The Rise of Eco-Tourism
Research by LitterBins UK reveals trend towards more responsible and sustainable tourism
It wasn’t so very long ago that all we required from our holidays was a fortnight of poolside lazing at an all-inclusive hotel. A day at the local English-themed pub with Only Fools and Horses on the telly and a limitless supply of proper fish & chips was deemed the pinnacle of luxury living for many a Brit abroad. But times, perhaps not too surprisingly, have changed.
Today’s travellers want life-changing adventures and authentic experiences, not package-holidays, pints and Patrick’s pork pies. This shift is not a superficial trend, however. Today’s connected and globally conscious travellers are now more aware of the detrimental affects that mass-market tourism so often has on local communities. On the surface, of course, it might seem that traditional travel has always brought fame and fortune to targeted destinations, but research shows that this is often not the case.
Enter the scene eco-tourism, a contemporary form of travel that seeks to rebalance the scales and make travel more sustainable - culturally, environmentally and economically.
First off, what exactly is eco-tourism and why should we look into it?
The International Eco-tourism Society defines eco-tourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”.
Specifically, eco-tourism possesses the following characteristics:
- Conscientious, low-impact visitor behaviour
- Sensitivity towards, and appreciation of, local cultures and biodiversity
- Support for local conservation efforts
- Sustainable benefits to local communities
- Local participation in decision-making
Educational components for both the traveller and local communities
In other words, eco-tourism is about making sure travel destinations receive a fair share of the revenue its tourism trade generates.
Why is there such a need for eco-tourism?
The historical issue regarding the distribution of tourism revenue is that it is typically monopolised by large package holiday companies and airlines.
A study carried out by the EJTHR (European Journal of Tourism, Hospitality & Recreation) showed that, “Suppliers who often have no links with the local economy, design the purchase of goods and services at the time the package is bought”.
This has an adverse effect on local culture and economy, and often, as the study shows, the “Resort overtakes and replaces the destination itself”.
UNEPTIE’s 2011 report on the Negative Economic Impacts of Tourism supports this theory, revealing that, “About 80% of travellers’ expenditures go to the airlines, hotels and other international companies (who often have their headquarters where the travellers come from, and certainly not at the location they are traveling to), and it does not go to local businesses or workers”.
An example of this can be seen in a study by Sustainable Living of tourism 'leakage' in Thailand which estimated that, “70% of all money spent by tourists ended up leaving Thailand (via foreign-owned tour operators, airlines, hotels, imported drinks and food, etc.). Estimates for other Third World countries range from 80% in the Caribbean to 40% in India”.
Why is there a rise in demand for more authentic travel experiences?
Charity awareness campaigns and a general trend towards “greener living” have seen people starting to realise the potential damage of traditional mass-tourism. They are more aware of struggling communities in less developed countries. Today, people are much more interested in authenticity and ‘transforming journeys’ than all-inclusive package deals.
A survey by Topdeck Travel, a company specialising in travel experiences for 18 to 30 somethings, hints further at this shift in attitudes of young travellers, showing that, “The younger generation is no longer seeking a party-animal atmosphere when traveling, and instead wants to fully immerse themselves into new cultures. Experiencing a new culture (86%) and eating local foods (69%) were listed as common determining factors for motivating people aged 18 to 24 to travel — ahead of partying (44%) and shopping (28%)”.
The survey also shows that, “98 percent of younger travellers ranked eating local cuisine as being very important, with 37 percent of millennials saying that they avoid junk food altogether when traveling”.
Again, it’s less about shooting firebombs with mates at The Red Lion and more about experiencing something unique to a destination’s local culture.
Destination Discovery - The “Instagram Effect”
What also continues to change is the way experiences are discovered and chosen by travellers.
Topdeck Travel’s survey also shows that new technology has made it possible for travellers to tune into media networks where people are visiting amazing places at every moment of every day. This is a huge source of travel inspiration and encourages them to book experiences that are inline with their peers.
