By Val Bishop
The power for eco travel and ecotourism to really make a difference lies with the consumer. Every travel decision you make, every choice you make about how and where to spend your holiday dollar either contributes to the true intention of ecotourism or diminishes it. Every spending decision can be a marked contribution to the local economy or it can simply add dollars to the pockets of wealthy multinationals; it can purposefully contribute to the conservation and management of the land or it can simply use the land; it can foster cultural diversity and respect or it can contribute to an ever-increasing mono-culture. The choices are yours.
The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Sure, but how do you actually do this? It takes some effort to do eco travel well. The effort is worth it, though, because making a difference in your day-to-day actions brings hope. Hope for the planet and hope for the future that we leave to our children. Here are some key questions to help guide your travel choices.
What is my personal carbon dioxide contribution as a result of my flight?
There are many websites where you can calculate your CO2 emissions (just plug “carbon calculator” into a search engine). Weigh the necessity of the flight and consider taking a vacation closer to home. If you decide to fly, pack light, fly in the daytime, fly economy and purchase carbon offset credits. All will help to reduce and or minimize the impact of your flight.
Do I really need to travel overseas?
Or can I have an awesome holiday experience closer to home? Traveling closer to home supports the local economy even on a national level and your CO2 contribution will be less (as long as you don’t fly there.)
How can I keep my spending as local as possible?
Do I stop for coffee at the multinational coffee chain or do I look for and buy my coffee from the local coffee shop? There is comfort in familiarity – familiarity with the taste of your morning coffee and the environment that produces the coffee. But I encourage you, on your travels, to step outside what is comfortable and explore the more authentic parts of the communities you travel through.
I know that in my home village, the Kozy, our local coffee shop, is filled with local flavor that you just can’t get at that other coffee shop. This takes effort and time – committing to spending locally sometimes is a little less convenient because you have to figure out where to go. In my experience, it is usually worth the effort for an enriched experience.
Where are my souvenirs made?
Are they imported or do local artisans make them? Shop at the locally owned gift shops on the main streets and ask what work or souvenirs in the shop are made locally. This directly supports the business and the artisans of the region.
What percentage of a company’s employees are hired locally, live locally?
You really can ask this question! I believe you will find the answers interesting. Choose to spend your dollars with the company that provides employment for local families. It makes a big difference to those families.
What is the level of local employees’ responsibilities?
Supervisors, managers, owners, maintenance workers, cooks, dishwashers, cleaners, waiters, waitresses? This is a challenging question. Do your best to discriminate – I am asking you to consider the level of responsibility assigned to the local employee. Often “local” translates to maintenance worker, cleaner, dishwasher. Look for the business that has locals as managers, supervisors or even owners – locals in positions of responsibility. These are companies that are really paying attention to the local community.
Who actually owns the business where I choose to stay?
Would that be a local family or a multinational chain? The bottom line here is where does your money go – to a local family and the local economy or somewhere into the vacuum of a multinational? Keep your spending as close to the local community as you can.
Does the business support any projects that benefit the local community?
Again, feel free to ask. Many small businesses go above and beyond the call of duty to support local initiatives. You will be pleasantly surprised how far they are reaching into their communities. By supporting a small business that supports its community, you are indirectly contributing to the betterment of the community you have visited.
How much water should I be using?
Do I really need to shower everyday or every time I come up from the beach? It is important not to make assumptions about water anymore. Conserve water every chance you get, even while you are on holiday. I also challenge you to think about the real cost of bottled water. Manufacturing, bottling, shipping, plastic bottles in landfills (about 90 percent of water bottles end up in landfill sites, rather than the recycling bin). Stop buying the stuff and refill your own water bottle from a safe source of drinking water and you will be helping to save a tremendous amount of resources.
Where does the supply of fresh water come from?
How precious is this resource? Understanding how precious the resource is, in the place you are visiting, will help motivate you to be careful with its use. Remember that while you are traveling through an area you are sharing resources with the residents of that area.
How expensive is electricity?
How much effort is being made to conserve energy? Does the company operate off grid? Again, you are sharing resources with a local resident population and being informed will help motivate you to conserve.
What happens to the garbage I produce while I am here?
No really, where does it go? Is it in an open pit, is it burned, is it buried, is there any recycling here? Garbage disposal is a significant concern in many tourist destinations. The increased volume of garbage puts pressure on local resources. Be careful about how much you produce and be sensitive to what is available in the region. Do not assume that while traveling you can recycle everything you can recycle at home. I am once again thinking about those nasty water bottles. Think “reduce” first.
Where does the food come from?
Is it imported out of season or is it locally grown, harvested and prepared? Again, keep your spending as close to the community as possible. Besides, the food will taste better. Local fare may be slightly different than what you are used to but, then again, experiencing something different is the whole point of travel.
Can I take a day trip and hire a local certified guide?
Accessing local knowledge is a very simple way to enrich any holiday experience and, again, it stimulates the local economy.
Are there entrance fees or donation boxes?
Often, these are voluntary but by using them you can contribute to helping ensure the resource is taken care of. I encourage you to pay fees and make donations – these dollars are critical to keeping resources intact and sustainable.
Am I staying in a gated all-inclusive resort?
Or I am staying in a locally owned hotel and packaging activities with a locally licensed operator? Surely, I must have made my point by now …local, local, local.
Shall I take the local bus or taxi rather than rent a car?
This one is your call. Try walking or cycling.
Am I paying a fair price for a souvenir or am I bargaining too hard?
We Westerners really have a lot. A lot of money, a lot of privilege. Pay a fair price for a souvenir. Making and selling souvenirs is the most accessible way for a local family to benefit from tourism.
Is the cultural experience that I am paying to see authentic?
Is it a local group/performance? Feel free to ask and if the answer is no, ask why not.
Who is benefiting from my money?
How much of my money is going to the operator I am booking with and how much of my money is going to the local communities where I will be traveling? You can ask this question too. It’s your money; you should know how it is being spent.
Ask yourself these questions before you begin to play your vacation and your eco travel / ecotourism experience will benefit both you and those who host your visit.
Good Alternative Travel Guide: Exciting Holidays for Responsible Travelers by Mark Mann, Zainem Ibrahim (Earthscan Publications Ltd, 2002) (also known as The Community Tourism Guide in an earlier edition)
Eco-Touring: The Ultimate Guide by Magnus Elander, Staffan Widstrand (Key Porter Books, 2002)
Fragile Paradise: The Impact of Tourism on Maui, 1959-2000 by Mansel G. Blackford (University Press of Kansas, 2001)
Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? by Martha Honey (Island Press, 1999)
Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel by Deborah McLaren (Kumarian Press, 2003)
Val Bishop was Coordinator/Professor of College Graduate Studies in Ecotourism and Adventure Tourism Management at Fleming College, Haliburton, Ontario when she wrote this article for Natural Life Magazine in 2007.