The Importance of Eco-Friendly Adventures
Traveling has never been easier than it is now. With budget airlines, accommodations to suit all tastes and budgets, and tours available to the most remote corners of the world, the number of people traveling outside the US is increasing every year.
But long-haul travel often comes at a heavy cost. It’s been estimated that the aviation industry contributes up to 13% of total greenhouse emissions. From the destruction of ecosystems (due to overdevelopment) to a lack of economic benefits for locals, mass tourism can truly be detrimental to the nature, wildlife, and indigenous people of a popular place.
Fortunately for the planet, Responsible Travel is rapidly on the rise. Small group expeditions have the power to effect positive change on destinations, helping to protect nature and wildlife and providing sustainable revenue streams for local populations. And then there’s the lasting impact Responsible Travel has on the travelers themselves, educating them and illustrating the importance of conservation and respect for the environment.
World-renowned marine biologist Jack Grove insists that he and his Zegrahm Expeditions cofounders had this mission in mind from the very beginning. “We knew that we must make a difference,” he recalls. “It was not just about making money. If we’re going to burn fossil fuels to get our clients to the most remote parts of the world, it was clear that we must ensure that our travelers return home as ambassadors for conservation and the preservation of biodiversity.”
Jack suggests that the aim of Responsible Travel should be “edutainment”—a mixture of natural history education and entertainment. It’s about providing an immersive experience that expands and deepens the visitor’s connection to the destination. Here, we’ll take a look at how these transformational expeditions can benefit conservation, increase cross-cultural understanding, and ultimately, turn travelers into advocates for the environment.
How Responsible Travel Benefits Wildlife Conservation
To understand how Responsible Travel can have a positive impact on the preservation of nature and wildlife, just look at increasingly endangered species such as African elephants. The ivory in elephant tusks fetches a very high price on the black market, which has led to a dramatic increase in poaching over the past decade.
Yet it has been estimated that elephants are worth 76 times more alive than dead. Ivory from a single poached elephant can fetch up to $21,000; but a live elephant can bring in up to $1.3 million in revenue over the course of its lifetime from wildlife photography tours, luxury safari camps, and other ecotourism offerings.
Other heavily poached species, such as rhinos and sharks, have also been shown to be worth much more alive than dead. Revenue from shark-centered ecotourism is set to double over the next 20 years, while profits from shark fisheries have steadily declined over the past decade. Responsible Travel offers a long-term alternative to exploitation, generating sustainable revenue while also ensuring better health for the ecosystem.
How Responsible Travel Benefits the Environment
The establishment of nature reserves helps prevent deforestation and pollution, while also protecting the habitat of endemic species. For instance, the Indonesian government recently established a new national park in the Riau province in order to fight the encroachment of palm oil plantations. This area has been ravaged by severe forest fires in recent years, endangering the lives of orangutans and the health of people in nearby cities. The revenue Responsible Tourism provides will help replace palm oil profits while also ensuring long-term viability of the rainforest.
On a smaller scale, the construction of a zip line or canopy walk within a fragile tract of forest provides opportunities for travelers to observe and enjoy nature while maintaining a low carbon footprint, which protects the ecosystem from invasive development opportunities.
Naturalist guides can help travelers understand the importance of the local ecosystem and show them how to explore it without causing damage to the environment. Whether it’s wandering off a trail in the Galápagos Islands or carelessly stepping on a coral reef in the Maldives, even seemingly harmless actions can have serious environmental implications. By teaching travelers how to be more mindful of their footprints—both carbon and literal—expedition leaders help to create a more informed, thoughtful legion of travelers.
How Responsible Travel Benefits Local Communities
When managed properly, Responsible Travel can bring considerable benefits to locals by offering alternative revenue streams to exploitative activities such as mining, poaching, or slash-’n-burn agriculture. In wildlife-rich countries like Botswana and Rwanda, former poachers are often employed as anti-poaching guards or trackers, capitalizing on their knowledge of the animals and their territory.
In Costa Rica, tourism revenue now exceeds that of cash crops. Unemployment has fallen to less than 10% since the country decided to invest in building its ecotourism infrastructure back in the 1970s. The country also enjoys the highest standard of living in Central America, has very little crime, and a comparatively high literacy rate.
Involving local communities in the management of Responsible Travel initiatives furthers their environmental understanding. It also empowers these communities by ensuring that tourism revenue is reinvested locally. This becomes particularly vital when the life of locals is intrinsically tied to their land, as is the case for people living in the Arctic or the Amazon basin. Tourism offers indigenous cultures an opportunity to remain on their ancestral land, help to conserve it, and preserve traditional languages and knowledge that otherwise might be in danger of disappearing forever.
How Responsible Travel Benefits Travelers
So what does all of this mean for travelers? Responsible Travel is such a growing trend, the United Nations World Tourism Organization has named 2017 The Year of Sustainable Tourism. In the words of Secretary General Talib Rifai, this is “a unique opportunity to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability—economic, social, and environmental—while raising awareness of the true dimensions of a sector which is often undervalued.”
Sadly, as Responsible Travel becomes more and more popular, so does the scourge known as greenwashing. Embracing a few green initiatives (like using biodegradable soaps or washing towels less often) doesn’t really make a business sustainable. Including a brief tour stop to shop in a local village brings few lasting advantages, other than making travelers feel good about themselves.
Real Responsible Travel is a long-term commitment requiring time, energy, and efforts to embrace and implement social and environmental values. But it also offers unique, transformative experiences to travelers, helping them develop closer personal relationships to nature, wildlife, and local cultures. As a result, they return home with the very best souvenirs—knowledge and understanding. In short, Responsible Travel may just be the ultimate definition of a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She’s passionate about wildlife, ecotourism and outdoor activities, and runs the travel blog, The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian photographer. Margherita has an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University, and was runner-up to the 2012 Guardian Travel Writer of the Year competition.