“Reflecting peer-influence at that young stage of life, in choosing where they travel next, 76 percent said that friends’ recommendations were a main factor, and what’s on sale, and social media also came far ahead of travel-agent advice (18%).”
Expert opinions on the latest developments and most common misconceptions surrounding the eco-tourism market
LitterBins UK talked to expert responsible tourism operators Brian Morgan of Adventure Life and Matt Holmes of Boundless Journeys to hear their thoughts on the eco-tourism sector and get their personal recommendations on where to travel this winter.
How do the experts see the eco-tourism industry evolving in the coming years?
“As scientists and non-scientists learn more about how our species is impacting the planet, I think more people want to do what they can whilst still exploring the world,” says Matt Holmes of Boundless Journeys.
“Our guests are definitely interested in that aspect of our journeys. It could be staying at a resort that farms their own food in Italy, visiting a family-run camp that cares for retired logging elephants in Myanmar, or knowing a park entry fee goes to a conservation organisation in Costa Rica. There are lots of options for seeking out greener holidays.”
Brian Morgan founded the eco-minded tourism company Adventure Life after living and working in places such as Ecuador, Russia and Peru.
He believes that, “The eco-tourism industry will continue to grow as so much of the world is disassociated from the wonders of the natural world. This includes a disassociation from where our food comes from, and so I think that agro-tourism will be one of the fastest growing segments of eco-tourism. People are aware of the importance of whole foods, of where their food comes from and how it is produced, and so travel that connects them with the origination of their favourite foods will grow,” he suggests, demonstrating how the eco-tourism sector is also linked to many other ‘Millennial issues’.
How can we be more eco-friendly when travelling?
We all want to visit pristine beaches and untouched natural beauty spots, but it’s important to remember that these are often the destinations that suffer most from tourism because they are simply not equipped for it. Choosing local operators and travelling with people who understand the unique elements of the destination is key.
“We can travel in a way that is as harmonious with the environment and a foreign culture as possible by treading lightly and supporting eco-friendly and responsible organisations,” explains Holmes.
Morgan echoes this, suggesting that, “Local involvement is the only way to sustainably preserve the world’s unique natural treasures”.
Does eco-travel mean kissing goodbye to the luxuries of traditional tourism?
For those who travel to escape the stress of their everyday lives, the perception of “sustainable” and “responsible” travel may not have quite the same pizazz as “regular travel”, but as Holmes reminds us:
“There are plenty of luxury operations out there that have environmentally friendly systems and practices in place. This can include growing their own food, managing their use of water, employing and training members of the local community, partnering with a conservation organisation, using solar or wind power, and so many other ways.”
Does “travelling green” mean paying a “green premium”?
Holmes reveals that a major challenge that the industry is actively trying to overcome is the perception that eco-tourism costs more.
“The extra cost is an investment in the future,” he says. “The future of conserved land, the future of a small village, the future of wildlife… The truth is that eco-friendly practices can be expensive. Anti-poaching patrols need to be paid, solar panels cost a lot to install, building with sustainably harvested wood is more expensive, etc. The extra cost is not an arbitrary surcharge, you’re paying to minimise your footprint and protect the places you visit, which is exactly what eco-tourism is about. The financial success and sustainability of an eco-focused operation doesn’t come from thin air.”
As Morgan simply puts it, “Traditional leisure tourism doesn’t involve interpretive experience and is offered as more of a commodity”.
Is eco-tourism safe?
Safety and travellers’ perceptions of certain countries plays a hugely important role in the eco-tourism industry.
Holmes insists that, “Supporting eco-tourism in underdeveloped countries is so important because the industry won’t be able to flourish unless it has customers. More customers equals more businesses operating under sustainable practices. Underdeveloped countries can be just as safe or not as some locations in the developed world. As with any place you’re not familiar with, especially cities, you want to be aware of your surroundings and keep your wallet and passport somewhere safe. That’s just common sense for traveling in general”.
And as with everything in life, it’s relative. As Morgan surmises, “Eco-tourism is safe, but each destination has its own security concerns. It can be argued that a person is safer in a wilderness lodge than in a crowded mall. I suppose the question is, safe from what? Terrorism or snakebite?”.
