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What is Ecotourism?

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Ecotourism is one of those trendy but confusing words that can make you wonder, "Is this for real or are they trying to sell me something?"

Ecotourists strive to learn about the culture and the natural environment they're visiting.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Possibly both, which is why it pays to know what the concept refers to so that you know what questions to ask if you'd like to find a vacation destination where your footprint on the local culture, the environment and climate will have the lightest impact.

True ecotourism involves travel that conserves, not stresses, the environment and respects and promotes the well-being of the local citizens. It also engages in education about other cultures and the environment in which they exist and ideally should contribute in some way to preserving that culture and its natural surroundings.

The International Ecotourism Society provides some basic principles. Ecotourism should:

  • Minimize physical, social, behavioral and psychological impacts.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
  • Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental and social climates.
  • Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
  • Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the indigenous people in the community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.

Overall, what that means is to leave your demands and preconceptions at home and be open to what you find wherever you are going.

Here are some things Ecotourism is NOT:

It's not about comfort. If you require a certain level of services and amenities and a predictable experience, Ecotourism may not be for you. If it's unsettling to you not to have cell phone or Internet service, and food you're unfamiliar with freaks you out, it may be better to pass.

If you feel uncomfortable interacting with strangers who have differing customs and attitudes and it makes you uneasy to hear languages you don't understand, you're not a good candidate for ecotourism. That's especially true if you tend to think your way of living and thinking is the gold standard.

If your preferred vacation involves activities that stress the area's ecosystem, whether it's tramping through protected areas or engaging in an extreme adventure activity that jeopardizes a fragile environment, you're just not an ecotraveler.

But if you travel to find out more about the world and its people and learn about their customs and concerns in an open and respectful way; if you try to make sure that your presence doesn't put a strain on your destination and the people who live there; if you're good at traveling light; then you're already an ecotourist.

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