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What Is Ecotourism? The Golden Rules for Backpackers

Written by Alice McLeod on 30 / 05 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

What is ecotourism?

The great and the good talk all about ecotourism as the holy grail of travel and something we should all strive for in our globe-trotting. But what is ecotourism and how can you practice it?

The snappiest answer to the question is the saying: 'tourists should take only photographs, leave only footprints'. But there’s far more to it than that - this is a movement that aims to reduce the negative impacts of tourism on environments, culture, and wildlife in any way possible.

It’s about preventing the exploitation of local people, protecting naturally beautiful habitats, and each visitor taking responsibility for his or her actions. If we can achieve all that, it will ensure that great tourist attractions can be enjoyed by future generations.

So now you understand what ecotourism is... how do you put it into practice? We've put together a handful of golden rules to get you started.

1. Look After the Environment

As a tourist you have a responsibility to protect the natural environment you are visiting so that future generations can enjoy it as you have. This means following footpaths rather than stomping through unspoilt habitat, disposing of litter correctly, and trying to reduce using single-use plastic when you can.

The litter part can be easier said than done in places where there are no obvious public bins and locals happily toss rubbish into the streets. But that’s no excuse – consider this your opportunity to lead by example and help to improve attitudes to the environment, rather than reinforcing negative behaviour.

- Invest in a reusable water bottle to reduce your waste. Aluminium bottles are tough, leak proof and will even keep your drinking water cool when all around are melting. You can even get on that has a built-in filter so you don't have to buy bottled water whilst overseas.

- Become a litter picker. Governments in developing countries are now getting clued up to the problem of tourists littering their main attractions, and in some countries have even started issuing fines to bad backpackers. In Nepal authorities have become so fed up with Everest’s reputation as ‘the world’s highest rubbish dump’, they’re now demanding that every climber collect at least 8kg of rubbish which they must produce at the gate and charge a $4000 deposit per person which is withheld from teams of walkers who pollute the mountain.

Our Cambodia programme has a huge focus on reducing plastic waste in the local community, so not only will you collect the rubbish, but you'll then turn it into eco building materials and use old plastic bottles to build houses - amazing stuff!

- Go the whole hog and volunteer. What better way to positively impact the country you are visiting than by giving up some of your time and money to help support conservation initiatives? There are a huge range of projects out there, from protecting the turtles and cleaning the beaches in Costa Rica to working with local communities in Peru.

2. Don’t Disturb Wildlife

Animals and natural wonders are an undeniably huge tourism attraction and there can be a temptation to seize and capture a moment with an exotic creature. Whether it’s grabbing hold of a monkey for a selfie or feeding your packed lunch to a stray cat, think carefully about the impact of your special ‘moment’ on that animal.

- Don’t feed the animals. You see this sign in all sorts of places when travelling, and familiarity can cause us to forget the dangers it implies. Feeding wildlife can cause harm to the animals by introducing foods they would not naturally eat, leading to vitamin deficiencies or even encouraging them to ingest foreign objects like plastics. It can result in aggressive behaviour from wildlife accustomed to being artificially fed, and can even endanger human life.

A good example of this is the feeding of whale sharks from boats in order to give tourists an up-close encounter. Sounds innocent enough, but according to the WWF artificial feeding is a major threat to their health, disturbing social and feeding behaviour, and has led to an increase in injuries from propellers as sharks approach boats looking for food.

- Steer clear of wildlife souvenirs. The illegal wildlife trade is one of the biggest threats to the survival of some of the world’s most threatened species, second only to habitat destruction as a cause of loss for many species. Make sure you do not unwittingly encourage this industry by purchasing goods made or derived from animals. A coral necklace may look attractive, but you’ll be adorning your body with a once living creature, removed from a delicate ecosystem where it may have taken decades, centuries even, to grow.

- Approach ‘wildlife interaction’ attractions with caution. Getting the chance to handle an exotic animal, be it a lion cub or orangutan, is a life-long dream for many tourists. But while there are undoubtedly abundant opportunities for tourists to make positive contributions to wildlife conservation there are sadly all too many instances where animals are exploited solely for financial benefit. The enclosures may cramped or dirty, animals can be abused or even sedated to comply with interaction with humans. So-called "cub-petting" is never an ethical way to see these animals and should be avoided.

