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How to Be an Ecotourist

After the 1992 Earth Summit, “ecotourism” became the environmental movement’s new buzzword. Many see it as an important remedy for the environmental and economic problems of underdeveloped nations. Ecotourism is not only a complex conservation and development strategy aimed at balancing economic development with environmental protection and conservation of cultural traditions, it is also a grassroots strategy to develop sustainable tourism projects on a small and localized scale.

To draw more attention to sustainable development and environmental protection, the United Nations declared 2002 the “International Year of Ecotourism.” Seminars and conferences were held all over the world, including the World Ecotourism Summit in Quebec, Canada in May and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa in September (see Ron Mader, “What to Do in 2002” in the January/February 2002 issue of Transitions Abroad). According to the UN resolution, ecotourism has a special importance “in fostering better understanding among peoples everywhere, in leading to greater awareness of the rich heritage of various civilizations and in bringing about a better appreciation of the inherent values of different cultures, thereby contributing to the strengthening of world peace.”

Theory and Practice

But despite the ongoing efforts by international organizations to promote sustainable alternatives to mass tourism, ecotourism is far from becoming universally recognized and practiced. For one thing, ecotourism has no universally recognized standards. As a result of this lack of consensus, ecotourism is easily confused with nature or adventure tourism—which rarely prioritize environmental concerns.

While it is easy to use the prefix “eco” to make a travel business appear environmentally responsible, successful ecotourism requires a delicate balance between profit and preservation, between individual gain and community benefit, and between government intervention and community control. The success of a project is mainly dependent on how well these complex and often contradictory elements are integrated. The challenge lies in distinguishing a successful project from one that only pretends to be sustainable or ecological.

Promises and Pitfalls

The promise of ecotourism for underdeveloped regions is that for the first time local communities have the opportunity to profit economically from preserving their environment and cultural traditions. Where rivers have been overfished, for example, the native population may now earn a living by guiding foreign visitors through the same environment they were depleting earlier. By sharing and participating in a different way of life, travelers develop respect and understanding for a different culture.

Because remote and traditional cultures are especially fragile, it is important to understand how native and local communities are affected by foreign visitors. Climbing Venezuela’s Monte Roraima, led by a native guide, I noticed that the Pemón Indians no longer followed their traditional way of life. According to native traditions, Monte Roraima is sacred and should not be disturbed by humans. But today the Indians do little else than wait for locally operated jeep tours to bring foreign tourists to their village for the 6-day trek to the remote mountain plateau. The chief’s main responsibility was to refer guides to the arriving hikers and to agree on a price.

National parks, nature reserves, and other protected areas are ideal locations for ecotourism, but projects in such areas can only be successful if the needs of the locals are integrated in their conservation strategies. I visited a remote nature reserve in the Brazilian Amazon that prohibited logging, fishing, and hunting of any kind. A forest ranger showed me a locker full of confiscated fishing and hunting gear. While the reserve is certainly justified from an ecological viewpoint, the locals in this remote area resent the fact that they are no longer allowed to pursue those traditional activities that they depend upon for their livelihood. How can locals possibly be in favor of preservation if it means the sudden loss of their hunting and fishing privileges?

It’s the Traveler’s Choice

As long as there are no binding rules or guidelines, the quality of ecotourism projects depends upon the choices travelers make. Ecotourism as a viable alternative to mainstream tourism can only survive if consumers demand the highest possible standards and stay away from businesses that do not meet them. In order to make informed decisions, travelers need to get detailed information about the business or organization they intend to travel with and familiarize themselves with the goals and concepts of ecotourism.

• Ask questions before you book a trip and find out if the company actually maintains a low-impact and sustainable business.

• Get detailed information about what services and features are offered: Is the “ecotour” a motorized excursion to view nature, or do you have the opportunity to walk, paddle, or climb? Is there enough time to enjoy your stay, or are visitors quickly guided through the area? Are resources and waste well managed? Are the guides knowledgeable and understanding of travelers’ needs and expectations? Are the encounters with the local population brief and superficial, or do travelers have the opportunity to interact with them and experience their way of life? Are local cultural traditions respected? Who benefits most from your participation? Do the local communities have a substantial share in the profit, or do they only marginally benefit from a project that supposedly supports their sustainable economic development?

Travelers can make a difference for threatened ecosystems and cultural traditions by making responsible and conscientious choices.

VOLKER POELZL is the author of Culture Shock! Brazil and Culture Shock! Portugal. He has lived and traveled extensively in the Brazilian Amazon and is currently working on a book about this fascinating region.