I’ve always dreamt of travelling – as a child, I would read about the natural wonders of the world, watch documentaries about UNESCO heritage site, and think about the day when I would get the chance to visit these places. I haven’t had the chance to visit most of these places yet, but these places have risen tremendously in popularity, creating some issues.
Mass tourism influx into poorly regulated areas (otherwise known as overtourism) has led to many undesirable impacts, including the unnecessary crowding of initially serene locations, the disruption of local holiday rentals by the influx of bigger hotel chains, and the most important of all – environmental degradation.
South-East Asia has its fair share of overtourism issues, many of which have resulted in the loss of pristine natural environments. This has led to the closure of some destinations like Boracay Island and Maya Bay. The dense tourist populations destroyed the beauty of these beaches and adversely affected marine life in the coastal coral reefs. While the former has reopened with many new regulations, Maya Bay will remain shut for the next few years (and great news – sharks have returned to the bay!).
In the face of such environmental problems stemming from overtourism, ecotourism has been coined as a new form of tourism and is slowly gaining popularity in recent years as people grow to be more environmentally conscious.
So what is ecotourism?
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.” Ecotourism sites generally adhere to these few guidelines below.
- Primarily nature-based: These destinations are dependent and enhanced by nature. Activities that can be done at these places are conducted in a natural setting and they should prioritize the environment while providing a service.
- Socio-cultural sustainability ideas: Good ecotourism is often community-based, such as engaging locals to be involved in the tourism activities in some way or another such as being tour guides for a place they know so well.
- Focus on learning and education: Many of these sites often have seasoned tour guides or at the very least some information boards/pamphlets to share more information and knowledge.
In these places, strict regulations regarding visitation numbers must be adhered to, to ensure an appropriate balance between protection and tourism activities.
What are some places that can be considered ecotourism destinations?
Here are some examples of ecotourism destinations you can consider on your next trip!
- National Parks: By promoting natural areas as a tourist attraction, people can be more inclined to support conservation of wild spaces and species. Park rangers are sometimes locals as well!
- Marine Protected Areas: There is often high biodiversity in these places due to them being well-managed, and therefore tourist activities are strictly regulated in these parts of the sea.
- Sanctuaries: Some ecotourism sites are sanctuaries for protected biodiversity and species. Opening up these conservation areas to (a limited number of) tourists can expand visitors’ knowledge on the importance of protecting natural areas, which in turn encourages them to contribute (through donations or hands-on volunteering) and share their newfound knowledge with friends!
- Cultural ecotourism: This form of ecotourism involves tourists paying to learn more about a community’s culture or heritage, and offers incentives to keep traditions alive.
At this point, I think it’s important to highlight that while some destinations are eco-friendly, it’s what you do there that defines your identity as an ecotourist! For instance, if you were to go snorkelling in a marine protected area, it would be pretty silly to kick coral reefs while wearing non-reef safe sunscreen and still consider yourself an ethical ecotourist.
How can we support ecotourism destinations?
Do your homework and research well
As much as I try to reduce my environmental impact as I travel, choosing the wrong destinations can easily undermine all my efforts. While planning your itinerary, make sure that the places you visit adhere to environmental principles and engage the tourist in practices that contribute to that. Depending on the country you intend to travel to, some tourism offices or departments provide valuable resources that collate attractions endorsed as eco-friendly destinations.
Another way of knowing that you are going to an eco-tourism site is to ensure that these places are certified! In a study in 2002, The World Tourism Organisation actually identified over 60 sustainable and ecotourism certification programs – most operate on a local or regional scale, while a few, including Green Globe 21 and Global Sustainable Tourism Council are more popular global ecotourism and sustainable tourism certifications. While the concept of sustainable tourism is slightly different from ecotourism (the former focuses on travel that has minimal impact on the sites visited while ecotourism focuses on environmental and ecological conservation as well), these certified destinations are likely to practice sustainable practices as well.
Do note that not all attractions labeled as ecotourism sites definitely fit the label of a truly eco-friendly environment due to the lack of regulation. This can be loosely defined as “greenwashing”, a marketing scheme that entices visitation based on a false image of environmental conservation.
On a recent field studies trip to the Philippines in which I participated in, we visited a supposed conservation area for tarsiers (a small nocturnal rodent endemic to Bohol), but the enclosure was so populated and noisy with visitors, and there were observable signs of the tarsiers’ poor physiological health. Definitely not a true conservation site! To avoid these sort of unfortunate occurrences, read trip reviews written by past travellers to get a better understanding of how these places are managed.
Stay at eco-resorts
Eco-resorts tend to minimize their impact on the environment as businesses and practice environmental responsibility. On top of basic initiatives such as using energy-efficient lighting and non-disposable tableware, some go beyond by serving locally sourced food, providing eco-friendly toiletries, and even recycling facilities. They may also be involved in conservation activities, and contribute to the local economy by employing locals at fair wages.
There are quite a few eco-friendly resort options available near Singapore! Take Teluna Resorts at Batam, Indonesia for instance – their focus on waste reduction is clear through their actions of composting organic waste and the minimization of single-use plastic bottles and straws. They also support the local artisan community by finding viable markets for them to showcase their talents and products – the resort’s furniture are upcycled from old boats!
Another interesting vacation option is LooLa Adventure Resorts which boasts various eco-friendly systems including a rainwater collection system, solar-powered systems, and interestingly, a chemical-free air conditioning system that uses solar freezing of ice!
A quick internet search will get you even more ideas on where to stay on your next vacation trip!
Leave no trace behind
Even at the destination, you have the obligation as a visitor to leave no trace behind. This especially rings true in natural ecotourism sites where the activities you engage in are entirely up to you, such as hiking, sightseeing or camping. Park rangers do not have the responsibility to pick up after your trash – you do!
There have been increasingly many tragic occurrences of natural wonders being disrespected by tourists. So many people trampled on and picked the flowers at the wildflower fields in California when they bloomed so beautifully earlier this year, park rangers had to close down the area. In some national parks in the United States such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, travellers do not heed park regulations, going too close to animals, entering or even flying drones in restricted areas – this can all affect the beauty of the place.
Have the clear conscience of not destroying the natural beauty of the place as well by following the rules set by authorities!
Prioritise visits to ecotourism attractions on your travels – it benefits the environment and the community, and there’s a good chance you’ll take away knowledge and appreciation for nature! Even if you end up not going to an ecotourism site, you can still do your part as a responsible eco-warrior by leaving no trace behind, reducing your waste intake, and in general, partaking in environmentally friendly actions!