Ecological tourism or eco-tourism is a highly popular term and possibly one of the most misused in the travel industry. It should describe travel to fragile areas where the fauna, flora and cultural heritage are the main reasons for travel.
Essentially eco-tourism protects and empowers local people and natural areas, and at the same time provides visitors with a unique, but low impact experience.
The Ecotourism Society defines it as ‘responsible travel to natural areas, which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people’. Essentially eco-tourism should unite conservation, communities and sustainable travel.
However, it can get a little confusing. There are a handful of similar terms used to describe this type of travel, like ‘adventure travel’, ‘sustainable tourism’, ‘responsible tourism’, and ‘green travel’. Most of these loosely adhere to the principles of eco-tourism. A walk through a rainforest is not eco-tourism unless it also benefits the people who live there. And in the same vein, a safari trip is only eco-tourism if it raises awareness and funds to help protect wildlife.
There are companies who market themselves as eco-friendly establishments, when in fact they are not. So it is up to the traveller to ask important questions about the trip’s ability to conserve and improve the destination. Often the term is used as a marketing tool to promote nature related tourism. However, placing a splendid hotel in the midst of a fragile ecosystem and calling it eco-tourism is ‘greenwash’.
Two of the terms most often used interchangeably with eco-tourism are ‘sustainable tourism’ and ‘responsible tourism’, both of which include aspects of eco-tourism.
Sustainable tourism means that resources should be unaffected by your visit and that your stay at the destination should not prevent future tourists from enjoying the same experience.
Responsible tourism means that you minimise your negative impacts on the environment, but often this also incorporates an element of ‘giving back’ to local communities. The Responsible Tourism Awards describe ‘responsible tourism’ as tourists who ‘want to interact with communities on a personal level, learn first-hand of their challenges, experience environments and hopefully, leave something constructive behind’.
So what does one need to do make sure that it is really the form of travel on offer?
By asking the following types of questions:
- Is the environment being looked after?
- Is the local community being protected and uplifted?
- Does the travel build environmental awareness?
- Are resources remaining for future generations?
- Does the travel respect local culture?
It is not in South Africa alone that the term this term is used to describe ‘adventure’ or ‘nature’ trips that do not always meet the requirements of true eco-tourism. There are only a handful of countries around the world with national eco-tourism certification programmes in place, and these include: Costa Rica, Australia, Kenya and Sweden. There are also attempts to create international accreditation programmes.
In South Africa there is not yet an official regulation of the term eco-tourism. SATSA (South African Tourism Services Association) tries to ‘provide high standards of tourism and focuses on accountability, integrity and quality control’, and awards like the local Imvelo Responsible Tourism Awards and the international Responsible Tourism Awards also influence many tourist destinations and tour package companies. Eco-tourism cannot be monitored as closely as it should be, until a formal procedure or framework exists.