A concept known as ‘ecotourism’ has revolutionised the travel industry. It proves that travelling doesn’t have to be just a break, it can be a way to do good for the planet through consciously minimising your impact and bringing socio-economic benefits to local people.
While the word ecotourism might conjure up images of hiking through harsh bushland, sleeping in tents in the middle of nowhere and having no facilities but a block of pit toilets, travel that looks after the environment does not have to result in blistered feet, mosquito bites and unwashed hair.
Unfortunately, some companies are misusing the terms ecotourism and sustainability as a form of ‘greenwashing’. Greenwashing is dressing something up to appear more ethical, sustainable and as a result, more saleable. The problem is, it can be difficult to distinguish between companies genuinely committed to conservation and those adopting green marketing to present an environmentally responsible image to increase profit.
Here are our six tips to make sure you’re making the right kind of impact:
1. Forget animal tourism
Sadly, animal tourism is as prevalent as it is harmful. Well-meaning travellers visit so-called ‘sanctuaries’ to see endangered species, unaware that many of these support illegal wildlife
poaching and trade. If you are visiting any animal attractions, carefully research the practices before you go. Some unethical practices are easy to spot – like elephant rides or photos with adult (obviously drugged) tigers.
In other situations, such as taking selfies with an animal, it can be harder to know when to draw the line, but generally, you should aim to leave ‘nothing but footprints’ in terms of your impact and remember that any animal should have a choice of whether it interacts with you or not.
Think about how you can help the animals you visit to live as they normally would in their natural environment.
What you could do instead:
The organisation Orangutan Odysseys raises awareness about the loss of habitat and endangered orangutans in Sumatra and Borneo through responsible tourism. Working directly with local conservation groups and providing funding to The Orangutan Project, they help protect the wildlife endangered by deforestation. Ecotourism has helped to raise funds for the endangered animals living in the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, as well as building a better relationship between human-beings and nature.
2. avoid slum or orphanage tours (unless you have a good reason to be there)
There has been an increased popularity of ‘slum tours’, especially in Mumbai, in the wake of the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Touring a slum out of curiosity can be demeaning for the people who live there. If you do want to do a slum tour, make sure the benefits you provide (volunteer time or financial payments) make it back to the communities living in the slums, to avoid its residents being exploited further. A good example of this might be if, on the tour, you see where and how a portion of your tour cost is donated to the local people for employment, aid, housing, or education.
Similarly, there have been cases of children being taken from their families and put into fake ‘orphanages’, which aim to attract donations from tourists while neglecting and mistreating the children. This has been a particular problem in Cambodia, where about 80% of children in ‘orphanages’ are not actually orphans – but fortunately, in 2017 the UN has really been cracking down on fake orphanages in Cambodia.
3. Ask the right questions
It’s easy enough for tour operators to claim they are eco-friendly, ethical, or sustainable, but can they prove it? The trick is to search beyond the jargon and ask for more information on the company’s sustainability efforts. Ask the questions:
- How does the company help protect native wildlife? Do they provide information about conservation and how they’re doing their bit to contribute?
- Is there a limited number of tourists per tour to minimise environmental impact in the region? Are these impacts offset in any way?
- Do the tours adhere to any, or all, of the seven Leave No Trace principles?
- How does the tour support the local community (including Indigenous stakeholders)?
4. Look for a certification
Use tourism-specific certifications to help avoid greenwashing such as Ecotourism Australia or Earth Check. These certifications require businesses to meet rigorous standards related to business planning and operations and cover environmental management, footprint reduction, social impact, cultural sensitivity and contributions to conservation. Saying that there are many small-scale accommodations out there which uphold sustainability principles but aren’t necessarily certified. These operators are usually keen to tell their story, so it’s worth checking their website for information on their efforts. Look for any mention of carbon offsetting, water and waste management, renewable energy use and support for local businesses.
5. Make sure the certification is reliable
Some eco-labels are questionable. If you see one you don’t recognise, you can easily look up on the Ecolabel Index online, a global directory tracking 400+ different labels in 197 countries. It also provides key information on whether or not the company has been assessed by a third party.
6. Make sure your travel is conscious and considered
In terms of getting to your destination, unless you cycle, walk or row a boat to your destination, it’s nearly impossible to claim you have got there in a truly ‘eco-friendly’ way. When we travel, we are bound to create some impact but what we need to watch out for is how we can minimise, and where possible, reduce our footprint.
This can, of course, include carbon offsetting any travel you do – but there are ways you can go further than this. Try to make one journey by plane or car really worthwhile. For example, if you’re driving, you might like to check out Jay Ride to see if you can get a ride with someone else going that direction, or you might be able to offer someone else a lift.
To help minimise your impact, book through a B Corp travel agent.* Leading the way for Australia is the only B Corp-certified travel agents – Reho Travel. Currently, 10% of their profits go into a community bank in Malawi where small loans are then issued out to the locals. They also promote awareness and change in the entire supply chain of the travelling industry, starting with choosing a low fuel consumption airline, a hotel with good labour practices (especially in developing world), a tour company that involves the local community, all to leave a positive impact behind when travelling. Look up the travel industry on the B Corp website here and you may be both surprised and impressed with the list of B Corps around the world.
Overall, the best way to stay on top of greenwashing is to do some homework and ask a lot of questions of your tour operator, travel agent and hoteliers.
*B Corp is a certification for the ‘highest standard of socially responsible business’. It’s a rigorous process to get certified, and today there’s a growing community of 2,358 Certified B Corps from 50+ countries and over 130 industries, working together to redefine success in business.