What Is an Ecotourism Destination and How Sustainable Is It?

Environmentally conscious travellers can benefit from heading to ecotourism destinations if they want to impact the environment positively. Still, how sustainable can they be as a part of the tourism industry? How can you accurately tell them apart from regular tourist destinations?

What Is an Ecotourism Destination?

Usually, an ecotourism destination is just a tourist destination focusing on sustainability. For example, the Snowbowl ski resort in Arizona supports a $35 million industry by using recycled water to produce snow for its slopes. It may seem minor, but the positive effect is significant.

Hawksbill turtle - Hawaii as ecotourism destination
Hawksbill turtle. Image: Depositphotos

It’s important to know if the attraction you’re visiting is truly eco-friendly because you want to avoid getting tripped up by greenwashing. Even though it may look or claim to be sustainable, there’s always a chance it’s not. For example, despite tourism contributing around $154 million to Hawaii in 2021, it endangered species like the hawksbill sea turtle and Hawaiian goose. Although visitors created jobs and greatly helped the local economy, they slowly destroyed native habitats.

It can seem like a great experience at first because you connect with nature, but you should be careful and know the true effects of your presence there. The sea turtle and goose recovered from the impact of tourists, but only after people stayed away from them for a while.

Is It Sustainable Ecotourism or Greenwashing?

Yanchep National Park in Australia is a certified ecotourism destination
Yanchep National Park in Australia is a certified ecotourism destination

Tourism still impacts the environment despite eco-friendly travelling and attractions. The World Travel & Tourism Council estimates that the industry generates up to 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Ecotourism destinations are still a sustainable long-term solution because their focus on the planet is much more visible. However, you should remember they can have harmful impacts. While it’s generally OK because nothing can be totally sustainable, there are times when they don’t make the best choices.

An ecotourism destination should do the following:

  • Help local businesses: Tourists typically patronize local businesses after visiting the attraction, meaning everyone benefits from increased revenue.
  • Raise awareness: Since most ecotourism destinations teach about nature somehow, many tourists leave the experience with a heightened respect for the environment.

Ecotourism is supposed to be fun and informative while benefiting the ecosystem. Since tourism activities can often cause damage to the environment, ecotourism destinations should guide them to make the right choices and limit their impact. Companies must think about economic sustainability because people matter more than profit. Local communities should benefit as much as nature.

Which Ecotourism Destinations Are Truly Sustainable?

Tasmania's Overland Track is a certified ecotourism destination
The Overland Track in Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park is a certified ecotourism destination. Image: Depositphotos

While there usually aren’t clear guidelines or requirements for ecotourism destinations, there are ways to spot a truly sustainable one.

1.    Minimal Environmental Impacts

A limited environmental impact is an essential factor. Ecotourism destinations can limit human interactions with wildlife, recycle or use clean energy to offset their effect on nature. There are many ways to do it, but the point is to reduce their carbon footprint and not affect native habitats.

2.    Local Support

People matter as much as plants and animals, so including them is crucial. On top of directing tourists to local businesses, ecotourism destinations can hire locals since they’ll likely have a better understanding of the surrounding ecosystem. It can also help because they have a personal stake in protecting the landscape.

3.    Sustained Ecosystem

Wildlife conservation and preservation are fundamental. Although only some ecotourism destinations focus on conserving native species, most contribute to their protection somehow. They donate to helpful organizations or minimize their presence as much as possible to let nature continue as usual around them.

4.    Respect for Culture

Ecotourism destinations must have a limited impact on locals to show respect. Beyond that, the business shouldn’t interfere with culture. Instead of simply using eco-friendly business practices, it takes sustainability further and focuses on tourists’ roles.

Their involvement is crucial to the entire process because their behaviour impacts the local landscape the most. Ecotourism destinations are sustainable partly because they focus on their effect on people.

5.    Education About Nature

Most ecotourism destinations educate about nature because it aligns with their purpose and actions. Education is sustainable because it helps spread crucial messages to people who might not hear it otherwise. More individuals will likely be conscious of their environmental impact if they have a fun, informative experience.

Greenwashing in Ecotourism

Masaai Village in Tanzania
Masaai Village in Tanzania. Image: Depositphotos

Greenwashing occurs when businesses aren’t always entirely truthful about how eco-friendly they are. It happens when they try to exaggerate or misinform you about their sustainability.

