Imagine yourself waking up to the warm morning light, wrapped in a blanket of tropical climate. You get out of bed, walk across the wooden floor and appreciate the view of the lush rainforest that surrounds your quiet, serene treehouse. On the table next to you is a bowl of fresh local fruit and gallo pinto. You sit down to eat and admire the pair of scarlet macaws gliding from tree to tree.
Sounds like a dream getaway doesn’t it? The idea of spending your vacation in a remote location isn’t new, but the focus on responsible travel has been rapidly gaining traction over the past 10 years. Ecotourism offers visitors an experience that is both authentic and respectful to people and the planet. In this post, we’ll go through what ecotourism is, the benefits and contradictions, which travel companies are doing a good job, and where you should go to get in on this popular travel trend.
Simply put, ecotourism is the intersection of three focuses: conservation, community and experience.
The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education".
Take for example the Indonesian region of the Coral Triangle, tropical marine waters often referred to as the “Amazon of the sea”. The area is a top conservation priority because it’s the global center of biodiversity. But it’s at risk. Why?
- Illegal poaching and traditional tourism have wiped out hundreds of marine species
- Locals are struggling to make ends meet
- The future of the marine life and the people who rely on it are at risk
It’s a vicious cycle. The people rely on fishing to feed their families, but the fishing, especially illegal poaching, is depleting their supply. Tourism is not any different. People travel to areas like this to see the over 500 species of coral and reef fish. During these visits, tourism companies are importing food, guests are littering the land and ecosystems are being disrupted by foot traffic and ocean pollution. The more tourism, the worse the land gets, and the appeal to visit in the first place starts to dwindle.
But, could the very thing that’s hurting the environment actually save it? Possibly, with ecotourism. The idea here is to provide a travel experience that gives the people what they want, while using education as a tool for conservation. Ecotourism is also driven by a focus on strengthening the local economy and literally protecting whole areas of land and sea.
Let’s circle back to those illegal poachers we talked about earlier. What if they had the opportunity to earn more by protecting the ocean instead of stealing from it? This was the case in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, where an ecotourism enterprise elected to protect the area, employ locals, and deliver a vacation experience that’s unforgettable and responsible. Thanks to this eco-resort, the economy is thriving, marine life is flourishing and the future of the locals and the environment is secured. Check out the whole story in The Economist’s mini doc on ecotourism. It’s awesome.
Here’s what you need to know about ecotourism:
- It builds environmental awareness
- Provides financial benefits for conservation
- Benefits the local people, economically, and socially
- Has a minimal impact on the environment
- Provides a nature-focused travel experience without the waste
- Involves partnership and consent from locals
- Respects local culture
Ecotourism sounds like quite the hero in this story, doesn’t it? But every hero has faults. Critics of ecotourism call the whole thing an oxymoron. The idea of protecting the planet by encouraging people to take planes, cars and trains to travel to remote, often untouched areas, doesn’t quite add up. Supporters argue that the positives outweigh the negatives.
A More Sustainable Option
Travel and tourism accounts for 10.4% of the global GDP. Worldwide. We repeat, over 10% of the global GDP. In fact, 1 in 10 jobs is within the travel and tourism sector. Talk about a thriving industry.
Ecotourism involves conservation through education. People who are able to experience nature and wildlife first hand have an increased awareness and a motivation to protect it. What we’re saying is, people will continue to travel and they’re not stopping anytime soon. Overtourism is a threat to the industry and to the planet, and ecotourism offers a solution to meet the demands of travellers, while focusing on conservation and sustainability.
Ecotourism to Fight Climate Change
The folks at United Nations World Tourism Organization say that about 5% of the world’s carbon emissions come from the tourism industry. It’s tough to take sides on this one because there are facts to back up both ends of the spectrum.
Some argue that tourism is growing, so a more responsible and sustainable option is inherently fighting climate change by not emitting as much carbon in the first place. There are also examples of how ecotourism has helped rebuild habitats and protect areas at risk.
Local economies benefiting from ecotourism revenues can inject that into conservation initiatives like park protection against illegal loggers or trophy hunters. Because a criteria of ecotourism is that it be non-consumptive, the minimal mess produced by ecotourism versus traditional tourism should not outweigh the conservation efforts funded by it. In fact countries like Costa Rica have conserved over 25% of their landmass thanks to ecotourism.
On the other hand, the travel and tourism industry as a whole is a major issue when it comes to climate change. While ecotourism is a responsible way to experience another part of the world, travelers have to somehow get to the destinations in the first place.
