Louise is concerned about the changes she has noticed in her travels over the last few decades. She’s been a traveller since she completed college and joined the backpacking circuit around Europe. As she built her career, her trips become shorter but she still found time to circle the globe, catching sunrises in Goa and sampling samosas in Zanzibar. Louise’s interests have changed somewhat since she first laced up her hiking boots. She’s more inclined to listen for the sounds of birds than rock groups, but she’s noticed it is harder to find a place that seems different from the one she left behind. Local people are not as eager to meet tourists and in some places, seem conspicuous by their absence. The wildlife she used to take for granted does not seem to be as common or appears in someone’s flowerbed instead of in the forest. And some destinations seem a little frayed at the edges, showing obvious signs of wear and tear with erosion, litter and noise pollution being common problems.(
If you are like Louise you may have wondered about the impact of your travels on the places you visit, and wonder if you are leaving communities worse off by your presence. With Al Gore winning an Oscar for his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, more and more of us are discussing climate change and our contribution to the situation. Perhaps it is time for all of us to stop and evaluate our travel habits. If you are like Louise, you are probably a dedicated traveller and the thought of staying home makes you twitch. As an alternative, we can make the effort to be sure we are travelling responsibly, and choosing ecotourism tours or facilities may be one way to do that. (for a definition of ecotourism visit The International Ecotourism Society’s website)
If you are wondering whether your travel habits are adding to environmental problems, take the Traveler’s Self- Test below. There are no right or wrong answers, but the questions point to some of the potential problems. Travellers are becoming more demanding, wanting a busy range of activities in their travel time that often matches the frantic schedules they left behind. This requires a greater financial investment by ecotourism providers to provide support equipment and personnel, and to create new itineraries more frequently. Bill Cacciolfi of New World Expeditions says that for tourism providers like himself, their biggest challenge is “Looking for new ways, and new twists to old ways to make travel interesting.” While he feels that liability and risk management were the main concerns in past years, “now it is financial stability. Companies are stretching themselves thin.” And the environment suffers as well as more people want to explore more wilderness areas.
- Do you want to do a dozen different activities when you get to your holiday destination? Do you think about the cost of providing equipment, staff or facilities for these activities?
- Do you have reasonable expectations about approaching wildlife? If you want to get close enough to fill the viewfinder with a picture of that cute deer you have seen, you are probably too close.
- Do you base your travel decision mainly on price?
- Are you happy being part of a large group or are you willing to pay a bit more for an experience that promises some individual attention?
- Do you consider the size of your hotel or tour operator company when selecting a vacation?
- Do you ask how you can support conservation at the places you have visited?
- Are you informed about proper behavior and precautions in the wilderness? If you are counting on your guide to take care of everything, you may get more than you bargained for.
- Do you look for evidence of ecotourism accreditation when selecting a tour company?
While offering a trip for a small number of tourists creates an intimate experience that can have a smaller environmental impact and a level of customer service that most people enjoy, it often translates to a higher cost per person. Contributing to conservation efforts is also an important part of an ecotourism product, but again, will mean a slightly higher cost. If you are like many consumers you sometimes overlook these features when selecting a tourism product, basing your decision to purchase on price or glitzy marketing images. Many ecotourism operators state that travellers say that they want a environmentally-friendly travel experience, but balk at paying even a few dollars more to that get that type of trip. Bill Cacciolifi sums it up, “Customers are much more sophisticated and they demand more creature comforts for less money.”
When you travel you probably pride yourself on coming prepared and expecting to learn new skills or knowledge on your trip. Many tour operators see this in their customers. Garth Thompson, the founder of Natureways and a leader in African ecotourism, says about his customers, “Most are well informed from the brilliant and educational documentaries that are available to us on our screens daily. They read up on their destination, more novels than fact though, i.e. Wilbur Smith or Doris Lessing.” But interestingly although many people take time to read up on their destination, they seem to know less about the safe and proper way to act in the great outdoors. Warren Clinton of Castle Mountain Lodge in Estes Park, Colorado, has been active in wildlife-based tourism for many years, and sees some distressing trends in his customers. He states that, “We have found that people are even less knowledgeable now than 20 years ago on watchable wildlife etiquette. It is a constant challenge to teach people what is appropriate behaviour, they chase wildlife. People are not used to operating in a wild environment.”
With all this interest in nature and cultural experiences, there are many tourism companies that are targeting prospective ecotourists by adding an Eco-label or theme to their marketing. This added competition and the growing interest in ecotourism from all walks of life has meant that ecotourism companies must market on a scale not seen before. The added cost of mounting large-scale marketing programs is making it difficult for medium size companies to survive. Some companies have chosen to work to with other like-minded organizations in marketing partnerships like The Adventure Collection, a group of several adventure companies who operate independently, but share a website and marketing activities. As Bill Bryan of Off the Beaten Path, a member of The Adventure Collection, observes “It’s harder to do business now. How do we get our business a little bit bigger in a way that still works with a cross-section of people?”
If ecotourism is to survive, it will be up to us as responsible travellers to look beyond the marketing jargon and the cheapest price, to find the real ecotourism trip. Some organizations are making this easier for consumers by adopting accreditation processes where ecotourism companies must meet certain standards before they can be labelled a quality ecotourism provider. As Trent Schumann of Mountain Quest, a long-time tourism professional notes, “As governments become aware of the increasing demand for nature-based tourism and the varying levels of sustainable tourism practises by operators, there is a greater push for industry regulation.” Many tourism operators seek some form of accreditation attesting to their environmental practices, but where there is not an accreditation program to identify quality ecotourism products, develop your own evaluation by asking the following questions before you book with a tour operator:
- What is your environmental policy? Can I read it on your website?
- How do you support conservation or environmental organizations in the area where you operate?
- Do you buy your food products locally?
- Do you stay at locally owned and operated lodging facilities?
- What steps have you taken to minimize energy and water usage?
- What type of interpretation do you provide customers about local nature and culture?
- Do you hire local people and guides?
- Do you provide training for these guides?
- What is your group size for tours? How do you determine this number?
- How do you monitor your impact on the local environment and local community?
In the end it is up to you to decide what type of trip you want and whether you are willing to pay more for a smaller, greener tour. If you plan to visit a destination more than once or hope that your children will enjoy the same chance you have to dive among coral reefs or hear the night cry of a timber wolf, pick a tour company that shares your values and vision for the earth’s future. Choose ecotourism.