Thursday, August 5, 2010

What is Eco-Tourism???

Ecotourism, ecotravel, ecolodges and just generally being "eco" have become popular tourism sales pitches.  What is true ecotourism? What defines an ecolodge or an ecological company?  How is the surrounding community involved?  And finally, is ecotourism such a great thing anyways?
ecotourism, ecotravel, ecolodgesIn order to truly understand ecotourism and all of it's attendant pros and cons it is necessary to do some background research.  This page offers an introduction to the topic along with several links to more detailed information.  The basic definitions below have been adapted and clarified from commonly used travel industry lingo.  Some of the links are  to articles that help further define ecotourism some promote it and some attack it but all are provocative and informative.
The goal of this page is neither to sell nor devalue ecotourism but rather to explore it as a concept and to help create informed travelers who ask lots of questions before, during and after their trip. Well informed travelers choose their guides, travel companies and lodges from a position of knowledge.  This purchasing power can be the driving force behind positive or negative impacts on the places you visit.

Defining The Experience:
   There are almost as many terms to describe types of travel as there are travel companies.  A couple of buzzwords that you often hear these days are "Eco-Tourism" and "Adventure Travel" .  To further confuse the issue there is also "Sustainable Tourism", "Responsible Tourism", "Nature Based Travel", "Green Travel", "Multi-Sport Adventures" and "Cultural Tourism".  The following are Untamed Path's definitions based on common usage.
Eco-tourism:   Perhaps the most over-used and mis-used word in the travel industry. But what does it mean?  The Ecotourism Society defines it as "responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people".  A walk through the rainforest is not eco-tourism unless that particular walk somehow benefits that environment and the people who live there.  A rafting trip is only eco-tourism if it raises awareness and funds to help protect the watershed.  A loose interpretation of this definition allows many companies to promote themselves as something that they are not.  If true eco-tourism is important to you, ask plenty of questions to determine if your trip will help "conserve and improve" the places you visit.
Adventure Travel:   Another term which is heavily used by marketing departments.  While travel to another country is often adventurous it is not necessarily "Adventure Travel".  Most dictionaries define adventure similarly: "an unusual experience including some level of risk and uncertainty".  "Adventure Travel" includes this idea of risk and oftentimes some unconventional means of transport.  A dugout canoe journey deep into the Amazon basin with it's attendant difficulties meets this definition.  While a city tour of Paris might have some level of uncertainty it is not by definition "Adventure Travel".  If you love true adventure you probably already know this and can see through the hype to find the real thing for yourself. 
  There is sometimes a distinction made between "Soft" and  "Hard" adventures.  Soft adventures have a lower level of risk, greater comfort in accommodations and are less physically rigorous.  Hard adventures often have very basic facilities, higher risk factor and greater physical challenge (ie: mountain climbing, backpacking or river expeditions).
Sustainable Tourism:   Any form of tourism that does not reduce the availability of resources and does not inhibit future travelers from enjoying the same experience.  If the presence of large numbers of tourists disturbs an animal's mating patterns so that there are fewer of that species in the future then that visit was not sustainable.  Kayaking secotourism, ecotravel, ecolodgeschool on a free flowing river is an example of sustainable tourism.  Big game hunting in Alaska is not.
Responsible Tourism:   Tourism which operates in such a way as to minimize negative impacts on the environment.  A wilderness camping trip using "Leave No Trace" ethics would be considered responsible tourism while dune buggy tours would not.
Nature-Based Tourism:   A more generic term for any activity or travel experience with a focus on nature.  Large jungle lodges fall into this category as do cruise ships to view penguins in Antarctica.  These types of trips may or may not be environmentally sustainable or responsible. -
Green Tourism:    Often used inter-changeably with eco-tourism and sustainable tourism  but more accurately described as "any activity or facility operating in an environmentally friendly fashion".  A lodge with composting toilets, gray water system, and solar powered lighting is probably "green".   There are varying degrees of "greenness"; an awareness of where resources are coming from andwhere      wastes are going is at the heart of the idea.                                                                                
Multi-Sport Adventures:    These trips have a focus on physical outdoor activities.  Rafting, mountain biking, climbing, surfing, diving, etc. all offered in the same package.  Not necessarily sustainable or eco but might be since many companies want to protect the areas where these activities take place.
Cultural Tourism:   Interacting with and observing unique cultures is the focus of this style of trip.  The concept of learning from other cultures to broaden ones perspective is usually a core value.  An artisan showing you how to weave a tapestry and learning from them about their traditional dress would be a form of cultural tourism.  Buying crafts in the market with no more interaction than the exchange of money does not provide the insight into another culture that is the central theme of cultural tourism.
   Clearly all of these definitions are debatable.  What one person or company calls "eco" another calls "sustainable" and so on.  The main distinction between these terms is the motives and ethics behind them.  Is the environment being cared for?  Is there genuine effort to help the local economies?  Are resources being left intact for future generations?  Is the local culture being honored and valued and not just photographed?  These questions will cut through the semantics and allow you to see what is really being offered.
   At Untamed Path we've blended many of these ideas together to create our own unique form of travel.  We place a high priority on preserving the places we visit, both environmentally and culturally.  We enjoy active outdoor pursuits so many of our trips incorporate these sports but never at the expense of the natural world or the people who already live there.  However, we don't make claims to be something that we can't live up to and are constantly reassessing our trips for ways to improve their ecological and cultural soundness.  All of our trips contain elements of adventure travel, eco-tourism, multi-sport and cultural travel.  We operate in a focused responsible and sustainable fashion and always, always have fun.

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