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A practical guide to ecotourism

Being a responsible and socially aware traveler can make a big impact on our world.

How we travel and interact when we’re away from home–plus the effect it has on those who live there and their environment–is becoming top of mind in today’s evolving travel industry. With so many different terms in the travel space right now, we’re laying out everything you might be wondering about ecotourism in a practical no-nonsense way!

What is ecotourism?

First things first: what is ecotourism anyway? According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” 

Some principles of ecotourism include “providing direct financial benefits for conservation” and building “environmental and cultural awareness and respect.” Ecotourism focuses on positive experiences for both visitors and locals. This can take many forms, including respect for spiritual beliefs and practices.

fast flowing water through orange desert landscape

Why is it important?

Now that we’ve answered: “What is ecotourism?” Why should we, as travelers, care about it?

As the effects of climate change continue to grow, we are at risk of losing the beautiful places we cherish. Thankfully, we can make simple changes to how we travel to make a positive impact on the environment. Learning about our planet, engaging with others, and spending money locally are a few easy ways to start your journey towards being more eco-conscious.

For example, we can help sustain our precious ecosystems by learning as much as we can about them. Not only that, but we can also try to engage with locals and learn how people live in the places where we travel. Plus, we can put our money where our mouth is by purchasing services and goods from locally-owned businesses. It’s an easy and positive action that can help boost local economies.

We can also consider our modes of transportation to the places we want to see. Although it’s not realistic for most of us to completely cut out air travel, there are different ways to reduce your carbon footprint like buying carbon offsets. If you do have the option to limit flying, you could also consider taking the train or renting a car and take a road trip with friends.

man standing on mountain top overlooking bay

How is ecotourism different than tourism?

The vocabulary for tourism and travel is ever-expanding and evolving. Tourism is a term we’re used to hearing. Generally, it’s an umbrella term that refers to commercial travel for business or pleasure. According to the World Tourism Organization, there will be an estimated 1.8 billion international tourists by 2030.

Additionally, tourism is most associated with the traditional travel industry such as airlines, hotels, and restaurants that are run by large companies. Sometimes it can result in a low positive impact for the people who live at the desired travel destination as the economic advantages don’t trickle down to small businesses and their community.

Tourism when en mass can put stress on precious landscapes. For example, if the infrastructure isn’t prepared for a large number of visitors, trampling of endemic plants, littering, and pollution can occur. Destinations like Iceland, Spain, and Egypt have previously or continued to feel the strain from overtourism.

Ecotourism, on the other hand, can provide more a more conscious and intentional way of traveling by bringing awareness to communities. It may include volunteer work or an opportunity to contribute to local economies. It’s a chance to do good in the world while engaging in something that can also promote personal growth. Examples of ecotourism can also include protecting the environment, natural resources, and aiding fragile ecosystems.

Is ecotourism the same thing as eco-travel?

Eco-travel is another term we can add to our vocabulary! Although they are considered not to have the same definition, they have the same sentiment.

Eco-travel is generally a broad category for any kind of travel that is good for people and places, which includes ecotourism, sustainable travel, and green travel. In short: ecotourism’s focus on education and conservation is part of eco-travel, which includes making a low impact on the places you visit.

In the end, the key is to be an eco-traveler is to do your best to be informed about the destinations you are planning to visit. Consider things such as where your money is going, the effects of your visit on the local community, how you can explore new places without negative impacts, and hopefully how you can contribute positively as well!

epic landscape of Norway fjord ecotourism destination

What to expect on an ecotourism trip

While promoting ecotourism principles, the types of trips you can take can vary significantly.

They may include specific goals such as helping to preserve wildlife, engaging in research, or conducting community volunteer work.

One sub-set of ecotourism, adventure travel, includes activities such as hiking, kayaking, and cycling without harming the environment.

Or, if you decide to go on an organized eco-tour, these trips usually focus on responsible travel principles. They aim to organize boutique and local hotel stays, meal stops at independently-run restaurants, and souvenir shopping at local stores. This way, the money goes directly to those who live there.

Like all travel, ecotourism destinations run the gamut. While often off-the-grid and surrounded by natural beauty, not all ecotourism destinations are remote. They may even be in an urban environment or even considered luxurious!

All of these ecotourism activities and trips come back to the principles — at the end of the day, they can allow you to form respect for the environment, immerse yourself in another’s culture, or contribute financially to local communities.

Ecotourism examples

Diver in between colorful coral

Now that you know the definition of ecotourism, why it’s important, and what an ecotourism trip may look like for you, here are several examples of places to visit.

Costa Rica has long been a popular, well-known eco-destination, and one of the first places to promote responsible travel. With 19 wildlife refuges and eight biological reserves, visitors can responsibly explore varied South American landscapes from rain forests to beaches to volcanos. Eco-lodges are in number, and local farmers teach visitors about organically grown fruits, vegetables, and coffee beans. Additionally, zip-lining through forests is one of the most popular local activities that also shows the work the country has done to combat deforestation.

The Norwegian Fjords (inlets formed by glaciers) are vast in number — there are over 1,000 but popular destinations include the southernmost Lyserfjord and the UNESCO world heritage Naerøyfjord. Visitors can hike, ski, cruise, and kayak through the stunning landscapes. There are also plenty of bath and spa hotels that offer wellness treatments in the Western Norway area.

Palau, an archipelago, is often top of the list for ecotourism tours and trips. Located in the western Pacific Ocean and comprised of over 300 islands, Palau boasts an extensive barrier reef system. Though it’s known for diving and natural wonders, this destination also has educational museums, allowing visitors to learn about the history and culture of this magnificent place.

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