As global citizens and outdoors lovers, we believe that everyone should respect the environment they travel in. Even if we pick up litter and follow leave no trace principles, conventional tourism often disrupts local ecosystems, raises pollution levels, and contributes to the loss of local cultures. Ecotourism cuts out some of the adverse effects of mass tourism. It offers a sustainable travel solution for tourists along with their hosts.
There’s a lot of myths about ecotourism. Many think that you need to travel to the heart of the Amazon rainforest, or another far off destination, and spend your vacation without electricity or hot water to qualify as an eco-friendly tourist. In truth, there are probably tons of ecotourism destinations right on your doorstep (with fully functioning facilities).
In short, it’s about time we asked what is ecotourism and why is it important? What are the ecotourism benefits, and where can I find legitimate ecotourism providers?
- What is ecotourism?
- Types of ecotourism
- The importance of ecotourism
- Ecotourism vs sustainable tourism: what’s the difference?
- Why is ecotourism important?
- The benefits of ecotourism
- Eco-friendly activities
- Adventure ecotourism providers
What is ecotourism?
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”
According to TIES, ecotourism can be divided into three categories:
- Conservation – long-term economic incentives that encourage the protection of nature and cultural heritage. (i.e. protecting a forestry area from building development because leading nature hikes will be more profitable in the long term).
- Communities – empowering and enriching local communities, by providing employment, education, and economic development through tourism.
- Interpretation – ecotourism aims to educate. It offers greater opportunities, when compared to regular tourism, for visitors to learn about local cultures, heritage, flora and fauna.
In practice, ecotourism is a type of tourism that provides ecological, cultural, and educational based trips, often to undisturbed nature areas. Ecotourism encourages visitors to respect and learn about the area that they are visiting. Tourism, eco-friendly or not, provides opportunities for economic growth in the destination country. It provides millions of jobs worldwide and can be a crucial factor in lifting countries and communities out of poverty. However, mass tourism also has several negative consequences. Ecotourism differs from regular tourism because its primary focus is the conservation of local cultures and biodiversity. Ecotours often operate on a small scale, and travellers may spend days or even weeks exploring a single area.
Types of ecotourism
Ecotourism isn’t just wildlife watching and nature hikes; the term is inclusive of any types of travel that prioritise environmental and cultural conservation. That includes multi-day group tours, independent eco-friendly travellers, and even long-term volunteers. Here are some ecotourism examples:
Also called sustainable adventure tourism, adventure ecotourism combines outdoor activities with environmental and cultural conservation. Adventure ecotourism organisations go the extra mile to support local communities and environmental projects. Adventure ecotourism programs typically include activities such as hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking, rafting, wildlife watching, and nature education, as well as visits to local communities or cultural heritage sites. Accommodation is often provided in Eco lodgings, campsites, or small-scale guest houses. Adventure ecotourism organisations mostly employ local guides and economically support the communities they visit, either through trade (i.e. accommodation, restaurants, and local markets) or by charitable donations.
Ecotourism often offers opportunities for you to volunteer in rural communities. Volunteering opportunities can include community development projects, planting trees in areas affected by deforestation, wildlife conservation, and community aid.
Visitors can travel to rural farming communities. On these trips, visitors usually have the opportunity to see local working farms, learn about harvest and planting, interact with local farming families, and perhaps purchase local produce. Some agritourism destinations offer volunteering opportunities.
Staying in accommodation that is located in natural settings and made with environmental awareness in mind is a good example of ecotourism that is becoming more mainstream. This can include low-rise buildings that complement the surroundings, buildings made from natural/renewable materials, accommodations that are powered by renewable energy, small-scale/family-run accommodation, or local homestays.
The importance of ecotourism
Ecotourism vs sustainable tourism: what’s the difference?
Ecotourism is a type of tourism that primarily educates visitors on natural areas, flora, and fauna. Ecotourism is, by its nature, sustainable. Sustainable tourism, on the other hand, is a concept that can be applied to any type of tourism. For example, sustainable medical tourism, sustainable adventure tourism, or sustainable beach tourism. Sustainable tourism aims to minimise the impact of tourism on local communities and environments, but the tours are not necessarily nature themed.
Why is ecotourism important?
