2017 was the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development which prompts the question … what is sustainable tourism? Truth is, we’ve been beleaguered by definitions of tourism long before Planeta.com launched in 1994.
New terms are springing up such as responsible travel and conscious travel. The fact is that people tend to customize their own definitions to suit their interests or situation. This is the long tail of multiple definitions and options for travelers and locals alike. The following is our take on defining the terms and establishing alternatives to a one-size-fits-all ontology.
The lack of a precise, commonly agreed definition of ‘ecotourism‘ has been a cause of misunderstanding, argument and debate. Multiple uses confuse ecotourism with adventure and nature tourism, not to mention sustainable tourism). That said, the big question is whether we are asking whether tourism supports itself over the long-term or if tourism contributes overall sustainability?
Experts know what these concepts are … on paper. The question is whether visitors and locals recognize or request such genres on the ground.
Dos and Donts
Personally, I have a hard time of wrapping my head around terms like ethical or responsible travel without flashing back to the Goofus and Gallant cartoons from Highlights magazine. The strip featured two contrasting boys and in the cartoon, each boy would respond to the same situation in contrasting fashion. Goofus invariably chooses a selfish or irresponsible response, while Gallant always responds with kindness and generosity.
Dos and Don’ts is a great educational tool and one that I wish were used more often in tourism presentations — here is what so-and-so does wrong, here is what so-and-so does right. Ecotourism Laos, winner of the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Ecotourism Spotlight Awards, educates visitors with a list of dos and don’ts.
Seeking Common Ground
At the policy level, how many meetings have bogged down in debates of whether tourism is an industry or an agent for cultural transformation? Is tourism a product or a service?
Do we agree on the date of Earth Day?
If there is no clear agreement of what constitutes wilderness or sustainability, there is little hope that we can agree on what constitutes ecotourism or sustainable travel.
We have few statistics about what differentiates ‘traditional’ tourism from ‘ecotourism.’ And data provided by national and international sources remains suspect. Chief players tend to be such individualists, that disagreement is inevitable and ought to be expected. If we cannot agree upon a common language, perhaps it would be better to learn to appreciate the dialects, to seek common ground.
It is not instructive to think of travelers, the so-called eco travelers as a homogenous group. Interests and expectations vary widely. An examine of green marketing shows that the level of commitment and interest vary widely.
That said, while there is no 100% pure ecotourism, there are plenty of options in which to choose the greener and more socially responsible action. Travelers, Green-travelers and Green Travellers who pursue the eco route are numerous and odds are if you are still reading this essay, you’re among this group.
Point of View
What policy-makers, travelers and locals consider ‘ecotourism’ rarely has much in common. “What you call ‘ecotourism’ in Latin America, in Europe we call a ‘walk in the country,” says John Noble, editor of Lonely Planet’s Mexico guidebook.
It’s not just ‘ecotourism’ that is suspect.
“The last thing we need is for academics to suck the life out of ‘adventure travel’ by defining it,” says Michael Kaye, owner of Costa Rica Expeditions, a leading adventure travel provider.
The notion that tourism could be sustainable is part of the dialogue on sustainable development. The goal is that development meet the needs of the present tourists and locals while protecting future opportunities.
No doubt we are touching upon subjects of immense interest and passion. And we would be well advised to agree to disagree. If we hold to our particular point of view, it is akin to the fable of the blind men approaching an elephant and each ‘seeing’ something different.
If projects are to be considered ecotourism, they must include local participation and they must assist conservation efforts. This is not to say that tourism services that don’t include these components are not good — they simply are not ecotourism.
In an editorial on ECOCLUB, publisher Antonis Petropoulos points out that “ecotourism is not a movement for certifying tourism, but a movement to change it.”
Ecotourism as a dynamic process, an element that inspires the transformation, is a beautiful vision and one that attracts many.
Leaders are taking up the cause — after all, sustainable development is preferable than the alternative. Government officials are learning to develop the niche of ‘ecotourism’ in a way that complements other sectors.
