A flexible term, some people might say. Indeed, many companies and individuals have jumped on the 'green-bandwagon' as they realized the little prefix 'eco' attracts new customers.
At its best eco-tourism is sustainable development - tourism based on high ecological and ethical standards, maximizing benefits for local communities while minimizing the ecological impact of travel on the environment - an ethical stance that is laudable, though often not as easy to follow as it may seem.
Until recently moral considerations were largely absent from mainstream tourism, though perhaps nascent in certain types of special interest tours, such as bird watching trips, safaris, hiking, biking tours and other nature orientated trips. - though 'ecological' was certainly not their main selling point or ambition. But, over the years, and more precisely, since the Earth Summit on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, things have started to change. Not only has society as a whole become more aware of the human impact on the environment and is slowly awakening to the need of preserving what is left of our natural resources, the need to protect endangered species and their habitats, and the need to encourage ecologically sensitve development, but at that meeting the United Nations identified tourism as a key factor in economic development - which needs to be directed with great care if it is to bring sustainable benefits rather than just the same old effervescent boom and bust euphoria that tends to decimate natural environments.
The Earth Summit came up with a great big paper, known as agenda 21, which details guidelines for sustainable development in which sustainable, responsible tourism plays a key role. All of a sudden the tourism industry rose to catch the ball - having previously lounged in the sun sipping cocktails, it suddenly realized its own potential for doing good in the world - or ignoring all evils and carrying on contributing to them as if nothing was going on. To be fair, almost everybody in the tourism industry by now is quite aware of these bigger questions and genuinely concerned about them and thus, the tourism industry as a whole is currently undergoing quite an amazing change of orientation. Even major operators are realizing that a place without natural attractions, or one that has been trashed by the ravages of mass tourism is unlikely to maintain its appeal. For once it seems that a major industry is attempting to learn from the mistakes of the past and is now assuming an active role in implementing ecologically sustainable and culturally sensitive guidelines.
Although some evil tongues and the 'purer than thou' may pronounce all such nascent stirrings as just another wave of 'greenwash' - but the fact is, things never change from one day to the next. We are still in a process of figuring out what works and what doesn't. Realistically tourism as a whole will not suddenly become an all green industry, but it seems as if there are numerous large and small efforst on the way to make things better, and that is a good start. This trend can definitely be observed at the major tourism trade fairs, where eco-travel is no longer just an exotic buzz word. Instead it has taken the lead as an innovative, challenging force of change that is operating at the highest level of tourism operations. If you think of eco-travel as a form of glorified backbacking and roughing it on uncomfortable bunk beds, deprived of any and all creature comforts - think again.
True eco-tourism operations insist on the highest standards for everything - the best guides, the most eco-friendly transportation, the most efficient waste disposal, the lowest impact electricity generation and the best integration with local communities and conservation efforts. But above and beyond all that they are stiving for excellence in all the creature comforts - superb foods, (locally and organically grown), unique lodges, often built using traditional materials and construction methods, combined with modern conveniences. Of course an eco-lodge in Canada or the United States cannot be compared with one in the jungle, where flush toilets and running hot water are considered an amazing luxury. But the real key of ecotourism is superior quality and individual attention to detail - no mass processing of anything here! Operations are deliberately kept small so as to minimize any negative impacts on the environment and local communities, while standards in every aspect of the operation are kept to the highest levels.
Of course there is a wide range of eco-tourism operations - while some of the lodges fall decidedly in the luxury bracket of the market, other operators strive to create authentic experiences with less emphasis on luxury and more emphasis on adventure. Tent camps or expeditions that explore some of the most pristine habitats may not compare to a 5 star eco-lodge, but within their category they will equally make things as comfortable as possible while preserving small group sizes and highest standards of ecological conduct - taking care not to disturb the environments that are visited and taking any rubbish back to civilization.
One of the most exciting forms of eco-tourism is 'cultural eco-tourism', which facilitates encounters with indigenous people - these are no folkloric shows, but real life people who want to share their culture and traditions with the traveller and by the same token wish to learn about the culture and traditions of the visitors too. These cultural encounters offer unique insights and opportunities for real sharing across the cultural divides - this is where peace through tourism can become a reality. There is no room for anonymous voyeurism - this is real interaction in which every individual counts, a truly special experience where real human bonds are formed across the cultural gap that normally sets us so far apart.
Such innovative community tourism projects provide a sustainable income base for entire villages as they provide both primary and secondary services - e.g. villagers may learn english and other languages in order to become guides or train as hotel staff to collectively run a community owned eco-lodge. Others may supply food and vegetables etc. to the lodge kitchen or sell handicrafts to tourists or teach them how to make things, like pottery or bows and arrows.
Community eco-tourism projects preserve the culture and the homelands of the indigenous people who are involved in running them. A sustainable economic base that provides them with money and thus eliminates the need to sell their land or natural resources is invaluable - not just for them, but for us all. We simply do not know what would happen if all the rainforests of the world were to be cut down for timber, the land polluted by oil spills, the rivers polluted from mining wastes...but I'd venture the assertion that it would not only affect the local people and a few thousand species of plants and animals that depend on a healthy rainforest environment. I would venture to say it would affect us all - through climate change and greenhouse gas build up and who knows in what myriad ways the web of life is held together.
Eco-tourism, and especially community based eco-tourism are among the most positive developments for a sustainable future. While the benefits for the environment and the people who live within it are quite obvious - what are the benefits for the traveller?
Well - I suppose that depends very much on one's outlook on life. Those who regard travel as little more than a change of wallpaper and an opportunity to hang on the beach to forget about all their worries in the world probably do not want to be reminded of the fact that problems exist elsewhere as well - even in their dream holiday destinations, and that they might be contributing to these problems unless they make a conscious effort not to. You can run - but you can't hide. The crux of the matter is that eco-consciousness is a way of life that is neither restricted to one's travel experience nor to one's actions at home. We are a part of the web of life, no matter where on the planet we happen to be and ecological problems exist everywhere - even in our holiday paradise.
Eco-tourism can act as an eye-opener - to the beauty of the planet, the intricate relationship between different forms of life, the fragile balance on which life depends and the amazing native cultures that have long lived in harmony with their environments. Busy city lives leave little room for encounters of the natural kind and for many people an eco-trip to a remote and pristine wilderness is the first, and perhaps the only close up encounter with nature they have ever had. In that moment of revelation mother nature touches the soul, awakens the senses, calls to the heart and maybe, a deep sense of reconnection takes place, a communion with the spirit of nature that few other experiences can convey.
In other cases the ecotravel experience is simply a deep and immediate learning experience - coming eye to eye with the people, plants and animals that we are usually only encounter in TV documentaries. Learning about our living world, comprehending its beauty and fragility, fosters a sense of caring that eco-travellers often take home with them, thus, perhaps, hopefully, becoming stuarts of the environment for their own neighborhoods - for although familiar ourown backyards are no less special or in need of protection than the rainforests, the oceans, the mountains, or deserts.
Thus the benefit of ecotourism goes far beyond the personal - for we all benefit from individuals who are prepared to care about the earth. But, while a good eco-tour operator takes great care to minimize the tourist's impact on the environment and to convey the message of treading softly on the earth, the greatest responsibility will lie with the traveller him/herself - for each of us holds the key to reducing our personal ecological footprint wherever we go.