Top Eco-Tourism Destinations to Explore this Winter According to the Experts
The following destinations have been selected based on:
- Expert advice
- Distinctive ecosystems
- Natural resources
- Local commitment to maintaining the beauty and integrity of these places through sustainable tourism
1. Costa Rica
With its spectacular natural beauty and incredible array of wildlife, Costa Rica has developed into one of the world's most successful eco-tourism destinations and is frequently praised for its conservational efforts. Whether watching wild monkeys and sloths swinging through the rainforests, climbing volcanoes, swimming with sea turtles or simply relaxing on one of the countless pristine beaches, Costa Rica is sure to provide that fix of life-changing experiences.
Brian Morgan of Adventure Life says: “Costa Rica is arguably the birthplace of eco-tourism in Latin America. Its tropical jungles are more accessible than anywhere else I know and the government has insured that the parks around the country remain connected, so the forest are thriving too. It also has some of the best interpretive agro-tourism programs I know - here you can learn how coffee, cocoa, bananas, mangos, and so much more are produced.”
If you’ve gone abroad to get away from the city life, Costa Rica has a number of lodges that are perfect for getting back to nature. The Rara Avis Rainforest Lodge and the Leona Eco Lodge place a particular emphasis on conservation – deep in the heart of the jungle, they have made great strides in reducing waste, toxicity and resource consumption, as well as providing a fabulous view of the native wildlife.
The Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica is the ideal place if you’re looking to volunteer in Costa Rica - the park works with naturalists to protect endangered sea turtles, and if you join them you’ll be taught about the region’s ecosystem with a view to helping with the conservation of these stunning animals.
Costa Rica might just be the perfect destination for anyone with an interest in eco-friendly activities – there are organized night hikes which offer a captivating view of the rainforest after dark, while there are also local community tours where you can stay and learn the language. No wonder Costa Rica is considered one of the world’s best places for eco-tourism!
2. Galapagos Islands
These idyllic volcanic islands are completely cut off from the rest of the world and are home to unique and often bizarre species of plants and animals, many of which can't be found anywhere else on earth. Approximately 90% of the Islands are designated national parks, contributing to the protection of their fragile ecosystem and natural beauty.
Brian Morgan of Adventure Life says: “The Galapagos Islands are a favourite year-round for all ages. The snorkelling is some of the best in the world, and the land animals are so unafraid of humans that it turns everyone into a wildlife photographer!”
The Galapagos has a well-established eco-system, and you should try your best not to disturb it, We recommend staying off-shore if possible – Ecoventura rents out yachts, allowing you to view the local wildlife without harming it – and suggest you stick to local food if possible, as introducing foreign plants into the eco-system can cause problems. It is possible to stay on-land if necessary – the family-owned Galapagos Safari camp runs a sustainable business which allows small groups of tourists to stay.
Volunteering on the Galapagos islands mainly focuses on crops – habitat restoration and infrastructure maintenance are regularly needed on the islands, with any assistance from travelers gratefully accepted.
If you’re interested in ecology, you should make sure to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station – this national park houses 200 conservation scientists and volunteers, as well as many native species’ including the giant tortoises which have made the islands famous. Elsewhere there are lagoons, forests and beaches to explore, not to mention a number of small villages, each with their own community spirit and culture.
3. Borneo, Malaysia
Borneo is Asia’s largest island and is fast becoming a leading destination with travellers who want to discover unusual wildlife and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. Grab your binoculars and keep your eyes peeled for the extremely rare Pygmy Asian Elephant and Sunda Clouded Leopard, or traverse the rainforests and mountains in search of Bornean Orangutangs. Dine with the indigenous Dayak people and discover their ancient traditions and cultures.
Brian Morgan of Adventure Life says: “Borneo is still evolving as a destination and, frankly, they need more visitors interested in nature to preserve their forests. With that said, it is still an incredibly wild place with some of the most charismatic wildlife anywhere."
