The conscious attitude, actions, participation and interactions on the part of the individual traveler directly affect the outcome for all involved. As a thoughtful and responsible traveler there are several things you can do before, during and after your journey to ensure the experience is in line with the values of "ecotourism" and minimize your impact on the host country. It is far easier to simply go on vacation as an uninformed tourist but making the choice to be an informed traveler can have far reaching impacts on the world around us. The more you put into your trip the more you'll get out of it. The following is a guideline for responsible travelers.
Educate yourself about your destination. Be on the lookout for news and current events about the area. Learn about local history, customs and culture as well as vital ecosystems. Learn at least the basics of the local language. A simple hello, please or thank you goes a long way. Approach travel with the desire to learn rather than just observe.
Wear clothing that is accepted by the local culture. Be aware of people's sensitivity to being photographed; always ask first and consider sending photos back to the local people through your tour operator or other means. Observe local customs. Be perceptive of your own cultural values and how they affect your judgment of others. Remember that you are the visitor. There are many different concepts of time, personal space, communication etc. which are not wrong or inferior, just different. Act as an example for other travelers who may be less informed than you.
What may not seem a display of wealth in your culture may be considered extravagant by another culture. For example, a camera hanging around your neck, jewels or technological gadgets. Consider tucking these items away when visiting rural communities. Leave unnecessary valuables at home as they can create barriers and inhibit genuine interactions.
Refrain from handing out sweets, pencils or loose change. This can widen the chasm of lack mentality, create cavities for people who likely have limited dental care and create a hand out/begging mentality where perhaps none existed before. Consider donating money or supplies to a local organization which is making a difference in the area which you feel moved by. No donation is too small. Your tour operator should be able to help facilitate this for you. If you still feel the need to give to people who are begging consider giving healthy local food or essential supplies.
Approach your adventure with an open mind and you won't be disappointed. Sometimes plans change and an opportunity for more in-depth learning or a unique cultural experience presents itself. Adapt yourself to the situation rather than trying to adapt the situation to you.
Often times the resources in an area visited by tourists are under a great deal of pressure already. Be aware of the resources that are being used because of your visit. This includes your personal consumption of items like unnecessary water, wood for building fires, specialty foods that had to be transported from afar. Don't allow your guide to hunt endangered or threatened species or harvest rare plants for your consumption or recreation. A large luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere takes far more resources to build and maintain than does a small family run inn.
Follow the International leave no trace guidelines. Pack out everything that you bring in, especially plastic (use purification tablets or a filter for drinking water whenever possible). Go to the bathroom at least 200 feet (70 paces) from any water source. Remove litter that others left behind. Do not remove any objects, plants or animal products from nature. Be aware of local endangered or threatened species so as not to purchase souvenirs made from their skin, feathers etc. Not only is this impactful on the environment but it is illegal.
Thoroughly research your tour operator or guide by asking them pointed questions about specifically what they do that is "eco" and how they involve the local communities and economies. The "greening of tourism" has led companies to promote themselves as "eco" simply to sell trips. The larger the company with more luxurious accommodations, the less likely it is to be true ecotourism. Be persistent in your inquiries of an international or local tour operator.
How will your visit directly benefit the local economy or entire community? This is an integral part of true ecotourism. Use local transportation, guides, inns, restaurants and markets. This helps create a buffer zone for the environment surrounding protected natural areas by giving locals an economic alternative to potentially destructive practices. Community based ecotourism spreads the wealth and workload.
Take the opportunity to be a cultural ambassador. Much of the world's image of western tourists is based on the unrealities of television and magazines. Look for situations for cultural exchange whereby learning about each other's lives is mutual. Getting to know the person sitting next to you on a local bus or the person cooking your food takes some effort but is often a rewarding experience. Be careful of making promises during your trip to local people that you may not be able to follow through on.
Ecotourism definitely doesn't need to end with your flight home. Follow through on your commitment to conservation of the special wild places you visited and in your back yard at home. Share your experiences with others to foster a greater understanding of our world. You will have seen and learned much from your journey. While it is still fresh in your heart and mind take action using the various agencies, grassroots organizations and resources available to you.
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