Sitting on the cliffs of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, next to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, is a small eco-lodge called Lapa Rios where visitors from around the world can escape from the modern world and find nature again. Nestled on 1000 acres of rainforest, this lodge offers 50 guests an opportunity to not only have fun, but to also lessen their impact on the fragile ecosystem of the rainforest while supporting the local economy. The experience is the epitome of the burgeoning field of ecotourism.
Ecotourism is a growing trend around the world. According to the International Ecotourism Society, the brand of travel has grown 20 percent to 34 percent each year since 1990. Ecotourism is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “the practice of traveling to beautiful natural places for pleasure in a way that does not damage the environment there.” And yet it has become so much bigger than just the environment. In order to participate in true ecotourism, lodges must take into account how they are affecting the local community. Ecotourism is about being local.
According to a 2012 survey by online travel giant TripAdvisor with over 700 participants, “57 percent of travelers said they ‘often’ make eco-friendly travel decisions, such as their choice of hotel, transportation, or food source.” However, only 4 percent of the participants have actually ever been on an ecotourism trip. Although ecotourism is growing, the percentage of travelers that are making the effort to try ecotourism is still very small.
The growth that has occurred in ecotourism, no matter how minuscule, has occurred in part because of the rise of interest in the protection of the environment, as well as the rise in ecotourism’s trendiness. Travelers are now taking into consideration what their carbon footprint is, not just while they are home, but also while they travel. Air travel is a huge contributor to the release of carbon dioxide into the environment. On average, one person releases just over a pound of carbon dioxide when they fly in an airplane per mile. Traveling from New York to Costa Rica is 2,201 miles one way. That means one person emits 2,201 pounds of carbon dioxide in one flight. From New York to Kenya, one person emits 7,314 pounds of carbon dioxide.
The growth of the ecotourism industry is a result of people realizing the impacts they are making when they travel. Not only does each person release an obscene amount of carbon when they travel, but they also have the potential of having a negative impact on the local communities by overusing their resources or having a clash of cultures. Ecotourism encourages visitors and locals to interact in positive ways so that both groups have the potential of learning and benefiting from one another.
The tourism industry is starting to realize that more people care about the environment and the local community—and the impacts they have on both when they travel. People are making conscious decisions about where they stay based on their own impact. As a result, tourist businesses are trying to cater to the desires of potential guests and highlighting these achievements in their advertising.
The problem with this increase in environment-focused advertising is that it is hard for travelers to discern which businesses, both eco-lodges and traditional hotels, are being factual about their personal impact on the environment. It becomes very complicated for travelers to decide where to stay when the traditional hotels claim to be green. Hilton, for example, has taken the initiative to offer guests the option of not washing their sheets and towels every day. In a US News interview, Ayako Ezaki, the director of communications for The International Ecotourism Society says that “Not washing linens every day does not save the planet. And sometimes, they wash them every day, anyway.” This tactic of false advertising is known as greenwashing. Greenwashing, according to Scientific American, is when businesses in any industry present themselves as greener than they actually are, thereby lying to the consumer.
According to the TripAdvisor survey, “44 percent ‘mostly’ believe hotel claims to be eco-friendly, 32 percent ‘rarely’ do.” Less than half of the people surveyed believe hotels are actually eco-friendly when they claim to be so. So the question is, how eco-friendly are these places actually and how should consumers decide where to spend their money?