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Dream Vacation or Exploitation? What you need to know about ecotourism before packing your bags

July 29, 2015

Over the years, society has grown more environmentally sensitive and consumers are becoming more and more interested in using their purchasing power for good. Industries from grocery stores and fast food chains to beauty products and household goods have jumped on the bandwagon, labeling their products “all natural” and “eco-friendly,” regardless of whether or not they truly deserve the title.  Lacking an overarching regulatory body, industries enjoy plenty of flexibility when it comes to making environmentally friendly claims for their products with little accountability. In fact, a recent study by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found that 99 percent of all products labeled as “green” do not live up to their claims.

The practice is known as “greenwashing,” and in recent years, as the term ecotourism gains momentum, the travel industry has become one of the worst offenders. According to a US News article by Maura Judkis, “The problem lies in the definition of ecotourism and in the different interpretations of what it means to be green. Self-appointed ‘eco-resorts’ run the gamut from accommodations that leave absolutely no carbon footprint to those that merely use energy-efficient light bulbs.”

Ayako Ezaki, director of communications for The International Ecotourism Society defines true ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

From the Untamed Path article, “Greenwashing Travel: Different Shades of Green,” the ultimate goal of ecotourism is “to infuse the entire travel industry with the principles and practices of ecotourism and thereby transform tourism into an environmentally and culturally sensitive activity that contributes to sustainable growth in developing nations.”

With so many competing terminologies, it can be difficult for consumers to differentiate between genuine, sustainable ecotourism and mere marketing ploys. Even companies that are “certified green” can be misleading, as evidenced by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC)’s Green Globe logo program. Under the program’s scheme, for as little as $200, travel companies can purchase the right to use the green globe logo as long as they are “committed to environmental improvement.” Companies do not have to demonstrate their efforts or prove their effectiveness, they just have to pledge to “work toward more environmentally sound practices.” The vague and unbinding requirements add up to a weak certification program that is little more than a marketing tactic.

In addition to greenwashing, “green grabbing” is also a concern when it comes to ecotourism.

According to an Al Jazeera article by Melissa Leach, Director of ESRC STEPS Center and a professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, “Green grabbing is the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends. Environmental agendas are the core drivers and goals of these grabs – whether linked to biodiversity conservation, biocarbon sequestration, biofuels, ecosystem services, ecotourism or ‘offsets’ related to these.”

Much like traditional corporate land grabs, deals for green grabs are usually made without the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities, violating their rights, forcing them off their land and dispossessing them of vital resource management.

This kind of green grabbing was highlighted by 2010 Goldman Prize winner Thuli Makama from Swaziland, where – in the name of conservation – local people have been increasingly forced off of their traditional lands and persecuted for continuing the hunting and gathering practices necessary for their survival.

Rural, poverty-stricken communities in Swaziland depend heavily on the environment for their most basic needs, including building materials, medicinal plants, food and firewood. Indigenous knowledge and practices are centered on ensuring the conservation of these resources for future generations. However, communities are increasingly forced to compete with commercial interests, like “eco-friendly” safari parks and tourist lodges, for access to these environmental resources. Makama, Swaziland’s only public interest environmental attorney, represented the rights of local community members when no one else would.

Photo: Polyp
Photo: Polyp

For consumers evaluating what makes a venture truly eco-friendly, one must not only be aware of greenwashing, but also green grabbing. How does the company/resort go above and beyond industry standards to demonstrate its environmental commitments? Is the local community benefitting from the activity? Ecotourism should be mutually beneficial to the tourist and the host community.

“If market based mechanisms [like tourism] are to contribute to sustainable development and the building of economies that are not only green, but fair, then fostering an agenda focused on distribution, equity and justice… is vital. This must include meaningful local engagement and consultation based on transparency, accountability and free, prior and informed consent,” said Leach.

The Untamed Path article concludes by saying, “The travel industry’s efforts to water down ecotourism and sell ‘ecotourism lite’ in exchange for short-term profits has led some travel experts to drop the word ecotourism altogether and dismiss the concept as simply a fad… This however, is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater… In determining where genuine ecotourism is being practiced today, we need also to discover ways in which authentic ecotourism can move from being simply a niche market… to becoming a broad set of principles and practices that transform the way we travel and the way the entire tourism industry functions.”

Be sure to join us next week as we highlight examples of Goldman Prize winners who are engaged in authentic, sustainable ecotourism activities around the world.

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