Is Eco-Tourism Really Eco-Friendly?

penguins width=There is a trend in travel that has picked up a lot of steam over the last few years. That trend is called Eco-Tourism. As the environment has become more important to people over the last decade – and especially so in the last couple of years – companies around the world are trying to cash in on people’s willingness to spend lots of money in the name of environmental protection. Much of it is greenwashing though, or insincere and over-hyped attempts to be viewed as “green.” The travel industry has not been immune to this trend and many companies now tout their environmental credentials in an effort to lure customers and create a positive image.

You have to wonder though, just how environmentally friendly is eco-tourism? Eco-tourism is defined as:

“connecting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement and participate in responsible tourism activities should follow the following eco-tourism principles: minimize impact, build environmental and cultural awareness and respect, provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts, provide direct financial benefits for conservation, provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people, and raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate.”

But how many companies really live up to that? How much of it is really greenwashing? If I had to put a number on it, and I am going to, I’d say at least 70% of it is simply greenwashing. The Marriott or other resorts might talk about their commitment to reducing waste by using recycled toilet paper and low flow shower heads, but they have huge mega-hotels. The nature of their hotels means they will never be truly environmentally friendly, unless they rebuild the place from scratch. And most of their customers wouldn’t put up with higher prices to help offset the capital costs of upgrading to be eco-friendly. You can offset your carbon emissions with Qantas but, if you really want to reduce your footprint, you wouldn’t fly. And if you look at the most environmentally friendly hotels and tours, they are also the most expensive. Apparently, eco-tourism is just for the rich.

a melting icebergCompanies tout how they are going green to save the environment, but they only make incremental changes designed to make us feel good. Few companies make the capital investment to truly change their business model, especially those in the tourism industry. It’s easier to change toilet paper than change how you design your future hotels. I doubt many cruises have 100% grey water systems.

And the commitment to local cultures? With the exception of a few tour operators, rarely do you see companies trying to help the local communities in any significant way. They operate big tours with underpaid local staff and export lots of money to headquarters instead of keeping it in the local economy. Ask most of the porters on the Inca Trail how they are treated and you won’t find a favorable response. Just because they hire local staff doesn’t mean they are “giving back” to the community to help it grow.

Eco-tours market themselves as a low impact, environmental, and community friendly way to see the world. See the Amazon or Patagonia without making a big environmental impact. See Antarctica without making an impact. Tourists come, learn a bit about the local culture, and then leave, content with the knowledge they “helped” the environment. But the reality is that big companies bring you in, make you feel good about yourself, and take all the profit back home.

a waterfall in the jungleI see promise and hope in sustainable tourism. To me this is different than eco-tourism. Eco-tourism to me is about not damaging the environment and providing a little education, but sustainable tourism is about living and growing with the environment and the local cultures. You don’t find this with the big companies. They may change a light bulb and reduce waste, but would you really consider that sustainable?

Sustainable tourism requires new thinking, and you find this mostly with small scale operators. These operators change their business structure so as to have as minimal an impact on the environment as possible. They buy local goods, use local services, treat their employees well, use few resources, and try hard to help rebuild the environment and educate tourists.

This is a much more promising side to the eco-tourism trend. By participating in local initiatives that better the environment instead of just a feel good, greenwashed tour, you contribute more substantially to protecting the environment. I believe the eco-tourism trend is here to stay and that is for sure a good thing. However, in order for it to have a much greater impact, there needs to be a focus not only on “using less toilet paper” but also on sustainable, local initiatives that help businesses grow with and heal the environment.

  1. Great post Matt. I agree with you that eco-tourism isn’t necessarily eco-friendly. What’s even more challenging is that many places label themselves as “green” or “eco” just because they want the label but don’t actually do anything to this extent.
    Small, locally, owned businesses are actually a lot more green because they are sustainable than those labeled “eco”.

  2. Cuckoo

    Well, all I can say is that I have seen this happening but on a very lower scale. At least in India, the things have to be forced besides advertising.

    And I really don’t know how feasible it is to be fully eco-friendly which looks quite impractical at present.

  3. NomadicMatt

    The consensus seems to be that there is a lot of greenwashing going on. What do you all think should be done?

    @Jurn: I am going to start updating more! :)

  4. Matt;
    I agree, there’s abuse of the ‘green theme’ out there and that ‘s just part of life.
    One day ‘eco-tourism’ will be the norm and everyone will get to know those with high standards both environmentally and morally.
    I like what you wrote, ” there is promise and hope in sustainable tourism. To me this is different than eco-tourism. Eco-tourism to me is about not damaging the environment and providing a little education but sustainable tourism is about living and growing with the environment and the local cultures.”

