When you see some of the holidays masquerading as ecotourism you’d be forgiven for thinking the term “greenwash” was invented for the tourism industry. Oh, it was. In fact this pejoratively used hybrid was coined in the 1980s by American environmentalist Jay Westervelt, who was incensed by the way hotels put signs up pleading with guests to reuse their towels thus “saving the environment” when they were doing nothing to promote recycling elsewhere and really, he suspected, just wanted to save on laundry bills.
Since then things have improved, but there are still lots of trips wearing a bogus “ecotourism” tag. These include swimming with captive dolphins (the feature documentary The Cove on the annual dolphin slaughter in Japan is a reminder of the truth behind their capture and trade) and hunting holidays with “sustainable” quotas – Tanzania has received criticism for the sale of ancestral lands to monopolies for under the market price, leaving local tribes high and dry.
But often holidaymakers mistake sustainable ideas – such as lower-impact transport – with ecotourism. Incidentally research by the Heidelberger Institute for Energy and Environmental Research comparing the pollutant parameters and ecological effects of different holiday transport found coach travel to use six times less energy than planes. But this still doesn’t make your coach trip ecotourism.
Making the distinction might sound like pedantry but it’s crucial. Ecotourism doesn’t have an enshrined legal definition, but bodies such as Nature Conservancy and the World Conservation Union agree on its parameters – that it is nature-based, educative towards the environment, managed sustainably and contributes to the protection of the natural site. Scale is also important. You should pick a project that is obviously small, manageable and which feeds directly back into the local economy.
But where do you go for the real thing? Responsible-travel.org has long provided a sane counterpoint to the die- hard green message that you must never again set foot anywhere on account of carbon emissions. Their take is that there is a trade off between the emissions caused by flying, so it’s the traveller’s responsibility to fly less, switching to one holiday that generates income for the local community. A typical Responsible Travel holiday includes an introduction to the Amazon rainforests, staying in a lodge in Peru built using native materials and owned by the Infierno community.
In her very good book Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? Martha Honey argues that true ecotourism should involve a truthful conservation-led calculation as to how many tourists a habitat can sustain. Famously the Galapagos islands employ quotas, a move that flies in the face of the democratisation of spontaneous travel but might just save one of the world’s most vulnerable habitats.