If you don’t want to leave a big footprint after your stay, make sure to stay at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, a sprawling resort which is hours from civilization in the heart of the rainforest. Alternatively, the simple charms of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve offers a tree house apartment amongst the monkeys, gibbons and various other jungle life.
Although it’s well-known to Westerners, the Great Orangutan Project still requires assistance due to deforestation. Through offering your assistance to help this declining species, you will work in the Kubah National Park, putting your efforts towards improving conditions for orangutans.
The Borneo rainforest offers a wide array of eco-friendly activities – you can explore the local area by river boat, get to know the wildlife on a jungle hike or even visit the various tribes in the area, sampling their various foods and customs. You should also make sure not to miss the Kiulu Valley, better known as the ‘valley of the mist’
Peru is a land of dramatic landscapes and fascinating culture, including the Norte Chico and Incan Empire. The "lost city" of Machu Picchu is a must for all adventure and eco-travellers, as is the country’s portion of the Amazon rain forest, which covers almost three quarters of the country’s total surface. Visitors are also treated to some 25,000 different plant species, 30% of which are native, as well as an extraordinary stretch of the Amazon River that's home to unique animals such as the pink dolphin, giant river otter, piranha, Amazonian manatee, and the infamous anaconda.
Brian Morgan of Adventure Life says: “Peru isn’t a typical winter destination, but it is a cultural destination. And by going in winter, travellers avoid the crowds of summer and so arguably have a more authentic experience. Winter is also the growing season, so the hillsides around Cusco will be green and the markets will be filled with local produce.”
The rustic charms of the Tambopata Ecolodge will appeal to anyone who wants to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life – you’ll be housed in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, surrounded by an array of stunning flora and fauna. Elsewhere, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel offers the best of both worlds – a charming hotel in a quiet forest, near to the busy Aguas Calientes, or ‘Hot Springs’.
Many Peruvian communities require support, and one way you can help is by joining the Construction and Renovation project, which helps rebuild run-down schools, hospitals and orphanages alongside experienced local construction workers.
The Inca Trail is one of the most celebrated hiking routes anywhere in the world, allowing you to experience everything that makes Peru great – the flawless architecture of Machu Picchu, the atmospheric fog which descends on the forests at night, and even a spot of river rafting through the Manu jungle if you’re feeling brave!
Patagonia is a surreal collision of glaciers, lakes and snowcapped mountains. Explore the Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO world biosphere reserve known as one of the most unspoiled places on earth, and choose one of the many multi-day treks to experience the awesome power of Mother Nature.
Brian Morgan of Adventure Life says: “Whether visiting Patagonia in Chile or Argentina, the northern hemisphere’s winter is summer way down south. Visitors will encounter spectacular mountain vistas, trekking, wildlife, and gaucho culture.”
Chile has a wide array of sustainable resorts, eco-camps and lodges to stay in, but Eco-Camp Patagonia is probably the most well-known as it is the world’s first geodesic hotel, offering fully sustainable accommodation which blends in with the natural habitat – you can fall asleep beneath the stars thanks to skylight dome windows, while you can even eat your evening meals amongst the local wildlife!
There are a wide array of volunteering opportunities in Patagonia if you’re able to help; the Chiliean ‘huemul’ deer is an endangered species which is being helped by various conservation schemes which require help from both locals and tourists, while you can also join a scheme to remove foreign plants which have proved harmful to native species and plant new seeds.
Patagonia offers a truly incredible array of activities for the eco-friendly traveler – you can get up close and personal with everything from seals and penguins to dolphins and whales, while horse rides, river hikes and walks up the Andes mountains are also on offer. British tourists may be interested to know that there is even an established Welsh community in the town of Gaiman!
Located on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a tiny land-locked kingdom and is one of the least visited places on the planet. Bordered by the Tibetan region of China in the north and India in the south, it is listed as one of the top 10 global biodiversity hotspots. Visit the Wangchuck Centennial National Park in northern Bhutan and discover the country’s largest conservation area, as well as the Eastern Himalayan conservation complex, which is home to snow leopards and Himalayan wolves.