    Excellant article, keep them coming…


  5. Hey Matt,

    You can’t really tell, can you? I mean, one can’t really be sure where the money is channeled to. At the end of the day, it’s really the notion of buying into the eco-friendly idea of a holiday that makes one’s vacation a bit more enjoyable. It’s like “hey, I’ve done my part!” sort of thing.

    Also, we have to consider the alternative of not having these tour operators operating in the area – there might be less employment to go around in the local population. That is similar to the argument for child labour.

    C K

  6. Hey Matt,
    Please don’t take this comment as a negative jab at you – it really is simply a comment on all of us.
    Ecotourism and sustainable tourism are certainly great ideas, but like all ideas man has ever come up with, there are those who PRACTICE them and those who ABUSE them. So, yes, greenwashing is all around. And, yes, it is easy to point the finger at the mega hotels, how they suck all the water from a community, how they underpay native / local staff, how they pollute, etc.
    But you know what – we need to first of all look at ourselves. Look at your own ‘About Matt’ page and the places you want to visit. That kind of travelling the world in jet aircraft is not sustainable. As I say, I’m not picking on you at all. I too travel in aircraft every year to my holidays in France and my nature walking trips in Poland.
    So change starts at home.
    Yes, let’s all keep a watchful eye out for greenwashing. Yes, let’s laud all the very best ecotourism businesses we patronise. But also, let’s become more sustainable ourselves – reduce electricity consumption, stop burning fossil fuels, increase recycling, drive smaller more environmentally friendly cars, do more conservation work and education, education, education …

  7. I did a post on eco tours in mexico a while back and i didn’t really think about the fact that they could not really be promoting environmentally-friendliness as much as they seem. however promoting awareness in this way is better than nothing i think!

  8. Good article, but for me sustainable tourism is the same or a part of ecotourism. But I agree with you, there is lots of greenwashing out there and that’s why ecotourism needs more international standards and labels.

  9. Know what I hate? When companies give YOU the customer opportunities to donate (for example, toward off-setting global warming pollution a la Cathway Pacific or like our electric company in Boston) and then claim all the glory, that they are green companies, for themselves! They didn’t donate a dime, they just handed your dimes over. No thanks, I’ll donate in my own name and take the credit for myself!
    I wish there was a watch dog for green washing.

  10. To me ecotourism is educating people especially in developing countries that will make more money from their wildlife in the long run by promoting it as a tourist destination, than killing the forests and jungle for quick profits.

  11. It is easy to criticise others (greenwashing, especially by large companies annoys me too) but I do think it important that we all take our own small steps to helping a little. It is relatively easy (and probably more enjoyable and fulfilling) when we travel to use local transport, support small local businesses, discuss issues such as conservation and respect cultures. As more businesses realise that this is the required standard for travellers, then they will move their businesses to a more sustainable tourism model as otherwise they will not get any patronage. It is a long journey but all journeys start with a single step.

  12. Sometimes I even think it feels hopeless, that we never get anywhere in this matter, but I guess we must have some stamina. And yes, we all have to do our part of it otherwise it will never be. As in every matter, the key is education – it’s such an important part of it. To highlight all the aspects.

  13. Charlotte

    I agree Lifecruiser. Sometimes it’s like your banging your head against a brick wall, it seems that the gas guzzlers are just missing the point completely.

    Education is definitely important and hopefully through differentiation between short term and long term efforts we can arrive at some sort of feasible solution. I hear more and more that people are moving away from the big gas guzzling hotel chains and are opting for staying amongst the locals and using local produce. I just hope this trend continues…

  14. Obviously, by the very nature of my website, I believe wholeheartedly in the concept of green travel. And, yes, the concept is a complete oxymoron. Unless you’re shuffling along on foot or peddling a bicycle, no travel mode is completely green. Just as no big corporate hotel chain will ever be blind to the bottom line when taking green measures. Hey, it’s a screwed up, imperfect world out there. Greenwashing has become this boogy man — another excuse to say, ah, what the hell, what difference does it make? It does make a difference. Collectively, it make a BIG difference. Who cares why a hotel decides to recycle and conserve energy and take steps to be connected to its local community? The point is, it’s doing it! And as travelers we make all kinds of personal choices every day on the road. So support the greener options! You’ll feel good for having done so, stay healthier on the road, and vote with your dollars for greener travel. Like reading the label on your box of breakfast cereal, it takes a little more effort to figure out the best thing for you. But it can be done, and it’s worth it, in the long run.

