At Wilderness Safaris, we define ourselves as an “ecotourism” company. But what exactly does this mean?
Ecotourism, or ecological tourism, has been a growing phenomenon since the 1950s and 1960s as the developed world began appreciating nature more and understanding the challenges of human development and population growth. But it is still a term that is difficult to define.
It was only in 1983 that Mexican landscape architect and environmentalist Héctor Cebellos-Lascurain first coined the term ‘ecotourism’ and offered a definition: “environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations.”
In 1999, this definition was formally adopted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as the official definition of ecotourism.
It has been simplified since. For example, The International Ecotourism Society coins ecotourism as: "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people."
However, the term has been much abused, resulting in misuse, misunderstanding, and confusion with “nature-based tourism”. Nature-based tourism, similarly to ecotourism, is dependent on the experience of natural resources and ecosystems. In contrast to ecotourism however, the sustainability of this use or experience is not taken into account.
Our own interpretation of ecotourism is structured around the 4Cs philosophy of the Zeitz Foundation: Commerce, Conservation, Community and Culture.
Commerce deals specifically with the ‘tourism’ aspect of ecotourism and is the often neglected underpin to the sustainability of ecotourism. Without it, our ability to produce conservation, community and cultural benefits is compromised. Indeed, ecotourism can only make a difference if as a business, it is doing well.
This is a far broader concept than just the conservation of biodiversity, and includes the equally important facet of sustainable operations through environmental management systems. The sustainable construction, management and operation of ecotourism camps resulting in the lowest possible carbon footprint, disturbance to an area, impact on the ecosystem and management of waste, energy and water are all part of Conservation.
The ecosystem in which an ecotourism operation is situated, as well as the associated wildlife, needs to be understood, monitored and protected. Furthermore, and where relevant, the ecotourism operation should help to promote the reintroduction of indigenous species, and rehabilitate natural environments through vegetation management and other mechanisms.
People are at the heart of any sustainable business or endeavour. Honest, mutually beneficial and dignified relationships with staff and rural community partners in ways that deliver a meaningful and life-changing share of the proceeds of responsible ecotourism to all stakeholders are critical.
Community-centric employment, joint ventures, education and training, social and health benefits, and capacity-building are driven by the commercial robustness of the ecotourism model.
Respect for the culture of all employees as well as remote rural communities surrounding the conservation areas are reflected in: a healthy social environment in camp; appropriate camp design, décor, entertainment and meals; respect for traditional rights within and surrounding the conservation area; and communication of the area’s traditional culture to guests and staff.
Despite the dissections, no one can yet claim to have redefined ecotourism. We believe that a definition of ecotourism will necessarily remain fluid as a result of changing circumstances and needs. We do, however, believe that the explicit inclusion of a commercial underpin to ecotourism is increasingly important and that no ecotourism operation can claim to be truly sustainable without it. Conservation – much less ecotourism – cannot afford to rely solely on philanthropy or aid in the modern world.
Finally, a critical component to the sustainability of ecotourism is you, the ecotourist; and crucially the decisions you make in terms of which operator to support. The more educated consumers are about the pure tenets of ecotourism, the more likely they will differentiate between genuine ecotourism and other forms of nature-based tourism, and the more likely that this decision-making process will drive the quality and credibility of the ecotourism industry.
By Chris Roche and Brett Wallington