Ecotourism nowadays accounts for more than 25% of the world’s travel market. And that’s a good thing, right? I mean, anything with the word “eco” in it can’t be that bad. Just as anything with the word “tourism” in it can’t be that good. So, it seems that what we have ourselves here, ladies and gentlemen, is an oxymoron.
First things first, what is ecotourism?
Ecotourism, as defined by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), is “environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.” Simply put, ecotourism is a way of travelling that is supposed to result in a net positive environmental impact, rather than a negative one.
Having said that, there are many who question the fact that tourism, a commercially-driven activity, can be genuinely eco-friendly.
First of all, travelling, in most cases, requires fuel. Except in the case of short distance travel, where there are many eco-friendly options, such as walking or cycling, long distances unavoidably require travelling by air or by sea. This, evidently, comes at a cost for the environment.
Beyond that, tourism is almost always accompanied by certain infrastructures and amenities. Tourists require lavatory breaks, they require refreshments. Incidentally, once pristine “eco-destinations” become tainted by tourism. The tourists themselves, who are under the impression that they are leaving only footprints behind, wear down once untrodden paths, contribute to erosion and amplify waste pollution.
And then there’s the cherry on the cake: tourism is a commercial activity. For it to be profitable it must be scaled up. An interesting article by the Guardian, questioning the “eco-ness” of ecotourism, gives several examples of how eco-tourism amplified to a massive scale negatively impacts ecosystems that have peacefully existed for years. Animals are jittered because of the large influxes of tourists, plants are commodified, and the daily lives of local inhabitants are disrupted.
So, the question is, can there really be such a thing as eco-friendly tourism?
At a glance, it seems impossible. Anywhere we go, we inescapably leave a trace of our visit behind. And there are, at the moment, few viable ways to reach our desired eco-destinations without causing pollution. So, we end up doing more harm just to get to our destinations than whatever the good we intend to do there. It seems that, for the time being, there can be no sustainable form of organised tourism. But could there be a sustainable form of independent wandering?
In one way or another, all the “hot” eco-tourism destinations were discovered as a result of independent wandering.
People went on journeys and came across places and habitats so remarkable that they naturally had to share their experiences with others. And so the word spread. And people spread like flies to those places, causing them to lose some of that “remarkability”. So, perhaps, eco-tourism can only be sustainable as a form of silent wandering. A “see but don’t tell” kind of thing. Perhaps, the appreciation of nature ought not to be a collective, commercially-driven activity. After all, if you are an eco-minded person, you’ll be “eco” in your travels as well. You don’t need to join the eco-tourism gang and wear “I <3 green” stickers. Unless you want to, of course. We don’t judge.