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Monday, February 9, 2015

Green Can Still Be Glam

A buzz word in the travel industry is “ecotourism”. While trending lately, this mode of travel actually came out of the environmental movements in the 1970’s, and has since become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry on a global scale. Since the 1990’s, ecotourism has been growing between 20-30% each year. According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO) in 2004, ecotourism grew three times faster than the tourism industry as a whole.
Ecotourism encompasses the environmental, social, cultural and economic features of travel destinations. In general, it is a means of uniting the traveler with the natural world- while minimizing the damaging aspects of travel. It bridges communities, conservation efforts and sustainable thinking, too.

Ecotourism was founded on, and continues to grow based on a few principals. It is intended to build cultural and environmental awareness, providing positive experiences for both the visitor and the host. The financial benefits of this branch of tourism provide direct aid to conservation efforts, and should also be directed to the local people of the travel destination. In working to travel with a reduced-carbon footprint, “low-impact” facilities are to offer accommodations to visitors, and these facilities are to be designed, constructed and operated in such a manner.

These basic guidelines are important to the companies guiding the eco-friendly travel arrangements, but it is also important for the traveler to keep in mind- from the planning process, through the trip itself- all the way through returning home.  One of the “big picture” intentions of ecotourism is to provide the traveler with memorable experiences that are open for interpretation and sharing- so, in returning home, engaging in discussions and spreading awareness about their experiences allows the ecotravel cycle to continue.

Ecotourism has expanded beyond the idea of being only for the “environmentally responsible” traveler. In the past, there was a negative connotation with this idea, but luckily, this is changing. Traveling with an eco-friendly group also doesn’t mean that you’ll be stuck with a bunch of tree-huggers and hippies. Ecotourism appeals to a wide range of travelers who vary in age, background and culture who happen to share a common thread of making consciously “better” choices while away from home and a desire to explore in nature. Travelers who wish to be a part of the ecotourism movement have the opportunity to connect with people who they probably would not have had the chance to otherwise.

Traveling in an eco-friendly fashion also doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice luxury, if luxury is what you are seeking while on your trip. Again, there is often a misconception that environmentally sustainable travel means primitive accommodations, basic cuisine and a general lack of comfort. Many modern hotels and resorts that have been built for the purpose of ecotourism are actually very high-end, and offer all of the services that any resort might.
Many of the world’s most fascinating natural attractions are located in less-developed countries, making them hard to access or seen as inaccessible by travelers. Ecotourism works to not only connect people with these natural wonders, but also provides an economic boost for the destination in which these places are. Biodiversity exposure and conservation has played a major role in engaging governmental agencies of developing nations to be a part of the ecotourism movement. So first, revenue is generated by ecotourism companies and guide services. They seek out remote locations that tourists might be intrigued by. Then, locals of that destination are provided with work opportunities, as lodging, transportation and logistical planning has to be established. Travelers with money to spend arrive in these places, stimulating the local economy and bringing foreign exchange- affording the government to pour some of these funds into both operating and protecting these natural habitats. The WTO notes that tourism is the world’s largest employer, and be it directly or indirectly, it generates 200 million jobs. Opportunities for employment are brought to remote and sometimes desperate regions. The richest resources are often in the poorest places, so this can be a major boost for ecotourism destinations.

"...the richest resources are
often in the poorest places..."
Of course, there are major dangers in this process. If these building and guiding processes are not highly regulated, there can be adverse affects on these already fragile environments. Overbuilding and drastic influxes of populations can have consequences that are both long-term and irreversible. Forest and marine habitats are particularly sensitive to change, and some of the wildlife that lives in these areas can be driven to extinction if the proper precautions are not made priority. The people of these locations can also be damaged, if not protected by regulations. Local interests can easily be pushed aside or overshadowed by the desire to make a profit. As soon as short-term profits become a priority over the conservation of people and animals, this means of travel is no longer sustainable.
Ecotourism, when done in a respectful and truly eco-conscious way, can provide great benefits to both the traveler and the host/ host country. Travelers interested in participating in this type of travel have the ability to research the most sustainable ways to see the most remote locations, while contributing to the local economy and interacting with natives, who can provide them with the best information about their own land. Many reputable ecotravel companies can assist the traveler in making the best choices when it comes time to plan an eco-friendly adventure. The best ecotourism practices will integrate the natural with the native, allowing visitors to experience the destination from the perspective of the people who know it best. Ecotourism must focus on the long-term contributions to the environment and the community for it to be truly responsible traveling.

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