When the phrase, ‘eco tourism’ first emerged back in the 1980’s, it was considered to be a curiosity for the minority, but 30 years on the phenomena has grown to be a multi-million pound, worldwide industry that currently offers more choices than even the most ardent eco-phile could work their way through in a lifetime.
Eco tourism can mean different things to different people, but the most widely accepted meaning of the term is for low-impact, small-scale tourism, to environments that are fragile, pristine and generally in need of conservation. If the traveller is educated by the experience, provides funds through his/her visit for ecological conservation, or directly benefits local communities, then they are an eco tourist.
The eco tourism choices on offer tend to fall into two broad categories, those trips where the tourist simply goes to look and learn without having any direct impact on the local environment or culture, and the more proactive trips that involve the tourist actively contributing to a project or programme that directly benefits the local environment, its human inhabitants or wildlife. The latter could be anything from helping to count the bat population in Borneo, to working on an agricultural irrigation project in Central Africa.
Such is the range of specific tours currently on offer that it would be impossible to provide a definitive list in this article, but websites like responsibletravel.com and iexplore.co.uk, along with many others, have listings for all types of experiences.
Offerings currently available in the eco market include the well publicised and popular, like visiting the mountain gorillas in Central Africa or seeing giant pandas in their natural habitat in China, while iexplore have tours that include helping to build a school in a remote village in Laos, or experiencing a wilderness adventure in Finland, including dog-sledding and snowmobile trips.
It would be wrong to assume that trips involving work on humanitarian projects are inexpensive as a consequence. Earning the feel-good factor can be expensive, and as an example the aforementioned Laos school trip costs GBP1,049 per person for 11 days, exclusive of flights, but bed and breakfast accommodation is included.
Opinions will continue to differ on the positive or negative impact of eco tourism, and there is no doubt that the justification varies dramatically from trip to trip and project to project. The argument that opening up endangered animal species or remote human communities to gawping outsiders can exert undue influences on normal life is a valid one. But just as valid is the premise that in these profit-driven times, communities or animal environments that are not seen to be self-sustaining and relevant will always be in danger of being swept aside by the outside-world’s relentless appetite for land and resources.
Eco tourism undoubtedly brings much-needed funds and publicity to these otherwise vulnerable existences, and to that end, most environmentalists will consider it the lesser of two evils and hope that it sustains its present burgeoning levels of popularity.