Using a flight carbon calculator, we figured out that a round-trip flight from New York to Costa Rica will emit about 1.34 tonnes of CO2. It will cost you about $25USD to offset that carbon through a carbon offset project. Easy right? But don’t forget though that this doesn’t account for the emissions from accomodations that have air conditioning or the water and energy used to cook your meals.
Ecotourism is often confused with sustainable tourism or green tourism. While all three have similar principals, the criteria by which they operate differ big time. With sustainable tourism, ensuring that there is a balance between environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects is key. Ecotourism takes that a step further by providing direct financial benefits for conservation and local people. Most importantly, it is focused on conservation.
In our opinion, there are a few ecotourism companies doing an outstanding job at providing a unique experience, as well as making waves with their conservation efforts.
Misool Eco Resort & Foundation
The very fact that this eco-resort is situated on a private Indonesian island in the heart of the coral triangle should speak volumes to what a gorgeous experience travellers have here. Responsible snorkeling, diving and stand-up paddleboarding are all guided under their responsible tourism policy, which covers everything from trash to food to employment.
Misool directs funds to their own foundation, where they deliver:
- Marine life sanctuaries to protect and encourage the flourishing of biodiversity
- Ocean patrols to protect marine life from illegal fishing and poaching
- Education programs for both resort guests and the local community
- Community recycling programs
- Protection of 300,000 acres of the world's richest reefs through their own private marine reserve
- Employment of former illegal fishermen and poachers, giving them a chance to earn a better wage and deter them from fishing
Since they began protecting this land, they’ve seen a 250% increase in marine biomass, 25x more sharks and have employed 165 locals, and removed 459 metric tons of waste from the ocean, among other things.
We could go on and on about this eco resort and foundation. In our opinion, they’re setting the standard for ecotourism, so hats off to Misool!
With a few camps across East Africa, Asilia provides a sustainable safari experience and stay. Their commitment to nature and people permeate through their operation. Their locations give guests an up-close and personal experience with nature, rooted in education. Picture a glamping experience, without the negative environmental impact.
Beyond offering access to almost untouched land, Asilia takes every measure to ensure they leave the sites as they were before they arrived. The only changes made are positive ones, like the education of guests, and the ecotourism-funded investment in conservation of that land, and benefit to the local people.
Speaking of positive impact, here’s a roundup of their good deeds:
- Investments into ecologically and economically vulnerable areas
- Partnerships with local communities, authorities, NGO’s and other ecotourism companies to ensure the longevity of their conservancy efforts
- Environment-focused education programs for local children
- Working with social development partners to provide scholarships to young girls who would have otherwise been married off
- Scholarships for further education and training in sustainable tourism to candidates in local communities
To top it off, Asilia is the only one of all the Serengeti lodges, that has a camp run exclusively by women. This company does an extraordinary job at maintaining their focus on benefiting nature and people, so it’s no wonder they’ve won us over.
We’ve talked about who’s leading the pack when it comes to ecotourism, but they’re not the only players in the industry. According to a United Nations Sustainable Development report, popular destinations for ecotourism are broken down like this: 49% Costa Rica, 12% South Africa, 8% Galapagos Islands, 7% Peru, 6% Belize, and all others 5%.
With so many eco-resorts and lodges to choose from, we wanted to help you out. Here’s our list of the top ecotourism destinations:
Luna Lodge is the romantic getaway nature-lovers dream of. It’s 60 acres of tropical wilderness, nestled in the southern part of Costa Rica. They’re also a recipient of a Five Leaf Rating for Sustainable Tourism by the Costa Rican Tourism Board.
You know all about Asilia from now. They’re all top choice in East Africa and for good reason too. But there’s another contender in South Africa, Ant’s Hill and Ant’s Nest, where you can experience 12 different ecological zones and over 40 different species of game. The best part is that they’re committed to supporting the local community and protecting the reserve and all the life within and around it.
Adventure-seekers can look no further than Pikaia Lodge. Their property is in a remote, restricted and eco-sensitive location, so they’re also able to maintain a private giant tortoise reserve. Like Misool in Indonesia, Pikaia has invested in providing opportunities for locals to leave illegal fishing and be employed as tour-operators.
Our natural curiosity is what drives us to explore new land and water. It opens our eyes and sparks a light in us that nothing but travel can compare to. It’s a real treat to see that more people are chasing that feeling than ever before, but there’s a better way to do it. Tourism could damage the planet and hurt communities, but ecotourism could be the answer to make sure that doesn’t happen.