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What is the deal with eco-tourism?

It’s a term being thrown around a lot within the tourism industry — eco-tourism. But, what exactly does that mean?

In the simplest terms, eco-tourism is the idea that your travel will not impact the environment. Instead, it will actually contributes to the local community.

When people travel, they tend to bring a lot of their baggage with them. And no, I’m not talking about emotional baggage or your carry-on.

Tourists tend to focus on only one thing. Sightseeing. They want to hit the most popular destinations, take perfectly filtered images for their Instagram account at the nicest restaurants, or visit franchise stores to do some shopping. These tourists take taxis, trains, and planes, and sometimes even use products with dangerous chemicals that could contaminate oceans. Don’t even get me started on the number of plastic straws used in beverages.

Most tourists create a carbon footprint that has the potential to damage a community, especially in remote locations or islands that depend on their natural beauty to attract revenue. While there isn’t much that can be done about completely eliminating this footprint, there is a way to reduce it. The answer is, obviously, eco-tourism.

According to the International Ecotourism Society, for an activity to be a part of “eco-tourism”, it has to have an educational aspect. It should promote conservation and community, while trying to adopt sustainable practices. Guides and participants must recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People There should also be some financial benefit towards these practices. 

The activities must also operate within low-impact facilities.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) describes eco-tourism as “environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”

The definitions are still open to interpretation. Some agencies choose to describe any nature-related activity or tour as eco-tourism. For example, whale watching in Hawaii is described as an eco-tourist activity. However, the cruise boat itself could be impacting the ecosystem below the surface of the water. A more ecologically-friendly activity would be to kayak or canoe the waters with a guide who talks about the wildlife or the conservation techniques in place to protect the natural beauty of an area.

Tourists can take tours of plantations or farms; but they can also participate for a day, learning hands on how food grows and gets to their plate. Visit an indigenous settlement and listen to stories from the community. If you go on a nature walk, stick to trails — don’t wander into a natural environment without a guide. Remember, the purpose of eco-tourism is to learn and give back to the community.

Here are three eco-tourism activities you can do in Ontario:

  • Redwing Institute Culture and Nature Discovery Walk: Take this 3-hour journey and learn about the Indigenous people of Humber Valley. Participants will explore the river valley, participate in a traditional ceremony, sample food and music, and explore history through oral storytelling. Part of the fees go towards a skill-development program for women from the Indigenous community living in Toronto.
  • Visit a Biosphere Reserve: Wilderness Eco-Adventures offers half and full day guided excursions of the Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Reserve. Climb cliffs, explore caves, and see rare wildlife. They also offer more intensive workshops where you can learn a new skill like geology or bushcraft. Looking for a challenge? Spend three nights under the stars this winter. Proceeds support the Biosphere Association’s environmental projects.
  • EcoCab through Toronto: Instead of taking a bus or renting a car, see downtown Toronto up close with a pedal-powered bicycle. Don’t worry about the physical activity as each tour guide will also be your navigator and official pedal-er). There are four routes to choose from.

Have you participated in eco-tourism? Let us know what your experience was like in the comments below!