With the increasing environmental awareness of travellers, ecotourism has received more attention. Sometimes it is referred to as “sustainable tourism”, “ethical tourism” or “responsible tourism”. But what is ecotourism really? How does it help the environment? Isn’t it best for the nature if there is no tourism at all? Here we discuss its definition, we explain why ecotourism is so important and provide tips how to identify greenwashing attempts.
What is Ecotourism
Why is it so Important?
What is Ecotourism?
While there are several different definitions for ecotourism, they all essentially say that ecotourism is about bringing nature/wildlife conservation, local communities, and the travel industry together to ensure development of an endangered area focused on long-term sustainability rather than short-term profits. Here’s the definition according to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES):
Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.
1. CONSERVATION | Ecotourism is a tool for conservation
Conserving the environment is one of the founding principles of ecotourism. An ecotour should at least minimize the environmental footprint (via e.g. recycled material, low plastic- or energy consumption) and preferably even contribute to the conservation of the area. This is usually financially when visitors pay for park entrance fees, which pay for conservation efforts and the salaries of park rangers and researchers.
There are many other ways people could contribute ranging from planting trees to picking up trash on the trail. You could also donate to a conservation organization, such as the orangutan rehabilitation centre of International Animal Rescue near Ketapang in Kalimantan.
The orangutan rehabilitation centre of International Animal Rescue near Ketapang, Kalimantan, Indonesia.
2. LOCAL WELFARE | Ecotourism should help local communities
Ultimately, the locals decide what to do in and around the endangered area. Should it be cleared for palm oil production, timber or agriculture? Should it be used for oil & gas extractions or for the excavation of rich minerals? Or should the local economy be designed around the conservation of the area and present its beauty to visitors and researchers? In order for ecotourism to function, local people’s support is a prerequisite and they must directly or indirectly benefit.
Our local representative in Sulawesi, Budi, is born and raised in a remote Sulawesi jungle – near Tana Toraja – and now provides multi-day survival jungle treks with minimal environmental footprint.
3. EDUCATION | Ecotourism should enhance environmental & cultural awareness
Sure, seeing exciting wildlife like orangutans in Sumatra is enough to make people happy. But ecotourism is much more. It provides context. It informs about environmental-, economic- or social challenges such as the blood, sweat and tears required to fight against palm oil deforestation or logging.
When visitors understand it better, they are much more likely to help the area, and upon return they may not only show the pictures to friends and family but maybe also inspire them with context and as such become ambassadors for the natural area they’ve visited.
Travellers take an intimate look into the local culture by staying at home with our guide Daude and his family.
“But not travelling is better for the environment than Ecotourism, right?”
This is what cynics ask oftentimes, and rightfully. After all, ecotourism brings tourists usually to relatively untouched places and therefore could potentially be the reason for environmental degradation. It starts with the global pollution by flying just to get to the exotic destination. Each return ticket from London to Jakarta costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice Science … Yes, every ticket.
Then there is the local pollution through cars or boats used for the local transport, habitat loss in order to accommodate visitors in eco-lodges, stress on the environment by the higher demand for food, water or other local resources. So if you want to reduce your environmental footprint, flying as little as possible is a good place to start.
A realistic but rather weak argument against banning all travel is that in the end of the day we are humans, we are explorers and not travelling at all is simply impossible to achieve. The stronger argument for travelling to ecotourism destinations is that with all the direct downsides outlined above, the indirect consequences of not travelling may be much worse.
Just imagine what would happen in this global free market system if the ecotourism revenues would fade away? Who would pay the rangers to fight against logging? If the already poor people in Sumatra or Borneo have nowhere else to work other than in palm oil factories, would it be unlikely that they choose exactly that, and – despite their love for their rainforest – would support deforestation in order to feed their families? The heartbreaking story of Yasuni National Park in Equador FT shows the power of money and how the destiny of even the most diverse ecosystems in the world is subject to financial interests.
In short, if you care about the environment, fly as little as possible – reconsider the weekend trip to New York or the leisure beach holiday – but please do visit ecotourism destinations and give local communities a strong incentive to conserve the beautiful ecosystems that are the habitat of exotic and sometimes almost extinct creatures.
Visitor plants a tree at the reforestation site Camp Pesalat in Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan.
Integrity Issues of Ecotourism
Because everyone prefers an eco-friendly tour or accommodation over an eco-unfriendly alternative, many organizations are jumping on this trend and sometimes falsely claim that their parks, programs or accommodations are eco-friendly.
Think of the many popular places presenting themselves as animal sanctuaries while in practice the elephants are chained and ridden by tourists or the tigers are imprisoned and used for selfies. Or vast exaggerations by International hotel chains or airlines claiming they are eco-friendly because they use recycled toilet paper, while ignoring the environmental damage at the heart of their business model.
It is financially interesting to greenwash and cash in on people’s willingness to spend money in the name of environmental protection. Unfortunately, this hurts the integrity of the ecotourism concept. But there is an easy way to address this as an eco-traveller and make sure you participate in a true ecotourism concept:
Research the organization you’re interested, ignore their self-labelling, and test their adherence to each of the pillars of true ecotourism: Conservation, Local Welfare and Education.
Visitors can wash and ride elephants in Tangkahan “Sanctuary”. As beautiful as the selfies are, as brutal is the abuse it takes to get elephants into submission, be gentle towards humans and accept people sitting on their weak backs.
Why Local Guides cares about ecotourism
Local Guides has been founded on the basis of the helping local communities and conserving the fragile ecosystems we grew up in. What is encouraging are the positive reactions of visitors when they are told about the environmental and cultural challenges we are facing, and how understanding and empathy can turn into ambassadorship for our environmental and cultural heritage.
In Sumatra and Kalimantan palm oil is the primary reason for rainforest deforestation and has killed over 100.000 orangutans in since 2003. An area the size of Belgium is lost every 2 years for palm oil in these two tropical islands.
The palm oil industry is extremely powerful as it employs 4.5 million people in Indonesia. The best way to fight against deforestation, is by making it even more profitable to conserve it and turn the local palm oil workers into park rangers and tour guides. Our programs in Sumatra and Kalimantan present the exotic habitat of orangutans as we trek into the rainforest with local guides and cooks.
In the past decades Sulawesi has been subject to social unrest and natural disasters. While the situation has normalised, tourists still stay away (even pre-corona) which is a disaster for its local economy and puts its rich cultural heritage at risk as the young are forced leave to big cities. We showcase the authentic local traditions in Sulawesi, and the little known breathtaking treks off the beaten path with local guides and overnight stays in mountain villages to boost the local economies and give visitor an experience of a lifetime.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a terrible impact on the local communities beyond Sulawesi and throughout Indonesia. The pandemic and global travel bans have disproportionally hit the ecotourism industry, while the polluting palm oil industry was barely hit. Through our environment blog we inform readers about this and other local issues, and provide a platform to anyone with a willingness and ability to support our fight.