Most of us dream of travelling to faraway places with pristine beaches and scenic views, but tourism, in itself, causes environmental and cultural changes that can decimate natural areas and communities. Particularly in locations that have delicate ecosystems. Ecotourism minimises the negative environmental impact of travelling, helps to fund conservation, and protect biodiversity. Ecotourism can also ensure the survival of natural landscapes that would otherwise be lost to erosion or other natural causes.
The benefits of ecotourism
Ecotourism promotes conservation by providing financial benefits to locals. Often untouched landscapes are destroyed in order to access natural resources. Ecotourism, therefore, provides an alternative way for locals to earn money from the land without destroying it. Ecotourism in remote areas can also boost employment and education opportunities. As a traveller, ecotourism providers make it easier to visit unspoilt destinations and understand local culture and heritage. We’re able to enjoy breath-taking nature spots without massive crowds and, by supporting ecotourism, we ensure that tourism can continue indefinitely.
Here are some eco-friendly activities for tourists that you can add to your trip itinerary:
- Hiking – from day hikes on well-marked trails to multi-day wilderness expeditions
- Biking – cycle touring, or backpacking is one of the most eco-friendly ways to travel between cities or even across continents. Travellers with more limited vacation time can rent a bike and explore the countryside and nearby sites on two wheels.
- Non-motorised water sports – swimming, stand-up paddle boarding, surfing, free diving, kayaking, canoeing, and rafting are all eco-friendly activities.
- Camping – while camping, you’ll use less electricity. It’s also the best way to connect to nature. But avoid camping in places that will disrupt wildlife and remember to leave no trace – check out our Leave No Trace quiz if you’re not sure abou this.
- Agricultural tours and farmers markets – support farming economies and learn about farming by visiting the countryside.
- Beach cleanups – seek out a beach cleanup in the destination you’re visiting. You can do your part to keep tourist destinations clean while interacting with locals.
Adventure ecotourism providers
Any travel agency with eco in the title must be environmentally conscious, right? There are a lot of travel agencies out there, and a lot of them are less environmentally sound than they claim to be. Before booking your next big adventure, do a bit of background reading on your travel provider. Most genuine ecotourism providers will have a sustainability statement, certifications from recognised conservation organisations, or links to supported foundations visible on their website.
To save you some time, we’ve put together a handful of ecotourism providers that operate tours across the globe.
|Activities:||Multi-day rock climbing and yoga holidays and courses. Daily activities include canyoning, mountain biking, paragliding, and hiking.|
|Eco-initiatives:||Serves vegan and vegetarian food. Lodge was renovated using an ecological approach (solar powered hot water, walls are made of straw or stone and rendered with lime). Offers volunteering placements on ecological projects. Works closely with local organisations to raise the profile of the area, its wildlife and support local people, projects and patrimony. Restores, regenerates and maintains the surrounding land folloing zoning principles of a permaculture approach to land management.|
|Location:||Strandja Nature Park, Bulgaria|
|Activities:||Multi-day nature-themed tours. Activities include hiking, birding, wildlife watching, nature observation, water sports, and village visits.|
|Eco-initiatives:||Partnered with the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation and Strandja Nature Park Doctorate. Connects visitors with locally owned guesthouses, restaurants, and family-run hotels. Promotes carbon offsetting.|
|Location:||Canada: Pacific Rim National Park, Gwaii Haanas National Park, Great Bear Rainforest, Salish Sea, and Northern Vancouver Island.|
|Activities:||Multi-day cruise expeditions to wilderness areas and wildlife reserves on a wooden schooner. Daily activities include walking, wildlife watching, boating, water sports, and local food tasting.|
|Eco-initiatives:||The company is carbon neutral. Contributes to Citizen-Science Projects. Provides locally sourced and organic foods where possible. Operates an onboard recycling and composting program.|
|Activities:||Multi-day sailing cruises on a tall ship. Daily activities include six hours sailing (with sailing teaching), visits to harbour villages. Also offers themed nature, hiking, kayaking, geology, and whale watching cruises.|