Also be wary of the elephant encounters that are prevalent in Asia. Again, the elephants often have a poor quality of life and can suffer abuse at the hands of their handlers. Whilst it can be tempting, riding elephants is often unethical, and you should be very wary of attractions that involve getting up close with these animals. Do your research on any attraction or volunteering project which actively promotes handling of animals!

- Be proactive and volunteer to protect wildlife. There are some fantastic organisations around the world working tirelessly to preserve habitats and protect vulnerable animals from poaching. You could be rebuilding coral reefs in Kenya, protecting endangered turtles on the beaches of Costa Rica, or volunteering in a wildlife sanctuary in Vietnam.

3. Protect the Resources of the Country You Are Visiting

When travelling we often forget that the every day ‘necessities’ of our lives at home - such as water and electricity - are precious, often scarce commodities in other countries. Sensitivity to the value of resources to your host country and the possible impacts of overusing them is an important aspect of ecotourism.

- Don’t take too many showers ...and stay out of the bath! Water is the very lifeblood of human existence and in many parts of the world access to clean water is limited. Taking more than one shower per day, or luxuriating in there for hours may have reduce the amount of water for local people, so consider ways to reduce your consumption.

- Easy on the air conditioning. Remember that producing electricity is a dirty business with many detrimental effects on the environment. Air conditioning is one of the quickest ways to consume electricity, so if you’re not in dire need simply give it a miss.

- Reuse hotel towels. Every day millions of gallons of perfectly good, clean water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. If it’s not dirty then hang on to it!

- Help to protect natural resources. If you feel it’s unfair that tourists in fancy hotels often misuse scarce supplies of water and electricity which local people often don’t even have access to, take action. Work on projects that address the problem. A great example is our programme in Colombia that works with the local community to plant and grow tree nurseries to help fight against deforestation.

4. Think Local

Ecotourism isn’t just about habitats and resources, it’s also about respecting the culture of the country you are visiting and supporting the livelihoods of people that live there.

- Try to stay in locally-owned accommodation. This means economic benefits are felt by local people rather than big businesses that are often not even based in that country. This leads to money trickling down through the local economy, and thus benefits the local people.

- Eat local-style food. Not only has it not had to travel miles to your table, it's often produced by farmers in the region you are staying. You may have a craving for cheeseburgers or your favourite brand of tea, but these are expensive imports typically supplied by multinational corporations instead of locals. So it's better for the environment, local economy, but you might also find yourself discovering new and delicious food that you wouldn't have found if you'd just gone to a global fast-food chain. Street food is often cheaper as well so it's a win-win.

- Educate yourself about local customs and traditions. Some communities can be offended when tourists wear inappropriate clothing, particularly when visiting sacred sites. As a general rule, when visiting religious sites you should have your shoulders, chest, midriff, and knees covered (carry around a shawl in your bag that you can use for this purpose if needed). In places like Japan tattoos are still very taboo as they're associated with the yakuza (Japanese organised crime); if you have tattoos you might be denied entry into places such as onsen baths.

We would hope that if you're visiting a new country that you would be interested in their culture and customs, and would do a little bit of research before you arrived so you could educate yourself on how to be a good tourist. Being open-minded to new foods/experiences/ways of living that differ to what you're used to is a good place to start!

Your Turn

So now you know some of the rules of ecotourism and how to put them into practice, but what's next? All of our team programmes contain an element of ethical volunteering and contribution. Your time, manpower, and financial contribution by joining a team programme helps local communities continue and improve their way of life. We want our Leapers to come away from their time with us with new appreciation of things they may take for granted at home, and the drive to be a more conscientious traveller, having stepped off the backpacker trail. If this sounds like something you want to experience then get in contact.

Want to make a difference?

We have award-winning programmes across Africa, Asia, South and Central America.

Reducing plastic in our oceans, protecting traditional ways of life, and saving the coral reefs is just the tip of the melting iceberg.

All experiences include a mix of projects and adventures, travelling with a team of like minded individuals.

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