What is ecotourism, really?

white beach with two lounge chairs and an umbrella

Getting away for the Summer? Consider ways to make your trip more sustainable and responsible.

By Austin Holmes, Sustainability Office

If you are looking for exciting ways to offset your carbon footprint, benefit local communities abroad, and strive for greater equity in the world while you travel, look no further. Ecotourism is a combination of, where the tourist seeks to be sensitive and respectful to the environment and people with whom they interact. The term ecotourism is often tossed around casually, without much regard to its actual meaning. So, let’s get down to what ecotourism is, and what it is not.

Ecotourism is defined by the International Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” Some principles of ecotourism include having tourists: “Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts…Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect….Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts…Provide direct financial benefits for conservation” and more.

An example of what ecotourism is not includes mass tourism efforts focused on short-term profit for large foreign corporations that use “ecotourism” as a superficial trigger word. This type of tourism, even if it focuses on some form of nature appreciation, does not follow the standard definition of ecotourism listed above. This form of tourism is a mere façade of what ecotourism stands for. Often these industries will not employ locals (and if they do, it is at low wages), while they focus on “nature” aesthetics, as opposed to actual ecological sustainability and conservation efforts. This ecotourism greenwashing further contributes to injustice and inequality, instead of fighting it, which is why it is important to do your research on ecotourism before engaging in it, and to learn how to determine the distinctions between what is and is not real ecotourism.

Why is something like ecotourism important for travelers to practice? While you are in your seat in the sky, your thoughts wandering about the pressurized cabin, consider for a moment that one mile in the air produces approximately 53.3 pounds of carbon dioxide. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that, “Airplanes could generate 43 gigatonnes of planet-warming pollution through 2050, consuming almost 5 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget.” This estimate is excluding all the different forms of transportation and accommodations at your destination that will also contribute to global climate change.

For those who are looking for a way to offset emissions from travelling through the University of Utah, the Green Travel Fund is a great option. The U of U Green Travel Fund allows faculty, students, and staff at the University to “make a tax-deductible donation to the University of Utah’s Green Travel Fund that goes toward campus efficiency and renewable energy projects” when traveling on behalf of the University.

In addition to ecological disruption, global tourism can also have socio-cultural impacts, such as cultural, historical, and religious degradation. Not to mention the increased pollution and waste, which disproportionately harms the local people and environment, particularly impoverished communities. The pressure to produce the amount of energy and resources to support large tourism industries in fragile developing economies is detrimental to many people.

Therefore, the concept of ecotourism is incredibly important to the global tourism industry, and can inform how all travelers interact with the world they are exploring. Whether you find yourself travelling to tropical waters, desert sands, mountain peaks, or even city streets, principles of ecotourism can be applied to your experience. Ecotourism is a great and rewarding way to be a positive force in the world.

Austin Holmes is a sustainability ambassador alumni.

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