Sustainable Tourism: making ecotourism work

Fiona Harvey

Travellers are increasingly looking beyond the ‘greenwash’ for proof of travel companies’ commitment to environmental sustainability. The value of ecotourism may also be judged by whether it provides economic opportunities for communities where livelihoods are otherwise under threat.

Planning a holiday is something people look forward to – half the fun is in the anticipation. For an increasing number of us, the crucial questions of where, when and what facili­ties are on offer are now joined by another set of criteria – how environmentally sustainable is my destination?

Ecotourism provides a way for travellers to ensure that the ef­fects of their holidays go beyond suntans, snapshots and happy memories, to provide real and lasting benefits to the environment and communities. The primary motivation for most ecotourists is to minimise the impact of their leisure on the environment, but for ecotourism destinations, the benefits can be even broader.

Giulia Carbone, deputy head of the Business and Biodiversity Programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says: “Ecotourism can be a very powerful conservation strategy. Many conservation NGOs are now establishing ecotour­ism businesses linked to their conservation projects. Ecotourism businesses can provide sustainable livelihood alternatives for the local community, hence taking away pressure from the local envi­ronment. Also, they can help raise funds for projects.”

For holidaymakers seeking out ecotourist destinations, the be­wildering variety of locations on offer can pose a dilemma. An ever-increasing number of hotels and guest houses are laying claim to environmental credentials, anxious to broaden their appeal and, in some cases, save money through efficiencies that also preserve the environment. But is the claim of an ecotourism label enough to ensure real benefits?

How should the responsible traveller make a choice? One way is to look for destinations that describe themselves as eco-friendly. The difficulty with that is there is no single agreed-upon definition of ecotourism. Carbone explains: “Ecotourism is not a brand – it is a way to link conservation and business that can take place anywhere.”

Hotels may trumpet their eco-credentials but if you scratch the surface their claims are exposed, says Kym Cheatham, chief execu­tive of Ecotourism Australia. Cards left on bedside tables inviting guests to reuse their towels are usually portrayed as an environmen­tal measure, intended to save water and detergents. The real reason is more usually that, as laundry is one of the major running costs for any hotel, managers can save large amounts of money by encourag­ing customers to hold on to their linen for a little longer. Similarly, energy-saving technologies such as electrical wiring that turns off lights when the room is vacant also cut down on running costs.

Cheatham warns, “We would encourage travellers to look be­yond the marketing and look for independent assessment of a tour­ism operator’s environmental impact. There is too much ‘green­washing’ in tourism. Look beyond the words for on-the-ground proof of their commitment and action to being environmentally sustainable. Look for support of conservation and of local com­munities. Remember that not all nature tourism is eco-friendly.”

Energy and water efficiency are extremely important, and any ecotourist destination worth the name will have strategies for these, as well as for minimising waste, recycling, using environmentally sustainable and preferably local materials, sourcing organic or oth­er low-impact local food, generating renewable energy where pos­sible and avoiding pollution. But effective environmental manage­ment goes much further than these basics. Real ecotourism requires not just care for the environment but also – preferably – attention to local people. Cutting water use and economising on energy are only the start.

Ayako Ezaki, director of communications at The International Ecotourism Society, recommends looking for an independent seal of approval (such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria at and the tools of Responsible Tourism Report­ing at, which demonstrates a company’s ef­forts to implement and report on its sustainability initiatives.

Ezaki also advises that travellers seek out evidence to back up the marketing claims. She says, “I would recommend travellers looking to take an eco-friendly vacation to first look for clues in the way the hotel or the operator communicates about their engagement in ecotourism or about their commitment to sustainability – look at the ecotourism section of their website, sustainability reports, and so on. For example, do they call themselves ‘eco’, ‘green’, ‘responsible’ without offering any example? Or do they effectively tell the story of how their environmental efforts and sustainability practices actually make a difference for the local community and destination?”

Some ecotourism experts would go further, requiring that ho­tels and guest houses should obey environmental imperatives, but also provide tangible benefits – jobs, improvement programmes, biodiversity restoration projects and similar – to the communities in which they are based. Carbone of IUCN explains, “In our view, the only way the word ecotourism is used correctly is if it is linked to activities that conserve biodiversity and enhance local livelihoods.”

Hotels, travel companies and tour operators that have partnered with environmental or conservation organisations also have to meet exact­ing standards to gain such a cachet. IUCN, for instance, has formed an alliance with the European travel company Kuoni in order to offer a range of holidays with added benefits, and also publishes guides for hotel owners to improve their environmental performance.

Ensuring that local communities benefit can make for longer-term sustainability – of which financial sustainability is an essen­tial part. Ezaki says companies must make a healthy profit if they want to become a mainstay of the local community, “eco-tourism is important because it’s a conservation and sustainable develop­ment tool that is linked to economic opportunities. Successfully implementing ecotourism can expand economic opportunities for communities where other available options to sustain local liveli­hoods are not sustainable, financially or ecologically. Plus, due to its focus on authentic and educational experiences, ecotourism can also be a tool to preserve – or in some cases revive and keep thriv­ing – tangible and intangible heritage [such as local traditions and ways of life] that may otherwise be lost.”

She points to the Mapajo Indigenous Community Ecotourism Company in Bolivia, winner of a United Nations prize. The Tsi­mane community decided that its way of life was best preserved by opening up to people from around the world, rather than trying to cut itself off. The community came together to offer active holi­days to visitors, in traditionally built dwellings and with traditional food hunted, gathered and grown in the rainforest, to give travellers an authentic experience. Visitors can witness local people pursu­ing indigenous crafts such as weaving and making costumes for festivals.

Other examples include the Silver Naga luxury hotel in Laos, as­sisted by the IUCN, and working in harmony with a local tourism site of the Kang Nyui waterfall, developed as a tourist site by the people of the Na Duang village and the Vang Vieng organic farm. By offering a range of differing experiences, the people of this poor area of Laos can attract a wider variety of visitors.

Being an eco-traveller may be more satisfying than simply fol­lowing the herd to the usual resorts and attractions, but some careful preparation is involved. Responsible tourists will check that their destination is living up to its billing – seeking evidence from the company’s own website, for instance, or looking for independent verification in the form of standards or awards. As well as check­ing out price, location and TripAdvisor reviews, they will also add a few searching questions on environmental commitments, and opt for destinations that provide lasting benefits to the environment and to local communities.

About the author:

Fiona Harvey is Environment Correspondent at the Guardian


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