The International Ecotourism Society defines Ecotourism as: "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people".
Many serious studies of ecotourism including several University programs use the following as the working definition from Martha Honey's excellent book "Ecotourism and Sustainable Development".
These destinations are often remote areas, whether inhabited or uninhabited, and are usually under some kind of environmental protection at the national, international, communal or private level.
Tourism causes damage. Ecotourism strives to minimize the adverse affects of hotels, trails, and other infrastructure by using either recycled materials or plentifully available local building materials, renewable sources of energy, recycling and safe disposal of waste and garbage, and environmentally and culturally sensitive architectural design. Minimization of impact also requires that the numbers and mode of behavior of tourists be regulated to ensure limited damage to the ecosystem.
Ecotourism means education, for both tourists and residents of nearby communities. Well before departure tour operators should supply travelers with reading material about the country, environment and local people, as well as a code of conduct for both the traveler and the industry itself. This information helps prepare the tourist as the Ecotourism Societies guidelines state, "to learn about the places and peoples visited" and "to minimize their negative impacts while visiting sensitive environments and cultures".
Essential to good ecotourism are well-trained, multilingual naturalist guides with skills in natural and cultural history, environmental interpretation, ethical principles and effective communication. Ecotourism projects should also help educate members of the surrounding community, schoolchildren and the broader public in the host country. To do so they must offer greatly reduced entrance and lodge fees for nationals and free educational trips for local students and those living near the tourist attraction.
Ecotourism helps raise funds for environmental protection, research and education through a variety of mechanisms, including park entrance fees, tour company, hotel, airline and airport taxes and voluntary contributions.
National Parks and other conservation areas will only survive if there are "happy people" around their perimeters. The local community must be involved with and receive income and other tangible benefits (potable water, roads, health clinics, etc.) from the conservation area and it’s tourist facilities. Campsites, lodges, guide services, restaurants and other concessions should be run by or in partnership with communities surrounding a park or other tourist destination.
More importantly, if Ecotourism is to be viewed as a tool for rural development, it must also help shift economic and political control to the local community, village, cooperative, or entrepreneur. This is the most difficult and time-consuming principle in the economic equation and the one that foreign operators and "partners" most often let fall through the cracks or that they follow only partially or formally.
Ecotourism is not only ‘greener’ but also less culturally intrusive and exploitative than conventional tourism. Whereas prostitution, black markets and drugs often are by-products of mass tourism, ecotourism strives to be culturally respectful and have a minimal affect on both the natural environment and the human population of a host country. This is not easy, especially since ecotourism often involves travel to remote areas where small and isolated communities have had little experience interacting with foreigners. And like conventional tourism, ecotourism involves an unequal relationship of power between the visitor and the host and a modification of the relationship through exchange of money. Part of being a responsible eco-tourist is learning beforehand about the local customs, respecting dress codes and other social norms and not intruding on the community unless either invited or as part of a well organized tour.
Although tourism is often glibly hailed as a tool for building international understanding and world peace, this does not happen automatically; frequently in fact tourism bolsters the economies of repressive and undemocratic states. Mass tourism pays scant attention to the political system of the host country or struggles within it, unless civil unrest spills over into attacks on tourists. Ecotourism demands a more holistic approach to travel, one in which participants strive to respect, learn about and benefit both the local environment and local communities.
Although not part of the Ecotourism Society’s definition, giving economic benefits and showing cultural sensitivities to local communities cannot be separated from understanding their political circumstances. In many developing countries, rural populations living around national parks and other ecotourism attractions are locked in contests with the national government and multinational corporations for control of the assets and their benefits. Eco-tourists therefore need to be sensitive to the host country's political environment and social climate and need to consider the merits of international boycotts called for by those supporting democratic reforms, majority rule, and human rights. For example the campaign by the African National Congress (ANC) to isolate South Africa through a boycott of investment, trade, sports and tourism helped bring down apartheid.
Determining whether to boycott or visit a country is not always easy. Among the questions to ask are: Does the economic growth fueled by tourism really improve the chances of human rights being respected? Will boycotting a country harm already impoverished workers more than it will corporate or government titans? Or are the short term economic penalties more than offset by the ultimate benefits of change? If one visits a repressive country, it is possible to make the trip rewarding both personally and politically by consciously learning about the country beforehand, meeting with dissidents and average folks, as well as government officials while there, and speaking about the political climate, not just the weather after returning home.
Most operations which can truly be called ecotourism are striving to meet as many of these criteria as possible. This is a tall order to fill for anyone operating eco-tours and it is highly doubtful that any one project or operator can claim to meet all these criteria perfectly. However it does give a base of ideas to work from when looking into whether or not something is or isn't ecotourism. Properly understood, the emphasis in ecotourism is on a set of principles and how to put them into practice; on what ecotourism stands for and how these standards are being implemented.
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