Ecotours, adventure tours, sustainable tours, reality tours – if you are seeking a vacation alternative to Disneyland or Club Med, there are certainly plenty of options. However, how do you decide what is right for you, and what kind of vacation matches your values? Do you have to leave your social, political or environmental consciousness at home just to have a good time? The Rethinking Tourism Project, an Indigenous Peoples organization based in St. Paul, suggests we critically examine all aspects of this far-reaching industry, including the “alternatives.”
Tourism is the largest industry in the world. Like other major industries, it is mainly controlled by large transnational corporations, who profit at the expense of local communities and the environment.
In the 1980s, ecotourism emerged on the scene to meet the demands for more nature-based travel adventures. The World Tourism Organization defines ecotourism as a nature-based tourism in which the tourists observe and appreciate the natural environment and the traditional cultures within that environment in a sustainable manner. Sustainable tourism, a term often used interchangeably with ecotourism, emphasizes projects that protect natural resources and sustain the local community, both now and in the future. Ecotourism includes a mixed bag of projects, including mountain trekking tours, hikes in the rainforest and ecolodges, which in many cases are similar to mega-resorts.
For people who enjoy being outdoors and who are concerned about the environment, ecotourism may seem like a good option. Promotional materials use this perception effectively and, as a result, ecotourism is becoming increasingly popular. According to the World Tourism Organization, ecotourism has increased at six times the average rate of growth for the tourism industry. Yet while the demand and supply are growing, so are the concerns. Sustainability is not as simple as adding the phrase “eco.” Ecotourism projects are often self-labeled by tour operators who have an interest in capitalizing on the expanding and profitable market. In many cases, there is little or no thought to environmental and social implications.
As a result, ecotourism has come under fierce attack by environmental, human rights and Indigenous Peoples organizations, who believe there has not been an adequate assessment of its environmental and social costs. Environmental abuses may include the depletion of local natural resources, waste mismanagement, an excess amount of tourists, and infrastructure development such as roads and airports – all of which result in irreversible destruction to land and wildlife. Social problems include displacing local people, offering only low paid unstable jobs and marketing Indigenous or rural people as ‘attractions’ with neither their consent nor an accompanied compensation. Other problems include the lack of community involvement and control in tourist projects, which are often developed and funded by large conservation NGOs.
As global citizens we need to be aware of the problems rooted in the tourism industry and make informed choices about what we do on our vacation time and where we spend our money. Deborah McLaren, author of Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel states that “Truly sustainable tourism must be locally controlled, limited and focus on local self-reliance for the local population.” She offers the following suggestions:
- Get involved in your own community so that when you travel you will have a reason to be involved in other communities and will stay involved.
- Acknowledge the modern realities of Indigenous and rural communities and learn to respect, not romanticize, other cultures.
- Support responsible tourism organizations. Subscribe to their magazines and newsletters.
- Pressure large tourism companies to do more than greenwash.
- Organize a “reality tour” of your own community to examine environmental economic or social justice issues. Make activism a goal of the tour.
- Contribute funds to support more integrated, diverse, critical tourism studies.Additionally, Tourism Concern, a resource for ethical and sustainable tourism, suggests you follow ‘responsible travel’ guidelines listed in their guide. Mann, in The Community Tourism Guide, states, “Tourism can support local people, cultures, environments and economies, while still being exciting and enjoyable for us. Responsible travel doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself.” So have fun when you travel, but don’t leave your values and social consciousness behind, just those Minnesota winters!