In the world of sustainable travel, the term ecotourism is a slippery fish. Just take it from environmental anthropologist Amanda Stronza, who wrote her Ph.D. about the term back in 1999, roughly a decade after the “ecotourism” idea was coined.
The professor at Texas A&M University has since published numerous studies about sustainable tourism models and conducted years of research on humanity’s complicated relationship with natural and vulnerable environments. One thing that sets her perspective apart is that it’s rooted in practical guidelines for humans as part of the natural, living world.
This diverges from some more extreme eco-ideologies that might insist anyone who cares about the environment must avoid flying at all costs, maybe go vegan and scrutinize every individual print they leave on Earth or emit into its atmosphere. While this more dogmatic ideal surely has some merit for the natural world — and kudos to anyone happily living it out — it’s hardly realistic for most people living in our globalized age.
Also, for Stronza, it doesn’t square with her definition of “natural” ecosystems.
“If we’re so concerned about the impacts of tourism that we dare not touch a place, there are a couple things wrong with that,” she says. First, almost every place on Earth has already been touched and impacted by humans, she says, often for worse and sometimes for better. So, nature and natural places aren’t exactly separate from humans.
Second, Stronza says, the “dare not touch a place” mindset robs people of the chance to develop meaningful connections with important ecosystems. And these personal, experience-based connections can be the vital ingredient in sparking conservation efforts and protections for said places or creatures.
Mindful Travel Tips
With this in mind, there are certainly more and less eco-conscious ways to approach travel. And consumers should know they will not always find substance behind the term “ecotourism” blazoned across the web pages and promo materials for all sorts of destinations. “So many definitions of ecotourism are out there,” Stronza says, offering her own litmus test for eco-friendly travel. “In my mind, it must support sustainability and local communities.”
The emphasis on local communities participating in tourism operations seems to have a ripple effect benefit, she says. “[The question] I have seen as maybe the secret sauce: Can tourism be empowering for the people who are impacted the most and the ecosystems they live in?”
In application, travelers should know that sustainability can be a factor in everything from lodging and transportation choices to food options and tour operators. So, for anyone who has the time and interest in minimizing their tourist footprint, Stronza says the following considerations can go a long way:
Direct your money locally wherever possible. Though it’s not foolproof, the “secret sauce” of mindful ecotourism is to drive revenue to the immediate communities invested in and dependent upon an ecosystem or attraction — rather than, say, paying a private international corporation with no local stake. With this approach, you are supporting and empowering area residents, decision-makers and organizations that often understand the place best and are committed to its long-term health.
Look for the term “community-based,” which often refers to a community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) model. This research-backed methodology aims to reverse more exploitative colonial approaches to tourism, where outsiders might move in to profit off of a place. (Stronza says many African safari experiences are an example of this older model.) Instead, the CBNRM method prioritizes people and organizations with longstanding ties to and knowledge about an area.
When planning an experience or trip details (such as what resort to stay at), look for a direct feedback loop between tourism revenue and conservation. Many reputable ecotourism businesses name the organizations they collaborate with, or even outline their charitable contributions. You might find this info on their websites or marketing materials – or better yet, ask the organizers about it directly before booking your trip.