Eco-tourism: How do we define it?

The term is being used more and more as the awareness of the planet to all things environmental increases. Terms like sustainable tourism and nature based tourism can confuse things but Eco-Tourism attempts to include a number of aspects.

To define Eco-Tourism, it must include the following aspects:

  • Is nature or heritage based
  • Acts in sustainable way and attempts to help their clients to minimise the impact of their visit
  • Benefits the indigenous community
  • Has an interpretive dimension
  • Education

If we break these points down, firstly we would look at the fact that it focuses on either natural wonders or human created wonders. We are not looking at adventure based activities like Bungy jumping or hang gliding or rafting. We don't need to isolate any of these activities from Eco-Tourism as they may incorporate some other aspects like interpretation and environmental education; an example is a guide giving environmental interpretation as you head down the river. They also may run their vehicles on biofuel and not do heli-rafting for environmental reasons.

We do not want to be too academic about defining Eco-Tourism, when considering how a business or in fact individuals behave in an environmental sense, we need to look at attitudes that are in that workplace are systems set up to minimise impact on the planet. This can also include the education included in the activity, for example, a pre-trip briefing may include detailing what your business expects of you when you are out in the environment such as waste disposal and toileting. ( http://www.mfe.govt.nz/issues/sustainable-industry/tools-services/concepts.php ) Another way we can help our clients to minimise their impact is to either provide a carbon offset scheme like planting trees or provide them with the opportunity to pay a little extra for someone else to plant a tree for them ( http://www.treesfortravellers.co.nz/main/Trees/ ). You can also involve your clients in conserving the area you are actually visiting with involvement in pest control such as stoat and possum trap checking and weed pulling (this also falls under the banner of conservation tourism)

A business that is truly Eco-Tourism will not be owned by a large foreign corporate entity and all the profits therefore go offshore. In some cases it is possible for it to be owned offshore because many small developing countries do not have the financial resources to invest in setting a new enterprise up but there must be a definite benefit to the local economy and to individuals within it. They must be paid fairly, be treated well and there must not be a detrimental effect on the local environment. The classic example of a community gaining financial benefit in the short term and environmental damage in the long term is mining in a place like Papua New Guinea.

Indigenous views and wellbeing being taken into account is also paramount for a business to be truly Eco-Tourism and adherence to local protocol shows respect and acknowledgement of their long term association with the area. In New Zealand it is great to be able to enjoy the Maori ways and to learn a lot about the country's history, it is a truly rich culture which many overseas visitors find fascinating.

The interpretive dimension of a trip is like the value added component. It is a nice thing to go for a walk in a beautiful area but to have it brought to life with stories and information is where the clients can gain a real affinity with a location. The stories can be laced with fun, fact and even a little fantasy (as long as your clients know you are joking). There are many techniques to be used and there is no "one size fits all" as you need to go with your personality as a host / guide. Techniques like using props, humour, stories to back up your claims and engagement of your audience are all good tools to have in your toolbox.

Education is one aspect that we should all engage in when addressing our clients. This means educating them and being open to being educated yourself. Your clients will often be from all over the world and they may be well educated and well-travelled. Therefore, they have something to offer as you do. Having an attitude of appreciation of others experiences and then sharing your own means the experience becomes a positive cultural exchange. You of course will need to keep their input under control as other clients may not want to hear about Montana or Cornwall so you need to focus on where you are and sharing the knowledge and stories of your location.

Overall there are many types of emerging tourism enterprises and they are all interlinked. For the sake of putting something in a box then this I hope helps to compartmentalise Eco-Tourism but it is not necessary to get too tied up with the small details, the real world does not work like that.

Author: Geoff Button