Ecotourism and eco-travel: Doing the Right Thing

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International travel drew in over $940 billion dollars in 2009, despite a downturn in economies worldwide. Nearly one third of that amount went to developing nations, with the industry serving as one of the major export sectors for poor countries.

Ecotourism is a subset of this international travel. There are various definitions of what actually constitutes ecotourism. The term is often bandied about, without a clear understanding of what it means. 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.”

For TIES, this breaks down into several categories, which can be used to evaluate a purported ecotourism destination. It should:

  • Involves travel to natural destinations.
  • Minimizes impact and
  • Builds environmental awareness.
  • Provides direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
  • Respects local culture.
  • Supports human rights and democratic movements

Some of the criteria seem a little ambitious, though, and in the case of the last one, potentially dangerous. There are many countries out there that do not appreciate foreign interference in their internal politics. The other categories, though, are very laudable goals.


There are so many packages and resorts advertising themselves as ecotourist destinations, that even with the TIES criteria, it’s difficult to know how to judge. Many use the term simply as advertising, without really adhering to the TIES criteria, or by merely paying lip-service to it.

Here are some personal guidelines to help make your travel more eco-sensitive. It is up to the consumer, the purchaser of the holidays, to really determine whether their vacation is truly ecologically-friendly, or just an advertising ploy.

Eco tourism is not just about being aware of environmental issues, it is also an excellent way to support the place’s cultural heritage. Take this as an opportunity to learn about the local culture, and try to do some research before you go.

When traveling, respect the environment. Throw away your trash, or pack it out with you if your travels take you into places where there are no garbage cans. Don’t pick the flowers, or take rocks or shells. Leave everything as you found it.

When looking for a place to stay, look for places that promote sustainable practices and environmental conservation.

Find out if the businesses participate in green projects and emission reduction projects. This ensures that the benefits of ecotourism are available to the entire region and ecosystem, not just local communities.

Be aware of resource conservation. Even though you are on vacation, and it is natural to indulge yourself, be aware of the energy and resources you are consuming.

Eat only at restaurants that support and offer locally-grown produce. Again, this supports the local community, and promotes sustainability. This also avoids the carbon costs associated with shipping food longs distances.

Purchase souvenirs from local shops and artisans. This supports the local communities, and reduces carbon emissions that otherwise would have arisen from shipping.

Even if your travel is not actual “ecotourism”, by keeping the TIES criteria in mind, along with the other pointers, you can reduce the impact of your travel, learn something from it, and give something back to the local communities. And that is a souvenir you can keep with you forever.

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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