Tourism is bigger now than ever before. International tourist arrivals quadrupled between 1960 and 1990 and then doubled again between 1990 and 2010. The most remote places, from the Amazon rainforest to ice-bound Antarctic, have become respectable leisure destinations. No corner of the Earth remains untouched, and many countries rely on tourism for their income. This unparalleled growth in leisure travel has prompted concerns about its impact on fragile ecosystems and traditional communities and led to the appearance of ecotourism.
As adventurous travelers strayed off the path of a standard sea-sun-and-sand vacation, they rejected mass provision of package trips, searching instead for the pristine and the authentic. Ecotourism has became one of the ways the green sensitivities of affluent westerners manifest themselves. According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism combines travel to natural areas with principles of sustainability, conservation and direct benefits to local people. Martha Honey, a co-founder and co-Director of the Center on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development and the author of "Ecotourism and Sustainable Development," proposes an expanded definition, focusing on: minimizing impact, building environmental awareness, providing benefits to conservation and local people, respecting local culture and supporting human rights.
Ecotourism aims to reduce environmental impact that comes with mass tourism and its vast, often resource-heavy, infrastructure. This impact reduction includes using locally available, often traditional and, at other times, recycled materials and supporting designs of infrastructure that are environmentally friendly and that fit within traditions and sensibilities of local culture. Minimizing impact also means controlling numbers and acceptable behaviors of tourists. These efforts can range from limiting traffic on national park trails to controlling the numbers of game shot during community-run hunting expeditions. Another way to lessen the impact of tourism is to use renewable energy and to carefully dispose of waste. Culturally, ecotourism aims to respect the local communities and traditions, to alleviate the exploitive aspects of leisure travel and to benefit, rather than damage, the communities.
Ecotourism aims to teach as well as to entertain and relax. This objective applies to environmental as well as cultural matters. Visitors who participate in ecotourism projects should receive information on the ecology and conservation issues pertinent to the local area. Guides and other staff should be able to effectively communicate with the tourists, helping them to interpret the natural environment and pointing out the sensitive areas and fragile ecosystems. The cultural exchange important to ecotourism through which visitors learn about local customs and social mores should, ideally, involve sensitivity and balance. In many situations, traditions function as exotic backdrop for tourists, with locals compelled toward primitive and folksy affectation for the benefit of tourists seeking authenticity.
Ecotourism must provide direct financial benefits for conservation projects and environmental protection, either directly through charges for tours, admission fees and donations or indirectly through taxes on travel or accommodation. The financial benefits of ecotourism should extend not only to the conservation of natural heritage, but to the local population. They must benefit from tourism and travel, either by being employed in or, ideally, running the tourist infrastructure or by benefiting from local developments such as transport links, sanitation, water and health provision.
Human Rights and Democracy
According to Honey's criteria, ecotourism should also strive to support human rights, economic empowerment and democratic movements in host communities. In addition to increasing awareness about political issues of the host country, one way of empowering people is to support local, particularly small scale, businesses and providers and their struggles to achieve control of land and assets. This political aim of ecotourism is the most contentious and often the hardest to define clearly. For example, boycotting certain destinations may prove to be a double-edged sword, and it's important to ascertain whether long-term gains achieved by political pressure will be offset by short-term economic losses.