An article I wrote several years ago entitled "Eco Tourism: a Walk on the Wild Side" will soon be used as part of the
Ecologically-sensitive travel is a simple and rewarding way for animal advocates to help protect wildlife from poaching, the exotic "pet" trade, and habitat destruction.
The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." When conducted properly, ecotourism is less destructive than many other environmental uses. The impacts of ecotourism can be managed to realize a balance between preservation and development; such balance can be achieved, for example, by limiting both the size and number of tours in a particular area and by incorporating environmentally-conscious meals, lodging, waste management, and wildlife viewing principles into the tours. Further, by creating economic incentives for impoverished villages or communities, ecotourism can encourage local guardianship of natural resources, habitats, and wildlife.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism is projected to remain one of the world’s most lucrative industries, generating more than $3.5 trillion in economic activity annually. Ecotourism is one of the most rapidly growing and dynamic sectors of the tourism market.Choose Wisely
Determining whether an ecotour truly serves conservation purposes or if it is merely a "green-washed" business venture can be difficult. More than 60 different voluntary certification programs award labels for varying degrees of environmentally-sensitive tourism practices. While the majority of these programs are for hotels and other lodgings, a few cover beaches, parks, tour operators, and guides. Unfortunately, however, no global standard or certification process currently exists for tour operations, so it left to compassionate travelers to ask the appropriate questions before choosing an ecotour, and to ensure that their dollars support only the best and most conscientious programs, outfitters, and guides.
A few questions that travelers should ask and issues to consider when selecting an ecotour.
1. Has the tour evaluated its impact on local wildlife?
The ecotour company or operators should, if possible, have available "pre-tourism" data demonstrating that its tours do not adversely affect wildlife. Such data should compare animal behavior in non-tour areas with their behavior in areas in which tourists congregate for wildlife viewing. Some studies have found that viewed animals become accustomed to the presence of humans and that their stress levels remain low or unchanged in the presence of tourists. Other studies, however, have shown an increase in animals’ stress indicators such as rapid heart rate and dramatic avoidance behavior in the presence of tourists, which could lead to an increase in mortality or lower reproduction rates.2
The ecotour should not offer or encourage physical interaction with wildlife, including catch-and-release fishing, swimming with dolphins, or handling of wildlife for photo opportunities or petting purposes. These activities are well-recognized as exploitive and harmful to wildlife.
2. Does the local community or village benefiting from the tours have an official agreement with the tour operators not to trap birds and other animals for commercial purposes?
The local community involved in the ecotour program should have a written agreement with the tour operators not to trap birds and other animals for the pet trade or other commercial markets. This can help ensure that ecotourism actually replaces trapping income rather than merely supplementing it.
3. What is the maximum number of people accommodated on each trip?
An ecotour should accommodate no more than 30 visitors per location, per tour. According to Dr. Nigel Dunstone, a lecturer in zoology at University of Durham in the UK who has studied the impacts of ecotourism since the early 1980s, when visitor numbers exceed 30 people, trails become too wide; the need for clean water, fresh food, and sewage disposal become too difficult to accommodate; and the disturbance to wildlife becomes too great to benefit conservation.3
4. Is the tour capable of accommodating vegetarian/vegan diets?
A truly environmentally-sensitive tour would provide and promote vegetarian and/or vegan meals for tour patrons. Adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet is one of the most important steps an individual can take to protect the environment and to protect animals from cruelty and exploitation.
Providing meat and other animal-based food products for tourists can result in increased hunting, fishing, and/or livestock production in the tour area, thereby negatively impacting the environment and animals. The food eaten by tourists from developed nations inevitably influences consumption trends in the areas the tourists visit. Rising meat consumption in the developing world could have devastating effects on the global environment. According to a Worldwatch Institute paper, "if livestock are to live in balance with the environment again, First World consumers will have to eat less meat, while Third World citizens will need to keep their meat consumption low." The paper also points out that "a diet rich in animal products is not an appropriate goal of pubic health policy, neither is it a wise development strategy."4
5. Does the tour company work closely with nonprofit organizations?
It is important that ecotour programs work actively with nonprofit environmental, animal advocacy, and public interest groups to safeguard against exploitation and to ensure that the focus of the tour remains conservation, and not pursuit of profit.
Despite the enormous amount of money made by international ecotour companies each year, very little of these funds are routed directly to conservation projects. Ideally, at least 10 percent of a trip’s total profits should be directed to nonprofit organizations that advocate for wildlife and environmental protection.
6. Does the tour program address animal welfare issues?
For some people, one of the most difficult parts of traveling is witnessing animal suffering and mistreatment at the hands of humans. One example is the widespread practice of keeping wild-caught birds on leg chains attached to perches; the birds may languish for years, never to taste freedom again. It is also not uncommon while traveling to encounter repeatedly abuse and neglect of domestic animals, including cats, dogs, goats, and horses. Such mistreatment may be due to cultural beliefs about the treatment of animals or a lack of education or access to veterinary care. A good ecotour program should address such situations by providing local communities with education and animal care supplies.
7. Does the local community benefit directly and indirectly from the tours?
A percentage of the profits of the tour should be spent on local community development. The link between safeguarding economic futures and protecting animals and the environment should exist on a community-wide level. To ensure this connection, a portion of guiding and hosting fees should go into a general community fund to be used for local projects, school materials, and medical supplies. Profit-sharing with communities strengthens local guardianship of native species and habitats. Moreover, members of local communities have emotional, traditional, and/or religious ties to the land and, therefore, are less likely to degrade and abandon their homeland in the course of business.
Ideally, the native community has a meaningful stake in ecotour programs, in the form of profit-sharing, land and lodging ownership, and a role in decision-making.