  15. Thanks for posting this at FB, since I missed it the 1st time around. :-) One point that needs to be raised is that a lot of the things that resorts take credit for as being “green” also happen to save them money….so it’s not exactly selfless on their part. But hey, whatever works to get them to make even those changes! Perhaps there should be a set of stringent criteria that need to be met before a hotel or resort is allowed to claim the “green” title, much like organic foods or LEEDS certification…

  16. Kristin Oneill

    I agree for the most part with your stance in the post, but it is important not to overlook the success stories. For example, Costa Rica has structured their economy around ecotourism and it has incentivized the government to protect tropical forests and the species that live in them. There is certainly a great amount of corruption and greenwashing taking place at several scales, but ecotourism still has been incredibly beneficial to the natural environment and economies of developing countries.

  17. I recall looking at a composting toilet at an eco-lodge in Ecuador and thinking that no matter how much water this was saving, the carbon increase in the environment just to get me there and toss mulch down a hole in the floor was way more than that little toilet could overcome. We should all try to minimize the impact our travel has, but just getting in an airplane and transporting a human being and all their (mostly newly bought) gear around the globe is wholly un-sustainable. Heck, just living in the first world is unsustainable in any long term sense.

    I’m not suggesting that people should not travel or that they should not try to be conscious of reducing the impact that they have when they do. But, we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize that no matter how many seasons we wear out recycled Patagonia high-loft jacket or how much we eschew big fancy hotels, the simple act of being somewhere other than home (with the lights off) is unsustainable in very real ways.

    Anyone who has ever watch a busload of tourists (ourselves included) clamber over the ruins of Machu Picchu has to recognize that the problem is us. If we are there to witness it, then we are contributing to the consumption of resources, destruction of wilderness and wearing down of precious cultural icons. Does this mean I won’t travel? No, but I won’t try to kid myself into thinking that reusing a towel or eating from a street cart has a meaningful impact on the environment when I got there by jet and saved the money to travel in the first place by participating in the first world economy.

    • Lucy Weir

      Yes but the problem is precisely that no one wants to stop travelling! The only way I ever managed to stop myself from travelling anywhere at all was to have so little money (by going back to university, essentially) that I couldn’t afford to go anywhere… and that means I can’t take my kids anywhere exotic either. Ho Hum. Still, they meet a lot of interesting people who pass through here, and one day, just once, I’ll take them on a long haul to Canada or to Alaska, because my my Dad lived and worked there and I want them to see some of the places that we went to as kids. Eamon Ryan calls this ‘love miles’ – I’m not sure about that phrase, to be honest!!! Sounds seriously cheesy to me. But I do think the small things make you reflect on the bigger things and I do think that we need to work out ways of curbing our addiction to travel, however seductive and beautiful the imagery (and often the reality) of other places is… HOW? (Apart from self-enforced poverty – not fun, folks).

  18. Petri

    The problem with eco-everything is that you need to know the local situation.

    For example here in Helsinki, Finland, there was a trend to save water. We don’t have shortage of fresh water and due the people trying to save water, the water company now has to run water straight to the ocean to maintain the quality of water in the pipes. Perhaps we could lower the standards but it’s kind of stupid just because people are doing the wrong things because they feel it’s the right thing to do.

    It’s very similar thing about electricity. The local electricity company is owned by the city and a major source of income. If we save energy, the income from the electricity company will go down and our local taxes will raise. During the night Finland sells electricity to Norway. Why? Because our nuclear plants cannot be stopped for the night anyway and Norway will use the electricity to pump the water back up. During the day that same water will flow through the hydro plant and generate “green electricity”. It’s not that green but it’s smart thing to do.

    Our forests grow faster than we use them. If we don’t use the wood for anything, we will end up with overcrowded, unhealthy forests.

    There are local greenhouses that grow tomatoes and other vegetables during the winter. When it’s dark most of the day. When it’s down to -30 C cold. But they can be called “locally produced, organic”.

    In our case, “ecology” isn’t in our travel vocabulary. We prefer to travel smart, do things that make sense from the local perspective.

    PS. When people are worried about the ecological footprint from flying, why is military flying always forgotten? Just saying :-)

    • Lucy Weir

      Military flying is HUGE – and the US military CO2 impact is excluded in their reckoning of what carbon reductions they’re going to make (probably true of other countries too, but the scale in the US is massive). But it goes back to the same thing: we can blame everyone else for the state of the world but the only person whose behaviour you can actually change (if you’re lucky!) is your own. The water situation sounds mad. What a shame…

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