According to The International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is, ‘Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people’.
Ecotourism Australia defines the term as ‘Ecologically sustainable tourism with a primary focus on experiencing natural areas that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation’.
At Ecotourism Kenya, Ecotourism is known as ‘nature and culture based tourism that invests in and supports the protection of the environment, respects local cultures and involves local communities to ensure equity amongst all stakeholders’.
So what really is Ecotourism? It is actually all of the above. The underlying words are ‘responsible tourism’ and ‘local cultures’. It brings together conservation, communities and tourism.
Ecotourism as a concept has been greatly misunderstood and misused world over. It has been used to mean ‘green destinations’, and in some extreme instances ‘economic tourism’. Perhaps the most common error is the perception of it as an object, or place. It isn’t. It is a ‘means’ to more benefits from the environment accruing from responsible tourism practices.
Tourism as a sector contributes immensely to the economies of the East African economies. In Kenya for example, it caters in most cases for up to 20% of the GDP. It is a sector that we cannot do without.
Principles governing ecotourism
Environmental Protection Practices that promote environmental protection are a key principle.
According to the Webster dictionary, Environment is the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates.
It is what determines the nature of the biodiversity in a region. The giraffe would fair miserably in the glaciers of Alaska but so will the polar bear in the grasslands of the Mara.
The environment has a natural way of rejuvenating itself. That is one reason that there will be wild fires then rains immediately thereafter to grow fresh shoots.
Unfortunately, we take from the environment faster than it can revamp itself. In addition, what we give back are carbons, toxics from our sewers and all kinds of chemicals from factory wastes. This harmful generosity from us not only slows the environment’s ability to refresh itself but adds to the actual degradation.
It is for this reason that Ecotourism Kenya gives certification in its ecorating scheme to tourist facilities that are practising activities that support the conservation of the environment. Protection and promotion of local cultures.
Once again, tourism relies heavily on its immediate environment. A part of that environment is the community within which the tourism facility plies its trade.
Many tourism facilities look down on the cultures of the people around them and try to socialize the local population in the ways of the guests. This has led to the erosion and in some cases death of certain cultural values that were in fact morally and socially superior to those adopted from the guests.
Researchers have however found that where done properly, tourism activity can benefit local culture and the environment. They noted that tourism has helped preserve some musical and dance traditions among the Maasai, prompted tourism employees to learn foreign languages, and has raised environmental awareness among people living near game reserves.
This is another reason why a tourist facility’s relations with the local cultures are a big determinant on where the facility ends up in our decorating scheme.
Economic Benefits To The Local Community. In many cases, tourist facilities will be located in remote areas like Masai Mara and South Coast where literacy levels are not exactly high. This has seen communities duped into signing off their lands or getting very little out of facilities that are minting millions out of their land.
The Kenyan government has a policy stating that locals should receive one-quarter of the economic benefit of tourist sites, but the researchers found this is not being enforced. Though it is a government’s prerogative to ensure that such policies, once set are followed through, we also feel that it is the social, economic and moral obligation of a facility to make sure that the community from which they are set gets a fair share of the proceeds accruing from the use of their resource.
As the Tourism Industry grows bigger, there is an increasing need to encourage responsibility from the facilities offering services in the sector. There is also a need that you understand more about the environment and how to benefit from it while conserving it.