Ecotourism is defined as leisure travel that provides tourists with an educational and adventurous experience visiting complex and fascinating ecosystems and their associated cultures and traditions. The concept of ecotourism began in the late 1980’s and increased in popularity in 2002 during the United Nations “International Year of Ecotourism.” According to environmental and other organizations, ecotourism should have a minimal impact on both the environment and the culture. Ecotourism should inform tourists about what’s needed to sustain the environment they’re visiting, and should also help local populations understand the importance and value of their home. Ecotourism can also help foster a sense of environmental stewardship by encouraging travelers to be mindful of wasting resources and polluting the environment. Ecotourism can also help local economies by generating revenue and jobs, which further encourages the local population to preserve its environment.
A good ecotourism operation will strive to support the community and encourage travelers to be culturally sensitive by training and employing local people and by purchasing local supplies and services to further stimulate the economy. Increasingly, national governments such as Costa Rica and Australia are supporting the ecotourism trade for its benefit to both their country and their visitors. Tourist regions in many countries now rely on ecotourism as the primary source of revenue.
The education and good practices taught by ecotourism may also help foster sustainable development in a world increasingly faced by destructive practices such as clear-cutting forests and poor land-use policies that destroy habitats. Good ecotourism should ideally support criteria such as:
- Conservation of biological and cultural diversity
- Sustainable use of ecological resources
- Support for local economies through increased local revenue, jobs for local populations, and use of local supplies and services
- Community empowerment by sharing participation in management local ecotourism activities
- Increased environmental and cultural awareness
- Minimal environmental tourist industry impact on local resources
Although the overall concept and intent of sustainable tourism is positive, the industry is not without its critics largely due to companies who abuse the concept of ecotourism to take advantage of the wealth generated by the interest in eco-tourism. Some ecotourism operators have been accused of masking their environmentally destructive practices by marketing their businesses as ecotourism.
With time, the standards for good ecotourism will be established and both travelers and the industry will be aware of what constitutes an ecologically and culturally sensitive operation.