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What the heck is Ecotourism?

Ecotourism is often a very hard-fought and passionate topic to talk about. On the one side there are the strong believers in its great potential and its positive impact, whereas on the other side there are those who just label it as an empty marketing tool, invented to generate even more profit from already highly fragile ecosystems.

I chose to study Ecotourism after my B.A. in Tourism Management, because I had the strong feeling when I got awarded my B.A. degree that what I learned was enough for me. Skills in finance, marketing, accounting and management are highly valuable and I am very glad I am skilled in those areas. But I wanted to apply them for something more meaningful and future-orientated. When I found  the M.Sc. course in Ecotourism at Edinburgh Napier University I didn’t hesitate a second. It was the perfect combination of my love for travelling and my interest in sustainability.

“Ecotourism is defined as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. It is about uniting conservation, communities and sustainable travel.” (TIES, 2015). Ecotourism and sustainable tourism are often used as synonyms and in a lot of cases they are interchangeable. But the fine difference is, that Ecotourism is based on interaction. The tourism experience should be educational and beneficial for both sides, the traveller and the community being visited.

Now, half a year after being handed my degree I thought I have a wee look back and deliberate. There are a lot of bad examples of Ecotourism out there, which I was also aware of during my studies. There is lot of greenwashing as well and according to recent news The International Ecotourism Society is falling to pieces. Also, rarely anyone in my social circle I chatted with about Ecotourism could give me a good example from the top of their heads. Most people tell you about the negative aspects of sustainable conduct/business policies they came across. But Ecotourism can open up amazing opportunities and if done correctly can have a great positive impact. It is a long-term strategy though, no short-term way to maximise profit. It also has to be seen and managed as a profession, not just as a philosophy and a believe (Haroon, 2015).

I am also a strong believer that positive examples are far more helpful and engaging than negative ones. The best example for that, that I ever came across is Gut Aiderbichl in Austria, which is not an Ecotourism business, but it proves my point. It is a rescue center for animals, but it is thriving with positivity, energy and love for life and has become a big touristic magnet in the area.

The Explorama Lodge in Peru is a good example for ecotourism in action.

The Explorama Lodge in Peru is a good example for ecotourism in action.

In order for you to visualisze the positive effects of ecotourism I would like to introduce you to two examples from Peru. They show that it can work and what Ecotourism looks like in practise.

Neotropical Primate Conservation (NPC), which is based in La Esperanza, Peru, is a registered charity dedicated to the conservation of primates and their habitat in the tropical rainforests of South and Central America. Their focus is on recognizing that local people have the interest and capacity to conserve their own forests. Thus they are working with them to create new conservation areas, control hunting, spread environmental awareness, and pursue opportunities for sustainable development such as community based ecotourism.  This community tourism project  is part of the commitment to develop sustainable economic alternatives to benefit the local communities who work with them conserving forest habitats and species in South and Central America. Community tourism allows the visitor the opportunity to experience life in rural communities and to easily visit sites of interest off the beaten track. So if you like wildlife, adventure, culture or just want to hang out and get to know a new way of life or take a walk in a tropical forest to see what you can find give them a shout. They can tailor everything to your needs. All is paid on location, to the different local providers of services, so you see directly who is benefitting from the money. At the moment bookings should be made via email to NPC directly, but on the long run it is planned that the tourists get directly in contact with the community for bookings. The abundance of wildlife in that area is stunning and prepare yourself for an adventurous holiday, with loads of wildlife watching and an amazing time. But just to make clear, this is not a 5* luxury holiday experience, you will get your hands dirty.

The offers of Rainforest Expeditions ,which is also operating in Peru at the Rio Tambopata, are more luxurious. The whole project started as a research project, but when the funding ceased the three initiators reconstructed the research site to a tourism lodge, focussing on tourists that want to get to know the rainforest. In 1996 members of the little community Infierno approached them if it wouldn’t be possible to work on that project together.  Compared to other lodges, the Posada Amazonas is owned by the community and not by an investor and profit is distributed once per year in April with 60% going to the community. The other 40% go to Rainforest Expeditions. The plan for the future is that in 2019 the community should be able to solve everything by themselves. Rainforest Expeditions will be withdrawing bit by bit. Something else has changed through the project: The village has it is own social insurance now, with an education fond, health insurance and care in old age. Here as well, you can go on classical rainforest expeditions, enjoy wildlife watching, birdwatching and have a lovely adventurous time in close contact with nature. The rooms at the lodges just have three walls and the communal areas have none. So you are always in close contact with nature (zeo²;1/2015; p68-69).

If you are more into city trips check out Green City Trips, which offers tips and recommendations on eco-friendly things to do and places to stay in city travel destinations around the world.

I hope I was able to give a bit of an insight what Ecotourism should be like, what positive effects it can have and solve the confusion. Again and again I feel inspired and awed by the amazing work people do, and what can be done if you find the right percentage of passion, philosophy and beliefs mixed with forward thinking, professional knowledge and business skills.

Do you have any positive examples of Ecotourism that you want to share?

Photo Credit: Anoldent via flickr.com

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