While ecotourism destinations are mostly beneficial for the environment, there have been cases where they did more harm than good. For example, the Tanzanian government and various conservation agencies announced in 2021 that they planned to remove Indigenous people from their homes to make room for an ecotourism destination. Even though their intentions seemed promising, it was an excuse to create a tourist attraction.

They framed the locals as responsible for destroying the landscape even though Indigenous people preserve 80% of global biodiversity while making up only 5% of the population. Even though they have good intentions, true sustainability comes from caring about people just as much as nature.

Beach in Puma valley - a superb ecotourism destination
Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica can only be visited with a certified nature guide

The slip-ups can even be minor and still matter. For example, after the Eden Project faced backlash over installing artificial grass, it responded with something vaguely resembling greenwashing. It declared it did some soul-searching before deciding to remove it and was always committed to using the most sustainable materials.

Plus, it also claimed the installation was tiny and was supposed to be there briefly. However, plastic isn’t good for the environment, whether temporary or not. Besides, the purpose was to keep kids from tracking mud into the facility, so it likely would’ve been there for a while. Even though it’s a small thing compared to the impact regular tourist destinations usually have, it’s important to hold everyone equally accountable.

Tips on Spotting Greenwashing in Ecotourism

Tourist boats in the Pantanal
Tour boats crowding around two juvenile jaguars in the Brazilian Pantanal.

It may be tricky to spot greenwashing since its whole purpose is to be sneaky. However, there are a few reliable ways to tell if an ecotourism destination isn’t honest about its sustainability.

1.    Vague Wording

Keep an eye out for vague language. For example, an attraction might claim it was built with eco-friendly materials but not include where or what it was. What if it only used a minor amount? If it’s sustainable, it will use specific units of measurement and be completely clear.

2.    Bragging About Sustainability

Remember that a sustainable business may be proud of its effort, but won’t boast about them. Ecotourism destinations shouldn’t place themselves on a pedestal and only address their positive contributions while ignoring the negative because that wouldn’t represent their impact. Truthfully, every business in the tourism industry is a part of the climate crisis, so how they offset that matters most.

3.    Meaningless Green Words

Although words like “eco-friendly,” “organic”, or “natural” sound great, they’re pointless. Businesses sometimes use language with no clear meaning to trick you into thinking they have a better impact on the planet than they do. It might surprise you to realize even sustainable places can greenwash.

4.    Unfulfilled Promises

Just because ecotourism destinations vow to reduce their carbon emissions or donate to charity doesn’t mean they have to — a promise isn’t legally binding. Environmental efforts can take years, and it’s common for people to forget about the claims before they see the results. Always research before your visit to see if the business is following through. If you find out it didn’t do what it pledged, it’s likely greenwashing.

5.    No Proof

Before your visit, check the website to see if it displays its environmental impact and which efforts it’s a part of. Check out the labels on any gift shop items, too. You want solid proof of the attraction’s claims to know if it’s doing anything good for the environment.

Some places regulate their ecotourism destinations to enhance their positive impact and hold them accountable. Queensland, Australia, requires them to have certification to open and maintain sustainable practices to stay in business. It focuses on landscape preservation, wildlife conservation, waste management and cultural protection. Going to places with certificates or official standards is a sure bet because they’ll have third parties holding them to their word.

Ecotourism destinations are supposed to positively impact and support conservation, but they are still tourist attractions. The whole point of tourism is to attract people and generate money, which is why holding them accountable for their sustainability goals and claims is essential.

Will Ecotourism Destinations Affect Your Travels?

Moreton Island, Queensland
Tangalooma Island Resort on Moreton Island is certified by EarthCheck. Image: Depositphotos

More people are looking for change in the industry as sustainable tourism becomes increasingly popular. In 2021, the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the World Travel & Tourism Council announced a plan for a 50% reduction in the industry’s emissions by 2030, with the eventual goal being almost zero by 2050. While the goal might seem far away, ecotourism destinations still positively affect the industry because they inspire change.

Evident changes can make the industry more sustainable in the short term. For example, ecotourism destinations can sell sustainable souvenirs to raise awareness of environmental causes since every generation is happy paying an extra 10% for an eco-friendly product. The entire tourism industry won’t change overnight, but there’s already progress toward a more sustainable future.

Ecotourism Destinations and Sustainability

While ecotourism destinations aren’t entirely sustainable, nothing’s perfect. They’ve already positively impacted local ecosystems and the tourism industry, so it’s no wonder many tourists are flocking to them.

About the Author

Jane Marsh works as an environmental writer, covering topics such as sustainability and green living. She is also the founder of Environment.co.

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