Though there are many definintions of ecotourism, the term is used to describe any recreation in natural surroundings. The Ecotourism Society adds social responsibilities to define ecotourism as "purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people." In its purest sense, it is an industry which claims to make a low impact on the environment and local culture, while helping to create jobs, and conserving wildlife and vegetation. It claims to be responsible tourism which is ecologically and culturally sensitive.
- Many developing countries are keen to follow in Costa Rica's eco-tourism path. For many governments, ecotourism seems to avoid the pitfalls of mass tourism which often degrades landscapes, local cultures and wildlife habitats. As a responsible, low impact form, ecotourism seems to offer sustainability, and other economic advantages.
- Being small scale and sometimes based on family businesses, facilities and infrastructure are simpler and less expensive than those of mass tourism. For some developing countries ecotourism is a good financial option, though it still requires a good infrastructure.
- Small, local ownership can give much more of a boost to the local economy.
The potential is there to retain profits in local communities rather than seeing them take off to the rich countries.
Well-managed, it is less harmful to the environment than other development activities like logging, mining, and forms of intensive agriculture.
Prospects for sustainability
However well managed, any tourism comes at a price, and more so if that destination is a paradise on earth. Enter the most eco-sensitive tourists into virgin tropical rainforest, or a fragile coral reef system, or the home of wild gorillas, and the inherent conflict with nature could end in disaster.
To protect the resources they are promoting, eco-tour providers must operate under strict codes of ethics and practices in a bid to limit environmental and cultural impact, and must donate funds to local job and conservation schemes. To help make ecotourists aware and reduce environmental impact, various codes and practices often accompany the itinerary and air tickets. With the more bona fide tour operators the reminders usually continues on arrival and during the tour with trained guides on hand to give common advice such as:
"Take only photos, leave only footprints," one of the first commandment of ecotourism.
"Move cautiously and quietly to keep from disturbing wildlife and plants,"
"Do not throw plastic in the wilderness"
"Do not to hunt"
"Respect the sensibilities of other cultures"
One of the bottom line though is that "real" ecotourists should be also prepared to forego modern comforts and eat local food as part of the experience.
The last "commandment" can present challenges of its own: How to avoid turning traditional hunter-gatherers into souvenir hawkers? We find that openness and interest in the many fascinating things that one can discover when speaking to someone from another culture often can turn these differences into assets. But as the ecotourist and the local inhabitant seldom speak the same language, local interpreters are necessary.
In some cases ecotourism can help revive cultural activities. The Toledo Ecotourism Association - made up of indigenous people from the rainforests of southern Belize - has created a renewed interest in traditional music and the making of local instruments. This revival is now catching on. But the challenge is to keep it small and ensure local say and control.
Local spending and jobs
Despite the leakages, outside money coming into a poor, non-market economy can have a considerable impact. Though comprehensive studies are lacking, some studies show that in a few areas, park guards, whose numbers have tripled in some countries over the course of the eighties, received four times more than the average wage. Guides also benefited from tips which were often more than half their salary. Another spin-off is that the success of a project can attract foreign donors who can pump aid into forest conservation and rural development.
The friendly ecotourist and operator
For every bona fide eco-tour operator there is a mala fide one exploiting the ecotourism label for profit. The good guys provide expert local guides, highlight poor environmental practices, follow a travel code of ethics, and put around 10% of total trip costs into the hands of local conservation groups.
To encourage the good guys, some commentators say voluntary guidelines drawn up by governments and industry regulating environmental labeling and advertising are useful ways forward. This would, goes the argument, develop consumer awareness and charge companies for misleading marketing. In the US, the Ecotourism Society is about to launch a green evaluation program to evaluate their tour operators, hoping that "The free market will reward those who meet the guidelines."
SLSII supports eco-tourism guided by a responsible non-hierarchial management team, focused on cooperation, open flow of information, and efficient use of the resources in the organization. The eco-tours the Institute promotes must be guided by a plan that is carefully designed to consider the affected individuals and includes a common vision, a design for dealing with conflict, and a methodology to incorporate subjective feelings and values of both local people and tourists in evaluating their programs.