The year was 2001, and I was deep in the heart of Thailand’s rich rainforests. The air hung thick and heavy, while the sun scorched the earth. I bumped and crashed through the rich rainforest on the back of an elephant.
I should have been ecstatic. I loved elephants and it was my dream to get close to one. But I was miserable. I saw the mahout wield his bullhook to get the elephant to continue this well-trodden path in the brutal heat. I saw the scars on the elephant’s head. In that moment I realised my love of elephants was paying for a life of misery.
Thankfully, issues – such as the detrimental impact of wild animal interaction – are more widely documented and tourists are becoming increasingly eco-savvy travellers.
At its core Ecotourism promotes sustainable tourism while providing positive benefits for conservation and local communities.
But, what does it mean to be an ecotourist? How do you ensure that your actions are correct? Here is our six-step guide for how to be an ecotourist:
1. Do your research: There are lots of review sites out there, so check independent reviews and find out what other people are saying about them.
Check a company’s marketing and social media to get a feel of their brand ethos. Be wary of those showing animal interactions or using poverty/stereotyping of locals.
- Have they got a written policy detailing exactly how they are eco-friendly? Ask for a copy to read.
- Choose companies who give back. Does the company contribute directly or through partnerships to conservation causes? For example, do they help conserve the natural areas that they work in? Do they partner with a conservation group or support a project, research or a specific area? Do they also support the local community, such as supporting schools or health facilities?
2. Environmental impact: Take pictures and memories, but do not take anything away from the environment. Do not disturb the flora and fauna.
- Never buy any animal products such as bones, furs, ivory, horn etc. The same goes for what you are eating – an endangered or protected animal was possibly killed illegally. Do not fuel the supply and demand cycle.
- Remember the Rs: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Cut down on single-use plastics by bringing a reusable bag and water bottle, or find out if they provide reusable produce for your use.
- Find out if they source their produces locally, not only does this support local communities but it also helps to cut-back on carbon emissions. Also, what are their policies on managing their on-site carbon emissions? What do they do to minimise not just their emissions but their supply chain?
- Stay in places which practice eco-friendly measures. Check if they have recycling facilities and if they use natural resources such as water and energy conservatively. True eco lodges are designed to have a minimal impact on the environment, find out what the organisations policies are here.
- Low volume tourism is always better than mass-market. Natural environments are extremely sensitive, and an influx of visitors can cause stress to its biodiversity. It may be more expensive to do a low volume activity, but you get a high reward experience.
3. Say no to animal interaction: While it is natural for animal lovers to want to get up-close, by doing so you are ensuring that the attraction continues to the detriment of the animal’s welfare. If a wild animal interacts with humans, it is very unlikely they will ever be able to be released and captive conditions are often unsatisfactory.
- If animals are behaving unnaturally (dancing bears, walking with lions, performing apes, elephant rides, dolphin/orca shows etc.) then these animals can never be wild. They are often taken from their mothers from a young age and traumatised into being a tourist attraction. An animal’s wellbeing is worth more than your Instagram story.
- If you are going on a land or water safari check that the guides behave ethically and keep their distance from animals.
4. Show respect: Behave and treat the locals as you would at home. In your own country you would never take a picture of a stranger’s child and post on social media. Do not use locals as a prop or treat people as objects to promote your social media pages. Always ask permission before taking a photograph.
- Cultures may be different to your own. Do not try and enforce your beliefs. Respect what is culturally acceptable in both your behaviour and the way you dress – particularly in places of worship. Do your research on the country and its communities before you go.
5. Local economies: Empower communities by eating and shopping local.
- As a rule of thumb, the mass-tourist / all-inclusive resorts do not contribute much to local economies. Most are foreign-owned and, by keeping the food, drinks, gifts etc. inside the resort, local communities do not benefit from tourism.
- Try and stay in local-owned enterprises, or at least where the staff are local and treated fairly.
- If going on an activity, ask if local people are involved and benefit. Has land been taken from local communities for the purpose of tourism?
6. No saviour complex: Do not give handouts and enforce the western dependency stereotype. If you want to help a particular person and/or community then find someone who knows the right channels to ensure your money goes exactly where you think it is going and that there is a genuine need. Use social enterprises whose programmes fund keeping families together, or support community initiatives.
- Do not visit orphanages. Often these children have traumatic backgrounds and do not need a steady stream of strangers showering them with affection only to leave again. It is also worth noting that many unscrupulous organisations take children away from families to generate money from orphanage visiting tourists. Children should never be used as tourist attractions.
While much of the world remains closed to tourists, there will be a time when borders re-open. Ecotourism is one way to ensure a sustainable destination, community, and wildlife. And, not only do you have an ethical adventure of a lifetime, but you can help support communities and wildlife for many generations to come.
Fore more tips on how to be an ecotourist visit Ten Ecotourism Tips for the Ethical Traveller.
If you would like to learn more about ecotourism in general visit: www.terra-incognita.travel/code