Planeta developed a list of stakeholders based on a holistic view of those working toward ecotourism.Our list of players provides a practical checklist of responsibilities and suggestions for actions each stakeholder group.
We need to pay more attention to who participates in the process. No ecolodge exists in isolation. And everyone plays a critical role.
Travelers, Tourists and Visitors
Tourist or traveler — does it matter which term is used? Chances are that during any trip, the visitor has an opportunity to play multiple roles. All too often, travelers are taken for granted.
During the International Year of Ecotourism the traveling public were largely ignored as valued players during official policy making events. For example, the Quebec Ecotourism Declaration does NOT include travelers as stakeholders. A serious omission, n’est-ce pas?
We explore the issues in our essay Defending the Visitors, aka Tourists.
A study by the Organization of American States revealed that most countries in the Americas have chosen different definitions for the term. The Quebec Ecotourism Summit refused to define the term, though it did issue a declaration.
In the Web Age, ‘ecotourism’ or ‘adventure travel’ means whatever you pay the ads to display.
Migrants and Tourists
What is the difference between a migrant and a tourist? Traditional definitions says a tourist is someone who spends less than a year in a place. But instead of looking at time spent, what if we paid attention to the impact — in the community and in the traveler? We began to explore this topic in the Tourism and Migration Conference.
Instead of insisting on single definitions, perhaps it’s time to focus attention on how key stakeholders — locals and visitors –define the terms.
Tourism is defined as ‘the practice of traveling for pleasure’ or ‘the business of providing tours and services for tourists.’ For some the word ‘tourist’ has a negative connotation. But if we look through the eyes of a local, it’s unimportant whether the visitors see themselves as ‘travelers’ or ‘tourists.’
The following is a brief review of tourism definitions.
Ecotourism is defined by its lack of definition. There is no consensus, no brand. As there has been no agreement on a standard definition, the important question is … does that matter?
Now before we get too cynical, let’s give credit where it’s due. Mexican architect Hector Ceballos-Lascurain coined the word and has been its most indefatigable supporter.
Ecotourism Australia definition: “Ecotourism is ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation.”
Private operations have also come up with their own definitions. Ecuador’s Black Sheep Inn recommends that travelers look at five criteria including conservation, low impact, sustainability, meaningful community involvement and environmental education.
While the details vary, most definitions of ecotourism boil down to a special form of tourism that meets three criteria:
1) it provides for environmental conservation
2) it includes meaningful community participation
3) it is profitable and can be self-sustaining
Ecotourism is overreaching at its finest and calls upon inter-sectoral alliances and respect among a mix of stakeholders.
Imagine these goals as three overlapping circles. If a project or service met all three criteria, it would hit the bull’s eye. To use another sports term, it’s akin to scoring a hat trick.
This three circle model illuminates not only what is ecotourism, but what can become ecotourism. If tourism aspires toward being ecotourism, this model allows players to figure out how to collaborate and share individual and collective strengths.
This model is similar to the idea behind ‘triple bottom line’ but frankly, we think the term makes ecotourism a tool of the accountants, rather than that of entrepreneurs.
Responsible tourism is treating others the way they wish to be treated. While tourism campaigns have long touted ‘destinations’ — in fact we are simply entering a place that is someone else’s home.
What are the boundaries of ethical travel?
There is a growing interest among travelers in making their trips as eco-friendly and people-friendly as possible.
During the Ethical Travel Dialogue (2006) hosted by Planeta.com and Tourism Concern, participants engaged in an articulate and passionate discussion. Discussion ran the gamut of volunteer experiences gone awry to overpriced consulting.
Why are reality tours guided?
We have confused ‘reality’ tours with ones that are responsible. Many reality tours provide short-term attention instead of committing to long-term solidarity.
Rural tourism allows vistors access to people and places outside of city environments. Options include hiking and biking, visiting community museums and buying crafts. Rural tourism is best enjoyed … slowly.
Urban ecotourism is simply nature travel and conservation in a city environment. The topic was discussed at length during our 2004 Urban Ecotourism Conference.
