Ecotourism Vacation Planning Tips

According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the definition of ecotourism is "environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural feature, both past and present) that promote conservation, have low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples." As our awareness of how so many of our choices impact the planet, what does this really mean?

Principles of Ecotourism
It almost sounds too simple: visit a natural area for your next vacation and you can become an ecotourist. In actuality, planning a vacation to a national park or rainforest isn't quite enough. Ecotourism takes into account all the decisions and actions you take when planning your trip and while you're at your destination.

Generally accepted principles of ecotourism include:

  • Choosing low-impact behavior before and during your visit that support local conservation efforts
  • Honoring, respecting and celebrating local cultures and customs
  • Participating in educational activities that involve the local community and you, the traveler
  • Seeking businesses, including hotels, restaurants, shops and other service providers who operate in the spirit of conservation and sustainability

Although the definition of ecotourism may be strict, it's becoming one the fastest-growing segments of the travel and tourism industry worldwide as travelers become more conscious of the impact their leisure time has on the environment.

Ecotourism Concerns
Despite the interest in green vacations, there is some debate about the ecotourism industry. For starters, there are no formal ecotourism regulations to enforce (i.e., there's no certification process like there is, say, for food to be labeled organic). Hotel and tour operators then, can promote their services as ecotourism based on the destination being lesser-developed than other areas. Upon careful research, these programs differ little from conventional tourism. There is a movement however to set down stricter guidelines and put measures into place to enforce them.

Additionally, some environmental experts are concerned that the mainstreaming of green vacations is doing more harm than good in certain areas due to the greater influx of visitors and the impact their footprint leaves.

Identifying Legitimate Ecotourism
One goal of the industry is to keep more tourist money flowing into the local business economy versus only international airlines, car rental companies and hotel chains receiving that revenue. Educated travelers should do extensive research to make the best decisions they can regarding accommodations and other services at their destination.

You'll want to be sure that the accommodations you choose-on your own or as part of a tour-purchase the vast majority of their products locally. This way, you'll know that the dollars you spend as a tourist stay within and support the local community. Some questions the International Ecotourism Society suggests you ask include:

  • What are your environmental policies?
  • What percentage of your employees are local citizens?
  • What projects is your business involved in that benefit the local community?

If the hotel or tour operators don't understand the question or have difficulty answering the question (or the answers are unsatisfactory), that's a clear sign that the businesses don't uphold the principles of ecotourism.

Good research is essential if you're committed to greening your next vacation. The International Ecotourism Society is a valuable resource not only for education, but for its extensive listing of hundreds of legitimately environmentally friendly tours and programs. You can also look for companies that are Green Globe certified, which is an international ranking system for the travel and tourism industry.

What You Can Do on an Eco-Holiday
Taking an eco-holiday can be as simple as making a conscious choice to stay at an eco-friendly resort with good energy conservation and waste disposal practices. Even large hotel chains are getting in the action and implementing environmentally friendly programs at their international resorts that guarantee a certain percentage of guest revenue is donated to local conservation programs.

More involved vacations offer travelers the opportunity to work as part of a structured team focused on marine research, agriculture or wildlife conservation. In Nicaragua, for example, Nest Trust offers eco-holidays where you can live and work with the rural population in the country's coffee-growing mountains, while teaching the children English. It's estimated that up to 90% of tourist dollars in this program directly benefit that small community.

There's a myth that taking ecotourism vacations cost more than conventional travel, but that's most often not the case. Destinations in lesser-developed areas tend to use fewer resources as a result of local conditions. The cost to stay in these areas is usually on par with other hotels, but the environmental impact is positive and contrary to what you might think, you don't have to give up comfort and luxury to stay there.

How to Be a Responsible Traveler
Whether you're interested in ecotourism trips or you're simply looking to make better choices on your vacation, there are a few things you do to lessen the impact your vacation has on your destination as well as the planet:

  • Support energy-efficient and renewable energy projects to offset the carbon emissions produced by air travel
  • Make use of public transportation during your visit and walk or bike when possible
  • Make an effort to learn about the local customs and culture before you arrive, including proper dress and perhaps even studying key phrases in the native language
  • Respect the natural environment by keeping to designated trails and park areas, disposing of trash properly and respecting the wildlife
  • Support local businesses by buying locally-made products and keeping bargaining to a minimum
  • Stay at locally owned and operated accommodations
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There are several benefits of ecotourism. In recent years, ecotourism has exploded in popularity. Ecotourism takes tourists away from civilization and exposes them to exotic wildlife, new cultures and entrancing landscapes. 

Today, Costa Rica ecotourism continues to stir controversy. While ecotourism in Costa Rica has reaped economic benefits, environmentalists are concerned that the desire for profits is outdistancing the need for conservation.

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Eco travel takes people to remote areas to explore worlds largely untouched by mankind and learn about isolated cultures. It requires responsible travel and a willingness to abide by ecotourism rules.

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Ecotourists strive to travel with the intent of the least human impact on environment and the local ecosystems as possible. However, the weaknesses of ecotourism can override the very benefits that ecotourism offers.

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