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What is ecotourism?

Ecotourism – give the planet a holiday

A holiday – whether an exotic beach break or an extreme adventure – is one of our favourite luxuries. But more and more of us are becoming aware of the impact our holidays could have on the environment.

If you're keen to make your next holiday eco-friendly, read on. We've got tips on how to reduce your carbon footprint, use less plastic and boost local economies.

Ecotourism - young traveller on holiday

Why do we need greener travel?

Tourism can have positive effects. It injects money into local economies, and can increase awareness of issues in a region, encouraging charity donations. (Think of all the donations to anti-poaching charities that are prompted by a safari holiday.)

But poorly managed tourism can harm the local environment and its communities. Plus, there's no getting around the fact that air travel contributes to climate change.

Here are some of the problems.

  • Habitat destruction – Sensitive habitats are sometimes cleared away to make room for holiday resorts.
  • Carbon emissions – Worldwide, flights were responsible for 895 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018, according to the Air Transport Action Group.
  • Footfall erosion – Some popular ancient sites, like the Coliseum in Rome, Parthenon in Athens and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, are being damaged by millions of feet.
  • Loss of heritage and identity – It's fascinating to discover a different way of life, but commercialisation can wipe out local customs and traditions. It's become such a real problem that a word has been coined in Barcelona, parquetematización, the act of becoming a theme park.
  • Unreliable incomes – Though tourism can generate money and jobs in a community, popular resorts can become ghost towns in the off-season or if travel trends change.

What is ecotourism?

Ecotourism can have a different meaning depending on who you speak to. It's sometimes called sustainable tourism, but essentially it's about greener, environmentally conscious travel.

As an ecotourist, you travel in a way that doesn't have a negative impact on the environment or shows an active effort to lessen your impact on nature.

Another principle of ecotourism includes understanding the needs of the local people so that you can benefit their way of life.

And many definitions of ecotourism include learning more about the history of other places and preserving historical landmarks.

Ecotourism benefits

By following the principles of ecotourism, the International Ecotourism Society (IES) outlines that your holiday could have these benefits:

  • Minimise physical, social, behavioural and psychological impacts.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both ecotourists and locals.
  • Generate money for conservation.
  • Benefit financially both local people and private industry.
  • Support the building and running of low-impact resorts.
  • Empower indigenous peoples and recognise their rights and spiritual beliefs.

Ecotourism holidays

There are many companies which offer packaged ecotourism holidays. You have the option of visiting undisturbed natural habitats as well as popular cities in a way that's greener.

What makes a holiday eco-friendly?

There are lots of ways a resort or hotel might operate in a more eco-friendly and sustainable way. Things to look out for include:

  • Using renewable energy
  • Biodegradable toiletries
  • Composting toilets
  • Rainwater collection
  • Donating profits to local communities and charities
  • A recycling scheme
  • Using local resources

Are ecotourism holidays a bit hypocritical?

You might think that the very nature of taking a holiday is against ecotourism – surely staying home and not taking a flight is better?

Yet spending in local industries and supporting communities to preserve landmarks and wildlife could balance out that initial flight. An alternative income can go some way towards eliminating unsustainable agriculture, logging and other habitat destroying businesses.

How can I have more eco-friendly holidays?

If you do love your holidays, there are many ways to make your travel greener.

Visiting a remote eco lodge is one way, but there are also lots of eco-conscious hotels in cities and beach destinations too.

Plus, there are a few simple steps you can follow to reduce the impact of any holiday, regardless of where you're visiting.

1. Planes, trains and automobiles

  • Take a train to lower your carbon footprint.
  • Hop on a bus rather than hail a taxi.
  • Walk if it's safe and manageable.
  • Try a road trip rather than a flight – especially if you use an electric car.
  • If you do have to fly, some companies let you work out the most efficient route to take.

2. Shop locally
By shopping at local stores, eating at independent restaurants and buying local products, you're injecting cash right into the community.

So even if big brands are importing their goods from all over the world instead of using homegrown, you're not contributing to the unnecessary transportation of products.

3. Pick a local tour operator
Booking a tour or an experience with a true local means you're giving back to the local economy directly, but you can also ask questions about how to benefit the area.

4. Use less plastic
This advice applies when you're not on holiday too, but try to avoid leaving a trail of plastic.

  • Take a reusable bottle if you're heading out exploring and refill in local cafes or restaurants.
  • If you can do without, say no to single-use cutlery.
  • Buy fruit and veg from local vendors and sellers and not prepackaged.

5. Leave wildlife where it belongs

  • Watch out for items made with exotic shells or hardwood as these may come from endangered species.
  • Items made of animal products like fur, bone or ivory could come from illegal poaching.

6. Reuse towels and bedding
Many hotels now leave a note about your laundry options. If you want to reuse towels for your stay, for example, leave them hung up. If you leave them on the floor or in the bath or shower, they'll be replaced.

7. Visit somewhere with a green record
The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) lists the best countries to visit based on their 'environmental health and ecosystem vitality.' The top 10 eco-friendly nations reported in their 2018 end of year report were:

  • Switzerland
  • France
  • Denmark
  • Malta
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom
  • Luxembourg
  • Austria
  • Ireland
  • Finland

8. Offset your carbon emissions
When you pay for your flights, many companies give you the option of donating to a carbon offsetting incentive.

You can also find here a list of carbon offset projects to donate towards.

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