uncovered by BBC Green
From sustainable safaris
to eco beach breaks responsible holidays are more popular than ever, but
do they really deliver what they promise? What is ecotourism?
The closest thing to an official
definition of ecotourism comes from The International Ecotourism Society's:
"Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and
sustains the well-being of local people".
In other words, ecotourism
is about making trips that support the ecology and people of the area.
What are the rules?
There aren't any - unlike
organic or Fairtrade, the term ecotourism isn't legally binding or controlled
by certification bodies. In the words of EcoTravel.com:
"The problem is there are
no universally accepted standards for the definition of ecotourism. This
is how an 'eco-lodge' may dump untreated sewage in a river and still call
itself 'eco' simply because it is located in a natural setting."
That's not to say that many
tourism operators are unethical, just that using the phrase guarantees
nothing. Moreover, even if there were a formal set of rules and an official
ecotourism logo, there would still be at least one obvious ethical conundrum:
flying. Can a holiday be responsible if you need to fly to get there?
In an era of climate change,
this is the elephant in the room. Two flights from London to South Africa
release the equivalent of around six tonnes of CO2 - as much as a UK home
causes annually. (Read more: Should I Give up Flying)
Climate change is expected
to drive a third of land animals and plants into extinction by 2050 - shocking
facts like this make long-haul holidays and environmental protection hard
to reconcile. Of course, it's possible to offset the damage caused by your
flights, but whether this is a legitimate response is open to debate (Read
more: 60 Second Guide to Carbon Offsetting and The Truth About Carbon Offsetting).
How can tourists preserve environments?
Advocates of ecotourism argue
that, despite the impact of aviation, travellers can make a positive different
to the environments they visit. It is certainly true that nature tourists
can provide an economic incentive for landowners and governments to protect
If tourists are coming to
admire flora and fauna, and spending money while they're there, then the
value of those plants and animals increases. Naturalist Sir David Attenborough
is among those who believe there would be no mountain gorillas left were
it not for ecotourism.
But critics say that the
environment doesn't always benefit. With no reliable certification body,
it can be hard to distinguish between a genuine eco-trip and an unscrupulous
tour operator jumping on the "green" bandwagon. Many so-called ecotourism
businesses are owned and controlled by foreign companies who are more interested
in profit than conservation.
When the proceeds from ecotourism
are not retained in local communities and environments, the results can
Then there's the extra environmental
impact of flying to consider. Whether any eco benefits from the trip can
outweigh the damage simply caused by getting to that destination is for
each person to decide. What about the impact on local people?
Travel companies offering
ecotourism trips usually make claims about the benefits provided to the
local communities in the places visited. Some even go so far as to refer
to their holidays as being fair trade.
Generally, such claims are
based on the company favouring small-scale, locally run hotels and other
services, rather than relying on corporate or foreign-owned establishments.
Not everyone is convinced
about the social benefits of ecotourism. Survival International and others
campaigning for the rights of indigenous people, claim that conservation
of areas has been linked with uprooting tribal people from their ancestral
land. Does ecotourism open up new tourist areas?
One other bone of contention
around ecotourism is the long-term impact of establishing tourist destinations
in largely undeveloped areas. Even if the first companies to explore an
area operate ethically, they may encourage other, less scrupulous, operators
to set up in the similar locations.
A study by Conservation International
and the United National Environment Program found that holidays to biodiversity
hotspots more than doubled in the 1990s alone, with rises as high as 2000
per cent in some Asian regions. Growth such as this raises questions about
the sustainability of nature travel - and not just in terms of aviation.