The ecotourism buzzword came into being in the early 1990s. The self-proclaimed “largest and oldest” ecotourism association, The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) helped start this trend with its founding in 1990. The Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Ecotravelers are people who uphold this ideal and aim to minimize impact while fostering communication and cultural awareness. Common ecotour activities include hiking, bird-watching, kayaking, snorkeling, and site-seeing.
Ecotourism encompasses more people, and issues, than you might expect – everyone from academics to tour operators to governments to conservationists to hotel owners to consultants – and don’t forget the travelers themselves. In addition to the ‘leave nothing but footprints’ (and maybe goodwill) philosophy comes a host of politically-charged issues as well. Responsible travelers avoid giving their tourist dollars to countries that abuse human rights and disregard conservation. Ecotourism organizations ask travelers to consider the impact on the local economy when purchasing products, tours or other services, hopefully choosing the options most benefitting to the people, not the corporations.
This ecological and cultural sensitivity is big business – organizations clamour for ‘Eco-friendly’ distinctions and reputations. One of the first countries to jump on this bandwagon was Costa Rica, a country with an amazing array of ecologically diverse forests, refuges, reserves, rivers and other now-protected areas.
With such a strong financial incentive behind the “ecotourism” moniker, there has been a push to regulate and certify eco-friendly agencies, tours and sites. Unfortunately, each country has various standards, which need to be upheld. Check out the main ecotourism sites of each individual country you plan on visiting, and look for their certifying license in places deemed ecologically sound. There are also various levels of certification, so know what each level means if this is an important consideration for you.