A commonly accepted definition of ecotourism is:
“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well being of local people"*
Ideally, ecotourism should…
- Minimize the negative impacts of tourism
- Contribute to conservation efforts
- Employ locally and give money back to the community
- Educate visitors about the local environment and culture
- Cooperate with local people to manage natural areas
- Provide a positive experience for both visitor and host
A hotel that is truly an “eco-lodge" is one that makes efforts to conserve resources and limit waste. Some things a hotel can do to limit its environmental impact are:
- Reducing temperatures for laundry water
- Changing sheets and towels less frequently
- Using solar power or alternate energy sources
- Installing low flow showerheads and toilets
- Buying recycled products and recycling waste
- Building a compost heap or a waste treatment facility
Many hotels are keen to conserve energy because it both makes them look good and saves them a lot of money. Hotels that are sustainable also contribute to the local community. They buy local food products and hire local employees.
With ecotourism being so popular, it is inevitable that many companies will claim to be environmentally friendly to get business. This is called greenwashing. Since there is no single certifying agency to determine who actually engages in ecotourism, it is easy to get away with just throwing the term around.
Many hotels claim to be eco-lodges simply because they have a good view. Wildlife viewing trips are often labelled eco-tours even if they give nothing back to local ecology and sometimes cause significant problems to the areas wildlife. Just because something is in nature doesn’t make it ecotourism. It’s important to look more carefully at their practices to see if it really is ecotourism.
A popular alternative to eco-lodges, especially for those who are travelling with a volunteer travel provider such as i-to-i, is to stay in homestay accommodation. The main benefit of this is that your accommodation costs will be going straight back into the community. In many cases your meals are also includes and this usually means that local suppliers will benefit from your stay too.
Sustainable, alternative, responsible tourism - what's does it all mean?
There are many other words to describe a similar idea. The terms ecotourism, sustainable tourism or responsible tourism are often used interchangeably. The main ideas behind these are all similar, but there are small differences.
Alternative tourism is any type of travel that is not mass tourism (i.e. beach vacations or traditional sightseeing tours). This includes ecotourism, backpacking, volunteer tourism, adventure tourism, historical tourism, tornado chasing, couch surfing or any other form of travel that is atypical.
The widely accepted definition for sustainable tourism is “Tourism that meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future."* It has the same ideals as ecotourism but is not limited to natural areas.
Responsible travel is a practice used by travellers guiding how they act in a host country. It has roots in sustainable tourism but focuses on being respectful as a guest in a foreign country, such as asking permission to take photographs or enter a home, observing some of the customs, such as dress, or making an effort to learn the language.
*The International Ecotourism Society (TIES)