Adventure travel is a buzzword as troublesome as ecotourism. We even talk about the ‘planned adventure.’ Adventure travel means different things to different people. “The last thing we need is for academics to suck the life out of ‘adventure travel’ by defining it,” says Michael Kaye, owner of Costa Rica Expeditions and leading adventure travel provider.
The adventure traveler takes physical risks so safety standards need to be evaluated quite thoroughly. The adventure travel market is said to be growing, but given that it encompasses so many types of activities and travelers, the term remains vague.
Tourism industry leaders often use terms that travelers themselves do not use. One example is “alternative tourism” which makes sense in distinguishing a niche from the more established market. But we need to ask, how long does alternative remain alternative?
Travelers rarely request ‘alternative tourism’ by that name. Instead, they ask for what they are seeking — adventure, education, sports, religion, gay and lesbian events, experiences with communities, and the list goes on and on. Travelers opt for what they enjoy — and during a trip, a traveler focuses on following one’s desires.
Digression — consider the implications of desire paths.
The problem with ‘alternative tourism’ is that it defines itself by what it is not. In this case ‘alternative’ tourism contrasts with ‘traditional tourism.’ A similar case could be made for ‘NGOs’ (Non Governmental Organizations).
Again, travelers rarely describe themselves or their interests as ‘alternative.’ And the services or destinations they choose are those that motivate and engage, not the ‘other choice.’ What is an alternative to some is a priority for others.
Many travelers want to visit local farms. They want to know what is growing in the field and they have an insatiable curiosity about what’s on the menu. Sometimes called ‘farm tourism,’ agritourism includes visits to working farms for leisure purposes. Accommodation may be available. References are included on our Agriculture Guide.
There are two definitions of ‘geotourism’ — one used in Australia and one promoted by National Geographic: “Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place — its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” More details via the PDF file from National Geographic. Wiki
Tourism that respects natural and built environments, in short the heritage of the people and place, is called ‘heritage tourism.’ Renewed appreciation for historical milestones, the development of ‘heritage trails’ linking cultural landmarks produce new tourism services and products that can assist local economies.
Another misnomer. Travelers who make solo treks or in small groups see themselves as ‘independent.’ And in many ways they are — they choose their itinerary and destination. That said, they are usually part of a longer chain of visitors.
In terms of spending, they run the range from goldcard-carrying spenders to budget travelers or ‘supertourists’ — visitors who make their food purchases in supermarkets. Says Catherine Mack: “Until all the big companies are totally transparent about the impact they are having on a destination, I opt for independent travel. That way you can see exactly where your money is going, and meet the people who are making big personal investments into sharing what they love most about their homeland.”
The Local Travel Movement was initiated by a core coalition of people from companies that believe Local Travel is greater than the sum of its parts. Local Travel companies can help give locals a real voice, engage travellers and develop a stronger ethical dialogue within the travel industry. Leaders propose four easy steps to becoming a local traveler:
• connecting with local people before, during and after a trip
• traveling in a manner that is sensitive to the local environment
• respecting local heritage and culture
• spending money locally.
While these actions may seem self-evident, the Local Travel Movement prioritizes this conscious and conscientious shift in attention to the direct connection between visitor and local host. For travelers it’s a chance to get under a place’s skin (and let it under theirs), while also making the most of their travel time and saving money by spending locally. For host communities, it is vital for enforcing the beneficial qualities of tourism, maximizing a general awareness of the local culture and minimizing ‘leakage’ from the local economy.
Locals and visitors have long cared about place, but only since the 80s has the notion become articulated as a concept worthy of reflection and review. Events such as Media, Environment and Tourism Conference focused on the urgent need to improve media coverage of place as opposed to destination.
The notion that tourism could be “sustainable” is part of the dialogue on sustainable development. The goal is that development meet the needs of the present tourists and locals while protecting future opportunities. That said … isn’t the concept a bit presumptuous? How do you develop sustainability in an on-demand world with a short-attention span?