|Eco-initiatives:||MWA partner with local businesses (B&B’s, restaurants, and transportation agencies). Tours have a minimal footprint as vessels are wind operated. Onboard cooking on wood-burning or kerosene stoves which also heat the hot water. The company abide by and encourage Leave-No-Trace principles.|
South and Central America
|Location:||Galapagos Islands and Patagonia|
|Activities:||Galapagos Islands: multi-day luxury cruise. Daily activities include snorkelling, swimming, kayaking, wildlife watching, light walking—Patagonia: guided or self-guided multi-day overland safari tours.|
|Eco-initiatives:||Partnered with official conservation organisations, including the Charles Darwin Foundation, WWF, Carbonfund.org, Tread Lightly, Reforest Patagonia, and Galapagos National Park. Minimises onboard waste. Tours are carbon neutral. Quasar supports Lucy In The Andes, a women’s empowerment program in Ecuador.|
|Destinations:||Costa Rica, Mexico, Belize, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Colombia.|
|Activities:||Multi-day educational sea life conservation tours and volunteering trips.|
|Eco-initiatives:||The company supports local sea turtle conservation programs with funding and volunteering.|
|Activities:||Seven-night cruises with snorkelling, nature walks, hiking, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, glass-bottom boat tours|
|Eco-initiatives:||Cruises on energy-efficient mega-yachts. Ecoventura supports the Charles Darwin Foundation.|
|Activities:||Multi-day overland expeditions through remote Mongolia, including the Gobi Desert.|
|Eco-initiatives:||Employs local guides. Brings trade to nomadic Mongolian communities.|
|Location:||Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, India|
|Activities:||Multi-day ecological trekking tours (1-27 days)|
|Eco-initiatives:||Operates a strict waste management system. Fair wages paid to guides and employees. Supports local charities.|
|Activities:||Multi-day safari tours with luxury Eco lodging|
|Eco-initiatives:||Accommodation is provided in camps/lodges with minimal environmental impact. Many camps/lodges are solar-powered, employ staff from local communities, and enforce recycling programs. All guests are given reusable water bottles, and plastic straws are banned. Elewana Collection supports The Land and Life Foundation. Certified by multiple international ecotourism bodies.|
|Destinations:||New Orleans, Louisiana – Alaska, USA – Argentinian Patagonia – Rwanda – Tanzania – Cuba – Ecuador.|
|Activities:||Multi-day adventure-based vacations. Options include trekking, kayaking, boating, cultural tours, wildlife safari, and swamp tours.|
|Eco-initiatives:||Carbon offsetting for all trips. Contributions to nonprofits. Supports endangered species. Uses locally owned businesses. Provides guests with a reusable water bottle. Educates about environmental issues and local culture.|
|Eco-initiatives:||Flight bookings with carbon offsets. When you book a flight via Fly Green, they earn a commission from the airlines and use that commission to offset the CO2 emissions of your flight.|
|Eco-initiatives:||Carbon compensated hotel bookings. Each reservation you make Good Wings shares the profit with a nonprofit of your choice. B-Corps Certified. They partner Carbonfund.org.|
|Destinations:||Operates in over 120 countries worldwide|
|Activities:||Multi-day adventure cruises, trekking tours, cycling tours, food tours (including a vegan food tour), polar expeditions, and family adventure tours.|
|Eco-initiatives:||The company is B Corp certified and carbon neutral – they aim to become carbon positive. The company supports human rights initiatives, conservation projects, and local economies. The company funds The Intrepid Foundation.|
|Destinations:||Operates in over 45 countries.|
|Activities:||Multi-day nature themes tours, including safari, small-ship cruises to remote regions, photography excursions, and trekking.|
|Eco-initiatives:||Nat Hab is carbon neutral and created the World’s First Zero Waste Adventure. Partnered with WWF. Uses green office policies. Supports conservation organisations. Operates small group tours (average group size of 9 people).|
|Destinations:||Tours operate in over 30 countries around the world, including Bulgaria, Namibia, Argentina, Jordan, Mauritius, and Tasmania.|
|Activities:||Multi-day wildlife and nature itineraries with overnight accommodation. Adventure activities include wildlife watching and safari tours, birding, cycling, hiking, horseback riding, water sports, and rainforest excursions.|
|Eco-initiatives:||Provides eco-certified ecotourism experiences worldwide. Green Loons only partner with local guides/guiding companies that specialise in nature, wildlife, and cultural tours, and companies that have eco-tourism certifications from recognised organisations. All accommodation should have received and environmental or conservation award.|