travel — warns, “Don’t be tricked by misused greenwashing buzzwords like ‘rescue,’ ‘sanctuary,’ or ‘eco-park.’ Companies know that tourists like these terms, which to these companies can mean more profits, even if it isn’t true. These terms are meaningless if not backed by actual ethical practices. Instead, look further to see if they are certified or accredited by a trusted organization.” (More on this below.)

Additionally, Fennell believes the most ethical ecotourists — the traveler and any organizations involved — should keep animals off the menu. Ecotourism’s biocentric approach should lead us to widen our moral consideration of animals and to care not only for charismatic megafauna like lions and elephants, but also for all creatures that make ecosystems function. “The global food system — mainly animal agriculture — is the primary driver of biodiversity loss,” Putnam added. “Choosing a more plant-based diet has a positive impact on wildlife around the world.”

How to choose where to go

Certifications may give a clue to how well a given destination is achieving ecotourism goals, but they may not always exist.

Putnam has compiled a tip list for planning animal-based adventures and points to the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries as a resource. The federation checks in to ensure that no captive breeding is taking place, that tourists do not have direct contact with wildlife, and that animals have appropriate housing and veterinary care.

There is no universal ecotourism certification, but the Global Sustainable Tourism Council has compiled a list of certifications around the world that emphasize the four “C’s”: conservation, community, culture, and commerce. These certifications are a good place to start and they cover Asia, Europe, Africa, North and South America, and Australia.

The land down under is at the top when it comes to vetting their tourism options. Australia’s ecotourism industry has some of the most sophisticated certifications including nature tourism, ecotourism, and advanced ecotourism. In this certification system, outback safari glamping in Karijini National Park counts as ecotourism, because it supports Indigenous peoples as it is owned and operated by the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the interests of the Banjima, Yinhawangka, and Nyiyaparli peoples in Western Australia.

Everyone I spoke to underscored the importance of selecting an ethical destination for travel because the money you spend as a tourist can have a positive impact rather than an ambiguous impact or even detrimental effect on the places you’re visiting. As Rosolie puts it, “Finding the right place to go as a traveler is a very powerful decision to people who are devoting their whole lives to protecting a place.”

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