The conversation centered around ecotourism is a complex one, and many reports suggest this complexity begins with the definition. That is, depending on the group–be it a political group, a research team, or academics–the definition differs slightly in favoring a set of characteristics over the other set. We’ll focus more on this later. Thankfully though there is a widely accepted definition and it comes from The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN):
Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.
Another widely cited definition focuses on a simpler definition, that is, ecotourism is the “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” The unifying threads here are the principles of respectfulness and mindfulness while traveling in order to create a more symbiotic relationship between the tourist, the destination, and the people visited.
Evolving Tourist Philosophies
In honor of Earth Day 2019, Booking.com released a Sustainable Travel Report that indicated an increasing mindfulness in tourism worldwide where 87% of global travelers reported the desire to travel sustainably–a large jump from the 52% reported in 2016. About 4 in 10 of these individuals reported often or always managed to do so successfully, however, 48% reported that were never or rarely successful in their attempt to travel sustainably.
While these statistics may be somewhat confounded due to the conflicting definitions of sustainable travel which in turn gives rise to increased misinterpreting of what constitutes sustainable travel, the fact remains. These statistics indicate that the priorities of the traveler are changing globally. Many accounts describe the stereotypical American traveler of the 1950’s as an individual who looked down foreign nations and their cultures due to his or her perceived moral superiority. While there is certainly room to improve, respectfulness in intercultural tourism is on the rise, especially in America as such old school sentiments disappear.
The Corporate Problem and Its Unfortunate Influence
Like any trending sentiment, corporations are quick to bottle, cap it, and stick their label on the front. Ecotourism is no different. Reports indicate that many vacation style resorts around the world are overly eager to capitalize on the popularity of ecotourism. Thus anyone who is professionally or personally interested in supporting ecotourism should take care not to be deceived by dishonest branding tactics–ecotourism and vacationing are not one in the same, as alluring as that idea may be.
Vacation companies understand that it takes a startling amount of research to find the right vacation trip. If you factor in the fact-finding required to unearth the facts on whether a company represents the already ambiguous principles of ecotourism, what was before a surprising amount of research becomes a daunting task that many people will just find too intimidating. Nevertheless reports suggest there is an increasing need for tourists to be able to differentiate between “green” and “green wash.”
5 Questions to Tell if Your Trip Is Eco-Friendly
1. What Are Their Green Commitments
There is no international governing body which dictates how hotels and resorts use words like ‘eco lodge’ or ‘all-natural.’ And unfortunately there is no quick way to determine whether the use of these words is totally deceptive, however there are some tell-tale signs.
In parts of Asia for instance, many companies vacation companies are totally oblivious and use the prefix ‘eco’ to describe any outdoor activity regardless of its commitment to sustainability. Other companies will employ feel-good verbiage in the hopes the reader will be swept up in the fantasy and will forget to examine hard facts.
Instead of trusting a company’s self-description, look for their public donations to local nature reserves, sustainability awards or nominations, or official affiliations with green initiatives.
2. Call and Ask About Methods
A great way to distinguish the authentic from the phony is to give the company a quick test. Before you book your trip, give them a call and ask what green methods they employ. If an employee is unsure how to answer your questions this is a major red flag. Any company well-versed in sustainability procedures will educate their employees on what steps are taken. To the same point, because ecotourism is such a hot term and because it’s quite difficult and expensive to achieve sustainability, you can be sure that any truly-green business will be eager to demonstrate it.
3 How Do They Offer Water?
Another great litmus test for determining the authenticity of green-commitments is the way they choose to offer water. While certainly more applicable in more remote destinations, you can get a quick read of a business entity’s eco-standards by reviewing their one-use plastics policy. This is particularly problematic where tap water is unsafe, but if one company has invested in on-site green filtration and one hasn’t–that’s a good indication of priorities.
4. Are They Taking Care of Nature or Taking Care of You?
A good rule of thumb for any serious ecotourist is to consider whether the resort or vacation you are considering is prioritizing you over the environment. This may sound counterintuitive to the typical considerations when seeking out a vacation or trip abroad, but the truth is that ecotourism involves the prioritizing of the environment over convenience–the simple truth is that it will probably be slightly inconvenient if it’s done right. A good example of this is that many places will employ a sensational song and dance about an onsite wildlife sanctuary, which is really just a rebranding of a animal-unfriendly zoo. In most cases, the proper husbandry of zoo animals will constitute a sanctuary which makes them largely unobservable–another example of nature being prioritized over our own desires.
5. Are You Being Fed an ‘EcoSandwich’?
If you find on your trip–despite an outer exterior of numerous and respectable green commitment–that inside there is nothing but eco-damaging practices, then you have likely been fed an ‘ecosandwich.’ This might look like a nature-friendly wildlife tour taking place on a boat that’s leaking oil and gas into a jungle river, or wildlife-sensitive hiking expedition pausing for lunches wrapped in single-use plastics. A good way to identify these situations before they happen is to read reviews written by previous ecotourists.
American Ecotourism and Why It’s Important
In America’s 2020 we will see a historic election year playout, which may indeed do the impossible and become one of the most culturally contentious and divisive years yet. Ecotourism offers a unique angle to improving cultural awareness and respect. And yet when exploring the concept of ecotourism the conversation is almost always framed around applying these principles to countries other than our own.
Experts report that America’s wildlife and biodiversity is–quite surprisingly–one of the most threatened biomes on the planet. If the wildlife and state of nature in America is in poor shape, and if the people in this country are more divided than ever, then ecotourism and its principles offer a worthy cause for us all to commit ourselves.
The Evolving Movement
Across America local farms, small-scale bed and breakfasts, and wildlife sanctuaries are tailoring options toward a new kind of tourist–the American city goer, who gets fed up with the big city and wants to experience the freedoms of rural living. A good example of Tennessee ecotourism options is Cove Creek, a red devon cattle farm that specializes in regenerative farming–an eco friendly strategy of minimizing the outside resources needed to support a cattle operation.
Cove Creek is one of many operations across America that is building out options for outings to rustic cabins in the woods–which doubles as an excursion where tourists can get to know farming life in an intimate way. Some farms even allows options for visitors to participate in the daily tasks of farming in one way or another.
Inline with this movement of nature-mindful woodland vacations, many Americans are changing their views on the ideal vacation home. As affordable coastal beach properties, or any waterfront property for that matter, become more and more the stuff of legend, many families are choosing to build green vacation homes in the bountiful forests across the country. Cove Creek facilitates this growing trend by offering consultation on how families can build the ideal rustic and green cabin of their own, providing a long term option for ecotourism which can in turn be rented out to other like-minded ecotourists from around the world. Thus in order for global tourism to really flourish, we may find the best place to start is right here at home in America.