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As time passes, the world has gradually become more interconnected, and individuals have developed a keen interest in different cultures and a desire to experience them firsthand. The tourism industry is a rapidly expanding global sector and plays a significant role in the world’s GDP.

Despite its economic benefits, tourism can have adverse environmental impacts. According to a 2022 study, tourism contributes to almost 8 per cent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, with the majority arising from food and waste management practices. Travelling is an exciting part of life, and we should not be deprived of it, but can you do so sustainably?

One form of sustainable tourism that emerged in the 1980s is ecotourism.  Is ecotourism the balance we are looking for between sustainable tourism development and nature conservation?

The concept of ecotourism is based on the principle of travelling responsibly to natural areas that safeguard the integrity of the ecosystem and at the same time channel tourism revenues into support for conservation and local development.

Ecotourism is a specific kind of tourism, distinguished from nature tourism and outdoor recreation by its conservation and development goals that ensure a positive feedback loop between tourism and conservation. In short, ecotourism is a holistic approach that combines the conservation of natural habitats, the welfare of local communities, and sustainable travel practices.

One of the most significant advantages of ecotourism is its ability to support conservation efforts. Ecotourism destinations are usually located in areas with high levels of biodiversity.

By promoting ecotourism in these areas, governments and conservation organisations can create incentives for local communities to conserve their natural resources and protect the natural landscapes, making conservation a sustainable and economically viable option.

One of the most significant advantages of ecotourism is its ability to support conservation efforts

Ecotourism also has the potential to bring about economic diversification and promote growth in local communities, particularly those living in or near protected areas. It offers an alternative livelihood for local residents who rely on wildlife and ecosystem services, such as logging and commercial farming.

By transitioning to work in ecotourism, they can reduce their dependence on natural resources. This is especially significant in developing countries where economic progress often results in environmental damage. Ecotourism can provide income and employment opportunities for local people by promoting locally-owned businesses and offering authentic cultural experiences. As a result, it can contribute to the overall improvement of living standards in the entire community.

Ecotourism has the potential to create ripple effects that extend beyond the communities and regions where it is practiced by influencing the behaviour of ecotourists. It allows individuals to experience and appreciate the natural beauty of our planet, often in areas that are typically inaccessible or protected.

For instance, visitors can explore remote forests, observe endangered species, and learn about the cultural heritage of indigenous communities. These unique environments and cultures provide visitors with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the value of conservation efforts. The knowledge and experiences gained through ecotourism can also translate into opportunities for conservation action in their own communities.

However, it’s important to note that not all forms of tourism labelled as “ecotourism” are sustainable. Some operators may use the term as a marketing tool without adhering to sustainable practices. Those involved in planning, participating in, and promoting ecotourism must adhere to the following principles: foster environmental and cultural consciousness and respect; offer direct financial benefits for conservation efforts; generate economic advantages for both the local population and private industry; provide visitors with informative experiences that raise awareness of the political, environmental, and social situation of the host country; construct and operate facilities that have minimal environmental impact and collaborate with the local communities to promote empowerment.

Despite the numerous advantages of ecotourism, it also poses some challenges that must be tackled to ensure its sustainability. The growing influx of tourists can have adverse effects on the environment and local communities, particularly if the tourism industry is not managed properly. To address these issues, it is vital to establish sustainable tourism management plans that consider the ecosystems’ carrying capacity and involve local communities in decision-making processes. In short, to fulfill the promise of ecotourism, policymakers, promoters, and participants should guarantee that all tourism activities have minimal environmental impact, are welcomed by local communities, and promote stable and equitable economic development.

In conclusion, a symbiotic and complex relationship between the environment and tourist activities can be achieved by implementing suitable policies, careful planning, and skillful execution. Well-planned and managed ecotourism sites, with local involvement, have the potential to provide direct advantages that can offset the impact of other, less sustainable activities that utilise natural and cultural resources.

By Zoe Makridou, Conservation Officer