Is Eco-Tourism Really Eco-Friendly?

A large glacier in Patagonia in ArgentiaLast Updated: 01/12/2018 | January 12th, 2018

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 environmental welfare and sustainability have become more important to people over the last decade (and especially so in the last couple of years), travel 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.

Companies 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% greywater systems.

And the commitment to local cultures? With the exception of a few tour operators (like Intrepid Travel) 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.

I 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. They’re working to make an impact instead of contributing to overtourism.

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.

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