I logged into my laptop this morning and was met by a beautiful screensaver depicting a snowy mountaintop in Bolivia with an accompanying text saying that the place is a popular destination for ecotourists.
I’ve heard the term before, but haven’t paid much interest until now. When I saw the word spelled out clearly on the screen in front of me, I got a bit… confused.
The first thought that hit me was: can tourism ever really be “eco”?
What is eco?
Let’s take a look at the definition.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, Eco is a prefix and means being “connected to the environment”.
But to me, this is a scant definition. If something is simply connected to the environment, anything having anything to do with the environment could be considered eco. Yet, we rarely (or never) see terms like: eco-mining, eco-deforestation, eco-extinction and so on. Environment does not per definition mean conservation. It’s just whatever is around us.
Are we then so often misusing the word that it has lost its original meaning?
Or should the definition of eco rather be: connected to the conservation of the environment?
It seems like this is the meaning that most of us use the prefix eco- for and also the meaning it has in ecotourism.
What is ecotourism?
Ecotourism can be defined as:
“the business of organizing holidays to places of natural beauty in a way that helps local people and does not damage the environment”.Cambridge English Dictionary
Then, who is an ecotourist?
Does it depend on your intentions with your trip?
Can something be called “ecotourism” without the people touristing calling it that themselves or having it in mind while planning their vacation and being there?
So many questions but no real answers.
Now, we get to some really interesting things. Can anyone define themselves as ecotourists?
I would argue yes, because all tourists can enjoy beautiful scenery without damaging it and all tourists can (and ultimately do) contribute to the economic welfare of the local population in the destination.
And therefore: no one can really be an ecotourist because nothing sets them apart from regular tourists. Unless your purpose of the trip is solely to destroy nature, you can be considered an ecotourist if you want to take it to the extremes.
The oxymoronic nature of “ecotourism”
Most of the time, the way people travel to a beautiful destinations is in itself unsustainable. Flying, driving, even taking the train are modes of transportation more or less damaging to the environment.
So if your travels do damage to the environment somewhere else, are the other positive things with your trip a good enough reasons to call yourself an eco-tourist?
This, in my view, is similar to carbon offsetting which – while it is a great option to have out there – also has its own set of problems.
Carbon offsetting is simply when you pay to have your CO2-emissions “evened out” by investing money in activities that try to combat issues like climate change. The risks are of course that people will use this as an excuse to travel as much as they can, but the damage is already done. Even if you pay to plant some trees because of your trip to another continent – the CO2 is already out there and it will take some time before the trees will be able to use it for photosynthesis.
Tourism always helps local people so why do we need another term to “hide ourselves behind”. Are we then using this term to essentially greenwash our own vacation and make it sound better than it is?
In short, if you travel: take responsibility for your actions and know that what you’re doing is contributing to both good and bad.
Don’t hide behind a fancy term to try to make your actions less damaging.
Just to emphasize, I don’t think that all tourism should stop. I know that there are many countries out there that are dependent on tourism. Also, in order to achieve real sustainability (which I’m all for), we also need social and economic sustainability – not just environmental.
I do, however, think that the term “ecotourism” is slightly misguided. Don’t try to “glam up” your actions but call them for what they are.
Tourism is both good and bad and we should try to make the majority of it as good as we can.