Green tourism, sustainable tourism, nature tourism, bio-tourism, ecotourism… At first glance these terms may seem counter-intuitive. We know that air travel is a major contributor to carbon emissions, and that human expansion creates pollution and habitat destruction. Jetting around the world to leave post-picnic rubbish in areas of outstanding natural beauty, traffic noise scaring wildlife out of their habitats - there are plenty of imaginable scenarios in which tourism has only a negative impact on the landscape. Ecotourism is not an oxymoron – it’s a response to this negative influence. It’s an attempt not only to reduce the impact of tourism, but, where possible, to make it a positive force for change.
So, who are the ecotourists seeking out these experiences? It could be any person at all – but they have two things in common. Firstly, they have a thirst for travel and exploration and secondly, they are aware of the impact of tourism and want to take steps to leave only a tiny, or invisible, footprint. Ecotourists want to travel in a way that causes the least pollution; to stay in accommodation run by local people who care about the area, environmentally, economically and socially; to take part in activities that show them the beauty and diversity of the natural world without contributing to its destruction.
As our understanding of climate change and the environment has increased, the ecotourism industry has only grown. Ecotourist businesses range from wilderness camps and lodges to treetop walking experiences and whale-watching boat trips. Here in Australia, ecotourism is considered ‘ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation’. There are many contributing factors to this definition from Ecotourism Australia, demonstrating that the concept of ecotourism is a holistic one.
The first principle is sustainability. Eco-lodges and other wilderness-based accommodation often have purpose-built, environmentally friendly facilities that comply with green building codes, ensuring that the impact of construction and the ongoing impacts of managing the building – heating, cooling and so on – are minimised. The Karijini Eco Retreat in Western Australia is one of only a handful of certified eco-lodges in the country. It incorporates natural ventilation, solar power and the use of recycled materials into the running of its semi-permanent Eco Tent structures. The retreat operates within a national park and is owned by the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, highlighting another aspect of ecotourism – fostering cultural understanding and recognising the rights of Indigenous peoples.
The only aspect that unifies all ecotourist destinations, however, is a focus on nature. Whether it’s a high-end outback retreat where guests can immerse themselves in the peace and stillness of the desert from the comfort of a safari tent, or a basic forest campsite maintained by a national parks authority, ecotourism is all about spending time in the natural environment we have largely banished from our cities. Ecotourist businesses can contribute directly to the preservation of those environments by donating part or all of their proceeds to conservation. Imagine Cruises in Port Stephens, NSW, is a whale- and dolphin-watching tour operator which contributes a proportion of the sale of every ticket to the Marine Parks Association. The business was also involved in creating a fund which sponsored research by Macquarie University into the dolphins of the area.
More generally, these kinds of contributions are collected in the form of park entry fees. A study in 2015 found that there are roughly 8 billion visits to terrestrial protected areas every year (Balmford et al.). By charging a nominal entry fee, parks like Kakadu are able to develop and continue conservation and research programmes while maintaining the infrastructure of the protected area. Tourists can also participate in ranger-led tours at an additional cost, which is another essential aspect of ecotourism: interpretation. Guides and interpretive materials, like detailed signage, foster an understanding of the significance of the natural area in its visitors, imbuing them with knowledge that will spur them on to protect it.
There are, however, critics of so-called ‘egotourism’ who claim that ecotourists want to feel or be seen to be making ethical travel decisions for selfish reasons, rather than out of a genuine concern for sustainability. Whale-watching has been linked to disruptions in feeding patterns, stress, and habitat changes among whales. There have been suggestions that increased exposure to humans can make prey animals too docile and therefore more vulnerable to predators.
In an attempt to address these concerns, a recent study examined the effect of ecotourism on a number of different species (Buckley et al., 2016). Using population viability analysis, they found that for the majority of species surveyed, ecotourism had a positive impact. It wasn’t universal, however – for example, sea lions in New Zealand were adversely affected by the disturbance at haul-out sites. The principles of ecotourism are not necessarily enough to protect species; business practices must be rigorously monitored to ensure that they actually benefit the species from which they make their income. Ecotourists can and should take it upon themselves to assess destinations and attractions individually to ensure that they are ‘eco’ in practice as well as in principle.
Knowing what we do about the negative effects of tourism, can we ever really justify tourism as environmentalists? The answer is yes, absolutely. It’s a personal experience that makes us care about the world we live in. Maybe we can appreciate images of the sandstone escarpments of the Kimberley when we see them on TV or on the internet, but we can’t feel the heat of the rock beneath our hands or the rush as a flock of cockatoos bursts out of the trees. It’s human nature; we can’t detach and think of the environment only in terms of numbers and percentages. The opportunity for ordinary people – not only ecologists – to experience the natural world is absolutely vital to its conservation. People protect what they care about, and ecotourism is one way for them to discover it.
Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.
Banner image courtesy of Alex Mullarky.