The Next 20 Years of Ecotourism

By Megan Epler Wood,
founder of The International Ecotourism Society
and former Co-Executive Director
of the Planeterra Foundation

Megan Epler WoodTwenty years ago travelers were just beginning to think about the environmental impacts of their tours. Ecotourism became a catch-all term in the 1990s for making travel environmentally beneficial, and it was frequently cited as the fastest growing phenomenon in travel. Journalists tended to run with any reasonable stats they were given on this growing market, but the fact was that truly responsible travelers were a rare breed. It has taken 20 years to take this phenomenon mainstream!

Ecotourism was defined by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) in 1990 as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people. As the founder of TIES, I found this basic definition a vital tool to manage perceptions of what tourism’s impacts are, how we might manage it differently in the future, and how to ask the industry to put a higher value on conserving the landscapes, wildlife, parks, people, monuments, and cultures that make their businesses possible.

Once I saw travel not as just a personal experience, but a way to touch the global community and help promote positive measures for conservation and sustainability, it became impossible to look back. Ecotourism influences a broad global dialog on the sustainability of travel which even led to a United Nations ecotourism summit in 2002. But for me the growth of the tourism economy has been the most important fact to help the global community understand its potential for good and the need to arrest the bad. This huge industry now generates over 10 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. And for 83 percent of countries in the world, tourism is one of the top five sources of foreign exchange.

Travelers are branching out around the planet, and the Internet makes it possible to book in any country, at any time. Volume continues to go up worldwide, and developing countries are seeing enormous growth. Tourists now spend over $200 billion annually in emerging market nations. No other sector spreads wealth and jobs across poor countries like tourism does, but no other sector grows with so few controls.

Vulnerabilities to the economy of tourism are always there. Security risks can cause drastic downturns, armed conflicts destroy tourism markets, and rising oil prices hit fast and hard. All of these factors will affect ecotourism in the next 20 years. I just returned from Egypt, and due to the current news cycle featuring some political unrest, tourist volume is down over 50 percent. This drastic reduction in sales is painful; huge investments are lost, and local businesses lay off workers. The harsh reality of a market-based product cannot be softened. No matter how one wants to present tourism as a positive force for sustainability, it is still a global market that cannot be controlled.

The profile of the ecotourist is changing rapidly. It was once assumed that the ecotraveler was a foreign visitor to exotic locales, dressed in khaki and ready to view wildlife by day and sit by campfires at night. Now, the ecotraveler has many profiles. Throughout the world, ecotravelers often visit rural and exotic locales in their own countries. Brazilians from Sao Paulo are a major market for parks in the beautiful mountains of Minas Gerais. Travelers from Dhaka in Bangladesh are the major market for the parks and reserves on the Bay of Bengal. Indian and Chinese travelers are a growing force in their domestic destinations. Ecotravel is no longer a reflection of a colonial past, it is a highly globalized market. It is dependent on neither backpackers nor luxury safari enthusiasts, but is a full spectrum of nationalities and demographics representing all ages and incomes.

In the last 20 years, sustainability and the environmental management of tourism have become a greater focus of the largest tourism corporations on earth. Systems to manage hotel waste, water, air quality, and energy conservation are standard procedure now among most major hotel brands. Travelers may see only that they are being asked not to waste their sheets and towels, but behind hotel walls, efficient systems for lighting, heating and air conditioning, and water conservation measures are being installed across the globe.

Ecolodges, once a rare phenomenon, have become a strong market trend worldwide. Frequently designed by inspired architects; ecolodges set the standard for environmentally sustainable lodging, using renewable energy, reducing waste, composting, growing their own organic gardens, and avoiding the destruction of native vegetation. Dozens of independent lodges now operate in the globe’s beauty spots, from Caiman Ecological Refuge in the Pantanal of Brazil to the Kosrae Village Ecolodge and Dive Resort in Micronesia. Tourism and travel awards are frequently given to chains of ecologically managed hotels that take their cues from the ecolodge movement, such as Six Senses, which operates in Thailand, Vietnam, the Maldives and Jordan. This company builds lodges using local sustainable sources wherever possible and serves organic food, helping travelers to appreciate the “slow life.”

There have been many global gains for ecotourism, but when it comes to aviation, we are talking about one of the most carbon intensive industries in the world, not an ecological strong point of this industry. The global aviation industry presently accounts for three percent of carbon emissions worldwide and is rising fast. With all known measures, including improved efficiency, emissions will nevertheless be up 175 percent in the next 20 years, particularly because of ever increasing numbers of long haul flights. At present, the EU is mandating carbon trading for aviation, but the global airline industry is fighting this tooth and nail. It seems few are worrying about the environmental threats of global aviation, so initiatives to manage the carbon impacts of air travel are difficult to advance.

