You cannot go very far today without seeing the words green, sustainable and eco attached to attractive marketing slogans and photos for vacation destinations. And, within the tourism industry, where surveys have indicated that consumers are willing to pay a premium for a product when they are aware that an organization is environmentally conscious, the word eco is ubiquitous.
Instead of turning off to eco altogether though, here are some tips for selecting authentic ecotourism experiences:
- Understand the three foundational pillars of true ecotourism: Ecotourism travel emphasizes the discovery of a natural or wildlife habitat in a manner that maximizes local economic and social goals, and reduces the possibility of environmental degradation. Check to ensure that your locally-owned ecotour operator highlights non-motorized activities that work with nature and wildlife habitats and contributes to local conservation efforts.
- Support tourism operators with legitimate eco-certification labels: Read through a tourism provider’s responsible or sustainable tourism policies. If the company holds a third-party certification, they will proudly mention it. Eco-certification provides knowledge and transparency because award criteria as well as independent assessment and reauthorization processes not only help educate consumers about the various social, economic, cultural and environmental issues of a specific region, but also provide you with a basis of comparison against other travel suppliers. While there are hundreds of eco-labels throughout the travel and tourism industry, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council has begun recognizing some of them, providing much needed legitimacy for the industry.
- Learn about a region’s eco-certification standards: Certified ecotour operators undergo self-assessments, on-site visits, and training during the evaluation process which typically covers several criteria including: sustainable management systems, customer satisfaction policies, local design and construction requirements, quality interpretation of natural surroundings and local culture, community development and fair trade policies, local employment practices, protection of archeological sites and artifacts, and conservation and energy use policies. At this time, since there is no singular international ecotourism certification due to regional interpretations of what constitutes a natural or wildlife habitat, what amounts to environmental degradation and what characterizes local prosperity, it can be confusing. However, a reference guide has been developed to serve as another consumer awareness tool.
- Choose activities that emphasize environmental education and sustain conservation efforts rather than outdoor adventure: True eco-activities, which can include kayaking, hiking and sailing, are led by certified naturalists, who guide small groups of no more than 12 to allow for first-hand interpretation and education of local flora and fauna. Devoted ecotourism organizations not only teach tourists about the plants, birds, insects and animals of the region, but also how wildlife is crucial to the surrounding ecosystems. Learning about the fragility and sensitivity of ecosystems becomes much more important than just a great photo opportunity.
- Select travel suppliers that support local communities in multiple ways: Genuine eco travel organizations understand that tourism can be utilized as a tool for poverty alleviation as well as achieving community economic and social goals. Therefore, crucial distinctions is not only resident employment or local food provision or even contributions to local conservation organizations, but also local management and ownership of the tourism business as well as incorporation of local cultural traditions.