ecotourism, green travel, sustainable travel

Ecotourism: What Makes Travel Truly Eco-Friendly?

November 17, 2009
by Sarah Amandolare
Lately it seems as if every tour operator and destination is touting some type of eco-tour. But how can travelers determine whether a claim of greenness is authentic or just capitalizing on a trend? The concept of ecotourism is actually quite simple, but not so easy to fulfill.

What Is Eco-Tourism?

According to Charles Timko of Indie Travel Podcast, ecotourism "can often be nothing less than the complete exploitation of an indigenous people and a detriment to the environment." How to avoid such a scenario? "It is only ecotourism if it raises awareness and finances the further protection of the area and wildlife you are experiencing."

To find a true eco-tour, there are some qualities to look for, according to Timko. First off, seek out companies certified by The International Ecotourism Society, and try to book with an educational, rather than entertainment-focused, company. Licensed tour guides are also crucial to an authentic ecotourism experience. 

It's also wise to ask key questions before you book, as you'll want to determine whether a company's employment practices, environmental impact and tour group sizes (small groups have less environmental impact) are up to snuff. Remember that it usually costs a company to gain an ecotourism certification, which can raise their tour prices. In addition, some companies cannot afford the certification, but still abide by standards of ecotourism, so ask questions, advises Timko.

Finding an Ecotourism Company

Begin your search for an eco-vacation at the official Web site of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). Visit the ecoDestinations section for links to sustainable tourism companies, such as Intrepid Travel, plus deals on sustainable tours (often seasonal), and auctions that allow travelers to bid on eco-travel packages, donating proceeds to TIES. The TIES-affiliated blog, Your Travel Choice, is also a valuable tool for hearing about ecotourism, tour providers and general news relating to sustainable travel.

For more travel options, peruse the EcoTour Directory, which features information on 95 ecotourism companies abiding by specific principles in line with TIES. For example, consider a trip to the Peruvian jungle, where you'll stay in an Amazonian village and experience daily indigenous life.

How Ecotourism Is Evolving

In Developing Countries

Cornell University's Peru Project in Vicos has been addressing third world development since 1952. "The goal of the project was to bring the indigenous population into the 20th century and integrate them into the market economy and Peruvian society," according to the Cornell Web site. In video interviews with residents of Vicos, aspects of authentic ecotourism are revealed: Tourists help locals with vital chores, while local children are introduced to foreign culture. There is also footage of an interview with ecotourism specialist Miriam Torres, who suggests that, when done correctly, tourism can actually help preserve a culture.

In Cities

In an article for The Globe and Mail, Jason McBride discussed the emerging ecotourism trend in big cities. In London, travelers can join the three-hour Cutting Edge Green Tour, a walking tour of eco-friendly buildings and businesses throughout the city. Stops along the way include "London's first five-star green hotel" and an organic food shop. McBride says the trend is taking off everywhere "[f]rom Delhi to Portland," and there are tours for walkers or cyclists, or via public transportation.

Part of the appeal of urban green tours is a growing desire among travelers to "reduce their footprint," which requires knowing where a city's sustainable restaurants are, and which hotels and green spaces are most eco-friendly. According to McBride, "these tours are often the best sources for such information."

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