The Truth about Travel: The Growth of Ecotourism

Monkeys in the Amazon Courtesy of Angelo DeSantis/ Flickr Creative Commons

Monkeys in the Amazon Courtesy of Angelo DeSantis/ Flickr Creative Commons

From the dense, green rainforests of Costa Rica, to the humid, lively Amazon of South America, to the hot deserts of Kenya, to the colorful, warm Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. These natural beauties have been sites to see for generations. People travel thousands of miles to see these natural wonders of the world. And it is these sorts of natural marvels that gave rise to the movement the world now knows as ecotourism.

Ecotourism is not a new concept. For decades, people have traveled around the world looking at the beauties that this planet has to offer. John Muir, for example, ventured into the Sierra Nevada mountain range and fell in love with it so much that he put it on himself to protect the land that would later become Yosemite National Park. Though the term wasn’t coined yet, Muir’s trip into Yosemite Valley is a form of ecotourism.

Photo courtesy of Chris M Morris/ Flickr Commons

Photo courtesy of Chris M Morris/ Flickr Commons

“Ecotourism” as a word, was not thought of until July of 1983, by a man named Hector Ceballos- Lascurain.  Ceballos- Lascurain is a “Mexican architect, environmentalist, and ecotourism and cultural tourism expert.” As an architect, he designs buildings that are sustainable and are therefore better for the environment, compared to a normal building.

According to Ross Dowling, whose article on the history of ecotourism is included in the International Handbook on Ecotourism, ecotourism has grown since the mid-20th century. He says “During the 1960s increasing environmental awareness paralleled the advent of mass tourism.” Because awareness of human impacts on the environment happened simultaneously to the growth of tourism, the idea of ecotourism naturally grew into the worldwide phenomenon that it has become since.

Now, ecotourism has grown to include many different categories of travel destinations. The Global Nature Fund broke ecotourism down into three segments- nature and cultural tourism, wildlife tourism, and adventure tourism. The International Ecotourism Society also includes geotourism, which is defined as “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place- its environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture, and well- being of its residents.” In order to be considered “ecotourism”, these four types of trips must be centered on preserving the natural environment and the local culture.

However, paralleling the growth of ecotourism is the growth of “greenwashing” in business. Greenwashing, as defined by Oxford Dictionary, is “Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” According to Green Peace, an organization that fights greenwashing, greenwashing became a phenomenon in the 1970s, around the same time that ecotourism started to become more prominent in the tourism industry. Since 2004, ecotourism grew “globally three times faster than the tourism industry as a whole” and it is this significant growth that has created competition between traditional tourism and ecotourism.

In order to make themselves more competitive, traditional tourist businesses have taken initiatives to make themselves seem greener to appeal to the travelers that are eco-minded. Thus, they “greenwash”. Deloitte, the accounting and consulting firm, performed a survey in 2008, asking 1,000 business travelers about their expectations of how green a hotel should be and how green those businesses are actually. Of the participants, 95 percent believe that hotels should be doing more green initiatives. 71 percent of participants believed that hotels are being “somewhat” green while 23 percent believe that hotels are not being green at all. A significant number of participants do not believe businesses are living up to their fullest potential when it comes to actions taken to be greener.

Many large corporation hotels offer customers the option of not having their linens washed on a daily basis. Another result of the Deloitte survey, though, showed that thirty percent of the participants had asked the cleaning service to not change their sheets and towels, but upon their return to their rooms, they found that all of their linens had been changed. This is an example of greenwashing. Another example of greenwashing, according to Jacqueline Kuehnel, is when restaurants claim to use organic food, but they do not advertise where they get their food from.

This is not the case for all large corporations. Hilton Worldwide is making a large effort in limiting their carbon production by using less water and energy.

Ecotourism has given many sectors in the tourist industry a reason to change their business models in order to be greener. It is not just the responsibility of the businesses to follow through on their green initiatives. The consumer also has the ability to pressure businesses to give them what they need to be happier. For example, hotels can offer reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones or use soap dispensers instead of bars of soap that need to be thrown out after each guest. Because in this sort of business, the customer is never wrong.

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