We’ve covered a lot so far, but let’s go over a few real examples of sustainable and unsustainable ecotourism so you can get better at identifying them.
Sustainable – Mountain Gorilla Trekking Ecotourism
Mountain gorilla treks in Uganda and DR Congo are great sustainable ecotourism models supported by local government, residents, and conservation groups. Uganda even has a conservation economy that prioritizes conservation as an economic value. Mountain gorillas are endangered species, in a vulnerable natural habitat surrounded by high-densities of rural farmers. A sustainable model of ecotourism in the region protects both gorillas and includes the livelihood of local residents.
Environmental: The presence of tourists deter poachers, and encourages local governments to implement protection of the gorillas. Gorilla populations are increasing as a result of sustainable ecotourism.
Economic: Locals are offered stable employment opportunities as guides, trackers, and anti-poaching guards. Many of them are ex-poachers which reduces the poaching threat even more so. US$428,000 was directly invested in Rwandan communities over a five-year period helping locals build schools, enact locally-driven environmental projects, and aid food securities.
Social: Cultural exchange between local guides and tourists enhances cultural and environmental education. Local guides are able to showcase years of local expertise and take pride in their culture and nature.
Interested in learning more about ethical moutnain gorilla treks? Kesi from Kesi to and Fro created an awesome guest post detailing her first hand experience seeing mountain gorillas in the wild. You even have the chance to join her on a group trip to Uganda to work with local tour operators to support conservation, boost the local economy, and engage in cultural exchange. Learn more about sustainble gorilla trekking!
Unsustainable – Machu Picchu Ecotreks
Ecotourism in Machu Picchu has exploded over the last decade. Tourism in the region has grown unchecked with both international and local tour companies capitalizing on the economic benefit of a booming industry. However, tourism grew to unsustainable levels focusing primarily on the economy rather than the environment or social aspects. This is a prime example of when ecotourism turns into mass-overtourism.
Photo by Alan Hurt Jr. Unsplash
Environment: Mass development in the region surrounding Machu Picchu threatens South America’s last remaining pocket of the Andean cloud forest. Increased waste from humans adds to air and water pollution. Heavy foot traffic damages the fragile Paramo grasslands. Noise pollution contributed to the disappearance of the Andean condors from the region. Migrating and breeding patterns of threatened animals have changed.
Economic: During the off-season, most workers and guides are left without work or stable year-round income. Tourism leakage, where locals do not benefit as much as they should from tourism in the region is problematic.
Social: Portions of the city are sliding downhill causing damage to a cultural and historic icon. Visitors have defaced, broken, and damaged parts of the city. An increase in cheaply made trinkets has caused a decline in local artisanal craftwork. Overall the region has suffered a loss of cultural authenticity. The visitor experience has suffered greatly too with packed trails, and long waits.
*This does not mean that all Machu Picchu treks are bad. You can still visit, but be respectful as you visit, support local tour operators, respect permits, buy quality souvenirs, pay additional fees, and follow all instructions from your guide to minimize your impact. You should also consider other ways to learn about the history of the region or find an alternative hike.
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Tips for Planning a Sustainable Ecotour
By now you should have a pretty good idea of what constitutes sustainable ecotourism and be able to identify if your next nature-based adventure checks some of these boxes, but here are my top tips to help you get started.
Read Their About Page
You can tell a lot about a tour operator by looking at their “about” page. I always say the more details the better. Tour companies, hotels, and excursions near vulnerable nature and communities should freely offer up a lot of detailed information about how they are hitting that triple bottom line. If any one of the three pillars of sustainable ecotourism is missing from their mission statement or is not easily accessible online that is your first major red flag. Browse the website to see how they are supporting the environment, local economic development, and cultural conservation.
Look for Greenwashing
There is the possibility that companies will engage in greenwashing, presenting information on their website that makes for a convincing sustainable ecotourism model. Some signs companies are greenwashing is when they offer vague information, general statements about committing to sustainability without examples, or put customer satisfaction and fun at the center of their advertising rather than social impact.
When in Doubt, Ask
I always recommend sending an email asking how they give back to the community, where your money goes, what local conservation efforts are, how they engage with local culture if they employ locals, etc.
Check Their Business model
Is sustainability part of their core mission or is it an afterthought? Research shows that companies that were built around a sustainable business model prioritizing social, economic, and environmental benefits to the local community are more likely to be ethical in the long-term. Companies that created a sustainable statement as an afterthought or in response to harmful behavior they were caught for are more likely to engage in damaging behavior. A great example of this is Carnival Cruises. Carnival has literal pages outlining their commitment to the environment, but this was created because a court ordered them, and not necessarily because they wanted it. Look for companies that were founded with the intent of creating a positive impact. This information is often included in an origin story or about section.
Find the Owner
Who owns the company? Is it locally owned? Google the name of the owner. For example, many cruise lines and resorts appear to be small boutique companies, but they are owned by large international conglomerates. If in doubt Google, “Who owns X eco-resort.”
Look for certifications, read reviews, and internet stalk them. Look for environmental warnings, report cards, read comments on their social media, and dig up any information you can find.
Self Planning? Carefully Craft Your Itinerary
If you are self-planning carefully identify each hotel and excursion operator to see how they engage in the triple-bottom-line. Research environmental concerns in the area. For example – did you know you should clean your shoes in Hawai’i before entering protected natural areas? Learn about Indigenous and local culture and history. Be aware of local etiquette for engaging in nature.