Eco-tourism is more than a buzzword today; it has trickled into many corners of travel and hospitality
Just a few years back using words like conservation and travel in the same sentence must have sounded bizarre to many. But today, it is something that is driving a lot of attention from all sides – tourists, hospitality players and institutions.
It’s no surprise that when in 2015, the United Nations rolled out its Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, as a new plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity and laid down 169 specific targets for all countries to aim for; Travel & Tourism figured notably in three of the 169 targets.
The scope and impact of this sector is not small. World Travel and Tourism Council benchmarking report 2015 showed clearly that this sector contributes more to GDP than both the automotive and chemicals manufacturing industries in every region of the world (yes, as many as three times more than in GDP when we compare it with automotive sector in the Americas alone).
It employed 105 million people directly and sustained more jobs than the financial services, banking, mining and education sectors in many regions of the world. So dominant and far-reaching is its impact that for every one dollar spent on Travel & Tourism, 3.2 dollars were seen generated in GDP across the entire economy.
That brings us to those huge results and the quantum change that this industry can bring about if environmental consciousness and local-community focus became integral to a trip. That brings us to eco-tourism.
But wait; do not confuse the marketing ink of many resorts piggybacking on this word with the actual essence of eco-tourism.
If you think that going on a mountain trek is eco tourism in itself, you could be gravely mistaken. Specially if you use a lot of air conditioning, waste water irresponsibly in a spa, come back on a long-haul plane and after littering the hills recklessly during your trip.
If you think that staying in a rural corner of India has nothing to do with Eco-tourism, you can be mistaken again. Specially if you bought local food, local handicrafts and helped the villagers in any way – money, teaching Mathematics, in supporting a local clinic - anything useful to them.
Basically, any trip where you can cut down physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts on the planet and nurture an overall vibe of environmental and cultural awareness and respect is good for eco-tourism. It can be pro-poor tourism where visitors get involved with daily routines or agri-work of a local community. It can be tours that encourage travelers to help in any big or small way with habitat construction, tree planting, or other forms of volunteering.
Any trip that lets you develop a closer, deeper, fresher perspective of a place and builds positive experiences for both visitors and hosts while also assisting the cause of conservation is eco-tourism.
Like the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines, this is a responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.
Eco-tourism is palpable in many segments of the industry now – from aviation’s efforts to offer carbon-offset opportunities to a hotel’s approach to electricity (solar-powered), architecture (use of natural materials in structural planning), building design for reduced air conditioning, local-craftsmen-furnishings, use of renewable resources, optimizing natural light, use of composting toilets, local-organic sourcing, eco-responsible cleaning, recycling efforts, green transport and operations.
This genre has also indicated progress with revival of areas like Gao Giong in Vietnam, island of Yim Tin Tsai in Hong Kong and Cuyabeno in Ecuador.
Travellers are increasingly using this mode to experience their surroundings in a more immersive way with accommodations which are designed to fit into their environment, and the place’s own history or context.
Barring luxurious resorts or spas that simply label a facility which is equally careless as an urban hotel under the garb of eco-resort just because it has a couple of trees around; there are many real efforts being made to truly help local communities and the planet.
Many hotels and chains are now designing, constructing and operating low-impact facilities as they also urge guests to go considerate with the use of water, food, and electricity. A simple request to not instruct towels to be washed unnecessarily, if not needed, is a small indicator of the big wave that has inspired this world
In the 2016 version of Center for Responsible Travel (CREST)'s annual study, it was observed that growth of responsible tourism continues to outpace growth of the tourism industry as a whole. It was even discovered that the social and environmental imperative for responsible travel was being spurred, in part, by the twin crises of wealth inequality and climate change.
Deloitte has also affirmed in a research that the number of travellers who are aware of the sustainable travel issues and the willingness of these travellers to spend on environmentally-friendly travel went up considerably (by a third) in the last decade with as many as 95 per cent of business travelers opining that the hotel industry should be undertaking green initiatives.
Numbers from a study by the Center for Responsible Travel indicate that hotels and tour operators around the world such as Marriot, Hilton, Intercontinental Hotel Group and Accor have been responding to ecotourism interest by appointments of senior management positions for sustainability practices in their business operations.
This is indeed a wave that will last, more so as ecotourism not only proffers effective economic incentives for conservation of bio-cultural diversity but also strengthens natural and cultural heritage of a place.
You can do your own bit to contribute to this new genre of tourism. It’s not difficult at all. Just remember one word for the transport you take, the stuff you pick, the stuff you leave behind, the food you eat and the place you stay in – Mindful.
Be an eco-tourist. Be mindful.