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Thursday, June 23, 2005 05:59 pm

earth talk 6-23-05

Dear “Earth Talk”: What exactly constitutes “ecotravel” or “ecotourism”? — Jeannette Peclet, Norwalk, Conn.

Although tour operators and travel agents around the world may tout their trips as “ecotours,” environmentally conscious travelers take a variety of considerations into account when determining whether any given excursion qualifies as such. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “travel to natural destinations that minimizes impact, builds environmental awareness, helps fund conservation, and respects and sustains local cultures while supporting human rights and democracy.”

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, ecotourism is defined as travel focused on “the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.” UNEP emphasizes that ecotours must contain educational features, be organized for small groups by locally owned businesses, minimize negative effects “upon the natural and socio-cultural environment,” and support the protection of natural areas by generating income for the host communities to use in conserving and sustaining their natural and cultural resources.

Recent studies indicate that as much as 7 percent of all tourism worldwide operates under some sort of “eco” label. One recent survey concluded that 8 million U.S. travelers have taken at least one “ecotourist” holiday; another concluded that three-quarters of all Americans have taken a trip involving nature and the outdoors. In the Asia-Pacific region, ecotourism accounts for 20 percent of all travel. Meanwhile, in Africa, where most visitors travel to nature reserves and game parks, the figures are even higher. The Kenya Wildlife Service, for instance, estimates that 80 percent of visitors come to see wildlife.

But the debate over what types of travel constitute ecotourism has meant that a wide range of dining, lodging, and transportation vendors advertise themselves as “green” regardless of whether their operations meet the criteria defined by TIES and other groups. As Jim Motavalli writes in E/The Environmental Magazine, “A beachfront hotel tower built of imported materials with absentee owners and no local employees is not an eco-resort, even if it does offer its guests the option of not washing their towels.”

And travelers should keep in mind that “adventure” travel or “nature-based” tourism trips are not necessarily environmentally friendly. In fact, tour operators offering access to remote scenic and wild locations need to take extra care so that their trips do not endanger the very flora, fauna, and geological features they are offering to showcase. Sad stories of so-called ecotourism run amok — where overvisitation has led to trampled landscapes and damaged wildlife habitat — abound from the Galapagos Islands and Mexico’s Chiapas region to the coastal caves of Thailand, the reefs of Hawaii, and beyond.

The moral of the story then, is “buyer beware.” Consumers should do their homework and ask travel vendors a lot of questions about how they operate to discern whether they are harming or helping local environments and cultures.

For more information: The International Ecotourism Society, www.ecotourism.org; United Nations Environment Programme, www.unep.org.

Send questions to “Earth Talk” in care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881, or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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