Matt Holmes of Boundless Journeys says: “I absolutely love Bhutan. The country has developed their tourism slowly and deliberately, with serious attention to preserving their natural resources and protecting their culture. Not only is it a beautiful country, but the Bhutanese culture is fascinating, with little Western influence.”
The community lifestyle of the Bhutanese means it is possible to stay at a villager’s house while on your travels, allowing you a better understanding of how they live. If you’d prefer something a little less intense, Bhutan also offers a number of stunning eco-lodges.
Bhutan is a popular destination for people who are trained in Teaching English as a Foreign Language – no previous teaching experience is required, and you’ll be offering the local community a valuable tool in the form of a second language.
Whether trekking through the Himalayan mountains, enjoying local delicacies or visiting the various villages on your travels, Bhutan has something for every type of traveler – the Bhutanese are known for being very obliging and friendly people, giving you a great opportunity to learn about their culture while teaching about your own.
Slovenia is one of finest alpine eco-tourism destinations in Europe. It’s been controlled by communist Yugoslavia since World War II, meaning it remained relatively undiscovered until the 1990s. As well as its cultural charms, Slovenia also borders the Italian Alps and offers some of the most spectacular mountain hiking in Europe.
Matt Holmes of Boundless Journeys says: “Slovenia is my other favourite destination. It feels like my home state of Vermont with lush meadows and forests, great mountain hiking, wonderful local food, and friendly people. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked, but it has so much to offer and very few crowds! In fact, the capital, Ljubljana, was named the European Green Capital for 2016."
8. Botswana and Zambia
Botswana and Zambia are renowned for their wildlife-watching opportunities and combine to make southern Africa’s most popular safari destinations. Botswana is home to most of the world’s San (Bushmen) population and the Tsodilo Hills UNESCO World Heritage site is considered sacred. Inhabited for at least 100,000 years, these ancient hills are decorated with intricate rock paintings, whilst the Central Kalahari Game Reserve is home to diverse wildlife and the country’s last remaining Bushmen. Zambia is also home to the world’s largest waterfall, the wild Zambezi River.
Matt Holmes of Boundless Journeys says: “The country is incredibly remote with some of the best game-viewing in southern Africa. It’s a popular choice for first-time safari-goers because of the diverse wildlife and exclusive lodges.”
Although there are a few eco-accommodations in Botswana and Zambia – the Delta Camp in Botswana is highly recommended - be aware that the safari camps aren’t always as green as claimed, so make sure to pack a solar cooker/oven for baking, slow-cooking and frying if you want your holiday to be as eco-friendly as possible.
If you’re looking to lend a helping hand on your travels, it’s a good idea to contact NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in the area and ask if you can help – poverty is rife in Botswana and Zambia, with many children requiring teaching assistance. One possibility is Livingstone Day Cheshire Homes, which helps over 150 children with disabilities and offers a fantastic opportunity to help those who need it most.
Botswana and Zambia offer fantastic opportunities to experience a range of cultures, and often the safari tours are designed to help protect wildlife, while also ensuring profits go towards local communities. Simply speak to a local tour guide, and they’ll let you know the best places to visit, foods to try and much more; while educating you about how you can help the community.
9. New Zealand
New Zealand offers a huge variety of dramatic landscapes ranging from giant glaciers and picturesque fjords to rugged mountains and subtropical forests. Get your walking boots on and discover the endless volcanic plateaus or take to the high seas and watch whales, dolphins and seals showing off their acrobatic skills as they propel themselves out of the water with graceful pirouettes.
Matt Holmes of Boundless Journeys says: “Our Alpine & Coastal Hiking tour explores the beautiful South Island. From the beach to the mountains with quaint towns, a Maori cultural visit, and wonderful local wine to boot.
As well as its extraordinarily colourful history, Vietnam is home to endless expanses of idyllic beaches, protected national parks, snaking Deltas, coral reef ecosystems and Tam Giang-Cau Hai Lagoon - one of the biggest lagoons in the world. Needless to say, Vietnam has enormous potential for eco-tourism.