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What Is Ecotourism? The Golden Rules for Backpackers

Written by Milly Whitehead on 31 / 03 / 2014

Gap Year Advice

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? I'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 keeping your pyromania under control!

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 seriously NO EXCUSE – consider this your opportunity to lead by example and help to improve attitudes to the environment, rather than reinforcing negative behaviour.

- Aim to take non-biodegradable waste home with you

Understand that many developing countries do not have the basic infrastructure to deal with waste management, let alone facilities to recycle – so dealing with YOUR waste in addition to their own is a recipe for environmental disaster.

- 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. The ones made by Swiss company SIGG are the best in the business.

- 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 (full story here).

And don’t forget the old saying: See some rubbish, pick it up and all day long you’ll have good luck!

- 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 cleaning up beaches and trails in Venezuela’s underfunded National Parks to educating kids about the environment and creating art from discarded flip flops on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.

2. Don’t Disturb Wildlife

Animals and birds 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 artificially can cause harm to the animal 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 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 through these facilities 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. Check your facts before visiting any such attraction or volunteering on a 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 planting a forest for giant tortoises in the Galapagos, protecting endangered turtles on the beaches of Costa Rica, or joining anti-poaching patrols in South Africa.

3. Protect the Resources of the Country You Are Visiting

When going on holiday 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 building wells and toilets in slum communities of Cambodia.

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.

You could try to stay in locally-owned accommodation so that economic benefits are felt by local people, rather then big business.

It's also good to eat local-style food which hasn’t had to travel miles to your table and is 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.

I also recommend educate yourself about local customs and traditions. Some communities can be offended when tourists wear inappropriate clothing, particularly when visiting sacred sites.

So before you next strip off in public or saunter into a religious building in hot pants, spare a thought for how that behaviour might be interpreted by local people.

Your Turn

What do you think about ecotourism? Have I got my definition right and are these golden rules alone enough to halt problems of sustainability in tourism?

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