Making ecotourism a genuine tool for conservation of the world’s ecosystems is a battle which never flags, but also never receives the needed unconditional support. For example, travelers without question are ready to pay for entrances to parks, and foreign visitors are frequently prepared to pay more than they do. Yet parks and protected areas around the world have been extremely slow in adopting measures to be certain tourists pay what is really required. How many times do travelers enter parks around the world without knowing how to pay? Ecotourism in the next 20 years must be a primary source of revenue for parks, and ecotravelers will be ready to pay.

Historic monuments also suffer greatly from a lack of wise management. In the Valley of the Kings in Egypt I was lucky to visit when few other travelers were present, but I was told that there are no limits on the numbers of visitors entering the ancient tombs, which are among the greatest monuments of human civilization. When I questioned whether there might not be a system to implement limits in the future, I was told I was dreaming. If Egypt or Cambodia or any other nation with major monuments cannot control visitor volume, the future of ecotourism is compromised. Traveler overload will damage these sites and they may eventually have to be closed. However, managers of Macchu Picchu in Peru have come to terms with this problem and set out a permit system to control the number of trekkers on the Inca Trail. Through this type of volume management, we can hope that ecotourism will be a positive for the world’s important monuments.

Travel suppliers are increasingly diverse. Small communities across the globe have sought to join the travel economy. We now call this community-based tourism. But often local communities do not offer the quality that travelers can embrace, and as a result do not find ready buyers. Helping these businesses has become an agenda for the ecotourism world, and investments in local community-based providers can help local people to maintain cultural roots and protect their environments.

In my work, as the head of the Planeterra Foundation (www.planeterra.org ) we are investing in local community providers throughout Latin America. We are presently helping Mayan women in a small village on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala to build improved home-based accommodations. As travelers visit the community’s art and handicraft workshops, medicinal herb gardens, and tree-planting ceremonies, tourism is making a positive contribution to the community and creating a living example of the benefits ecotourism can generate. Planeterra can ensure these small businesses get a real market, as we are the foundation for G Adventures, the largest adventure travel company in the world. Wherever Planeterra invests, we work with G Adventures to be sure their passengers enjoy these wonderful authentic experiences that genuinely benefit local people.

Ecotourism has built an influential market base which draws customers committed to a green economy. Its market potential is not limited, but the resources upon which it depends are. One of the biggest issues with providing ecologically sound tourism will be the management of landscapes and regions where tourism has taken off. Authorities rarely have the knowledge to implement smart growth strategies, and the landscape quickly becomes overcrowded with hotels, restaurants and services for travelers. As tourism fans across the land, local services are frequently not provided to local workers who live without basic sewage treatment, fresh water, health services or adequate education for their children. It is difficult to advocate a more ecological future for tourism if basic sanitation and human needs are not met.

The Planeterra Foundation has developed a system for governments to track the impacts of tourism and make better decisions on the investment required to manage tourism. This system, already tested on Ambergris Caye in Belize, is being implemented further by the Belize Tourism Board and plans are now being made to work with other governments to help local authorities develop destination management systems needed to arrest unplanned growth.

What the ecotourism experience will be like in 20 years depends on the commitment of governments to create well-planned destinations. Without local planning, ecotourism could easily be just another problem on the landscape. Local people are increasingly recognizing that they need to protect their resources. What local people do to preserve their destinations must be a high priority for the future of ecotourism.

In Egypt I traveled to the Western Sahara. After one night in the large oasis of Bahariya, four hours west of Cairo, we had a soak in the crystal oasis waters and afterwards ate lunch in a simple building, decorated with local handicrafts and rugs, served by local guides. This was one of those authentic meeting grounds, where locals and tourists enjoy the same laid back experience of being away, sharing each other’s cultures, eating local foods, enjoying interesting indigenous handicrafts and honoring the beautiful place they are visiting without artifice. I found myself loving the Sahara desert, its timeless beauty, and the fun-loving nature of our local guides. I relaxed, got into the groove, and thought to myself, this is the future of ecotourism!

Article by Megan Epler Wood, who founded The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) in 1990, the oldest and largest non-profit organization in the world dedicated to making ecotourism a tool for sustainable tourism development worldwide. Since 2003, Megan’s firm EplerWood International (www.eplerwood.com ) has devoted itself to aiding some of the poorest countries in the world with sustainable tourism development. Megan is the former Co-Executive Director of the Planeterra Foundation where she is leading a global effort to scale up the community and environmental benefits from sustainable tourism.

Megan has recently been named Director of new International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

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