Over the last 20 years or so, ecotourism has become the buzz word in travel. The concept, which points towards tourism without any damaging impact on cultural diversity and the environment, makes everyone feel good. When travellers know that they are contributing positively to the preservation of the environment and cultural heritage of their holiday destination, and travel companies know that they are facilitating responsible tourism, it is a win-win situation for everyone involved. So much so that this term is being flagrantly abused by less scrupulous travel businesses, who proudly announce their green credentials without taking any tangible steps towards greening their ventures at all. The branding benefits for them are too good to pass up.
However, it would be wrong to dismiss the entire ecotourism industry as a commercial scam. There are travel companies out there that genuinely care for the environment and the eco concept. True, it is hard to fish them out, but it can be done as long as you know what to look for.
1. Research Your Destination
If you are genuinely interested in ecotourism, start by educating yourself on the environmental and cultural challenges confronting your holiday destination. Once you are armed with your own research, it will be very difficult for any company to hoodwink you. For instance, if you’re headed to a backwater destination and know that the major problem of the region is waste management and consequent water pollution, you will not be tricked into an ‘eco’ holiday that simply puts you in a five-star boathouse and tries to make you feel good about not adding smoke to the air.
2. Research Your Travel Companies ‘Green’ Efforts
Research on genuine environmental challenges should be followed by research on travel companies and operators who are doing something genuine to counter these challenges. This does not simply mean that your travel company donates a part of your payment towards local conservation efforts. That is only one small part of green tourism. A genuine eco travel company should show real concern for ecological sustainability every step of your holiday, right from your accommodation, to local travel, food and the cultural, and the sightseeing and sports activities it offers.
3. Check for Eco Awards and Accreditations
Companies that have been making a genuine effort in promoting ecotourism in their region are usually recognized and accredited by global and local conservation agencies and ecotourism accreditation programs. Here are some genuine ecotourism awards and accreditations: The Green Key, Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program (STEP), The International Ecotourism Society Awards and the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Awards. Check whether the company you are considering is recognized by any such programs.
4. Scrutinize the Itinerary
As suggested earlier, a company that genuinely cares for eco-sustainability will plan its entire tour accordingly. So consider the itinerary being suggested to you thoroughly. Do the services being offered, including the transportation, accommodation and activities, contribute to the sustainability of the local environment, or are they dependent on agents that are damaging it? For instance, what effect does the hotel you will be staying at have on the local environment? Don’t hesitate in asking your operator candid questions, and verifying the information they supply.
5. Scale of Operations
One great authenticity test for any travel company proclaiming the eco-merits of its services is the size of its groups and the scale of its operations. No environmentally concerned travel company will ever entertain very large groups and mass tourism. Small-scale tourism is the key to the sustainability of any fragile local environment, without exception, and eco travel companies are expected to know this.
Does your holiday involve a cruise? In that case, how big is the ship? If you plan to de-stress in a large luxury liner, leave behind any pretensions of eco travel. The larger the carrier – whether on water, land or in the air – the larger its carbon footprint.
Apart from the scale, another effective test of a travel company is the frequency of the tours it conducts. There are enough companies out there willing to exploit the tourism potential of a holiday destination non-stop, year round. So, winter ski resorts are re-packaged as springtime photography hotspots, summer retreats, and trekking hubs. The common factors amongst such companies are that they are maximising their own profit, and exploiting the local environment rather than conserving it.
6. Your Travel Company’s Interaction with Local People
While you are weighing the eco merits of your travel company, find out how they interact with local people. Companies which swarm upon a place, bring their own guests, and show little concern for the local people and their culture cannot be credited with any real eco merit. A genuine eco company should work actively for the progress and benefit of local people, and ensure that the tourism it generates does not erode or disrespect local cultural norms.
Find out specifically whether your travel company employs local people and how the holidays it is offering you benefit them. A genuine eco holiday should generate financial benefits for the local people, and support the recognition of democracy and human rights in their cultural community.
By keeping these parameters in mind when you’re planning your next trip you will be less likely to fall for any greenwashing tactics and be free to get down to the business of having some good ol’ fashioned fun and frolics. After all, that’s what vacations are for, right?