Ecotourism is perhaps the best way to experience all of the remarkable sensations of a beautiful, natural environment and feel great about doing it, too. So, what is eco tourism? Great question! Ecotourism is defined as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” Don’t worry, this isn’t volunteering masked as adventure travel. If you think exploring ancient ruins, trekking through lush rainforests, or coming face to face with the world’s most endangered animals on eco tours won’t get your blood pumping, then think again!
As an adventure traveler, you’re innately attracted to the extraordinary. Only the best food, the most unique landscapes, or the most exciting experiences make it in your exclusive itinerary. What’s worth protecting must be worth experiencing, right? Luckily for you, the world is chock-full of plenty of incredible places to help protect with eco friendly tourism.
Costa Rica. Surf, sustainability, and sheer splendor; this coastal country is considered to be one of the most biodiverse places on earth. This nation is leading the pack when it comes to conservation practices and with over a quarter of the nation’s land set aside as protected area, you won’t have to travel very far to find your next eco adventure. Traverse through dense rainforests, witness rare sea turtle nesting, ascend active volcanoes in Arenal Volcano National Park, or simply enjoy an enriching seaside homestay. In Costa Rica, eco tours are as plentiful as the wildlife.
New Zealand. The North and South Islands of New Zealand are arguably the most ecologically unique and isolated regions in the world; humans have only lived there for 1,000 years. People are certainly making up for lost time now that millions flock annually to explore the many worlds of New Zealand. From a quick whale watching excursion in Kaikoura to an 11 day sea-kayaking tip around the South Pacific islands, you’ll have a variety of eco tours that will ensure your overseas adventure travel is both memorable and beneficial to these fragile environments.
South Africa. A leader in conscientious tourism and home to megadiverse animal, plant, and human life, South Africa is perfect for those wishing to combine adventure and culture. Here, you will tour the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, nature reserves, National Parks, and protected areas designed to ensure the longevity of these natural environments as well as your appreciation of them. Connect with Africa’s most iconic species, such as elephants, wildebeests, and zebras in Kruger National Park, or spend a day climbing up Table Mountain only to paraglide down to the white sand beaches in Cape Town. Every country in the world has their prowess, but South Africa seemingly has it all!
Thailand. You probably at least one friend who’s not only traveled to Thailand but will likely never stop talking about it, right? Well, their enthusiasm is not misplaced. The central jewel of Southeast Asia is a nation full of calm beaches, the loudest markets, and everything in between. Take an immersive journey through one of the oldest evergreen rainforests in the world in Khao Sok National Park, or try your hand at some agrotourism by joining in on a rice harvest or a fish haul. Do yourself a favor and spend an afternoon surveying an ancient temple instead of visiting the inhumane Tiger Temples. There is ALWAYS an eco tour alternative to a low-grade tourist trap no matter where in the world you visit.
Eco Adventure Tours
The mere concept of eco tours is reciprocal in nature...literally. It’s an investment to the natural world, which, in turn, provides humanity with excitement, humility, and a good photo opp or two. As you can see from the adventure travel examples above, eco travel companies come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but you’ll still need to keep the basics in mind.
Unless you schedule a private tour for just you or your group, most eco adventure tours will include other like-minded thrillseekers to befriend and explore together. Because the emphasis of these tours is to showcase an environment without disturbing it, most tours will feature relatively small groups. You can also expect that the multi-day tours will be comprised of smaller groups than day or afternoon excursions. Aside from clothing, you can assume most of the gear is included, especially for technical excursions, such as rock climbing or scuba diving (but ALWAYS double check with your eco adventure tours!). Going up river without a paddle is a much better expression than it is a personal experience.
Each program will be unique, and you will avoid leaving a negative impression on the environment, culture, and economies of that location. Many of the excursions between the tropics will be open year-round while outlying destinations may offer special seasonal programs.
Eco Tourism Tips & Advice
Being an ecotourist is pretty much like being a traveling superhero. With great privilege to see the world comes with a great responsibility to protect it. Here’s some quick tips to help maximize your adventure travel while you minimize your footprint:
- Be proactive. There are a lot of misconceptions regarding eco tours, but the larger ones pertain to cost and accommodation. The reality is you do not have to sacrifice luxury, quality. or compromise your checking account to be a responsible ecotourist. Eco tours come in a huge range of prices and many hotels, B&Bs, and hostels offer quality accommodation. Do your research, choose an eco tour based on your comfort and interests, and book early. Being proactive is key to saving green while going green.
- Eat responsibly. The best part of traveling is eating — okay, fine — one of the best parts of travel is eating. Between eco adventure tours, be sure to choose local cuisine over those international food chains you’re already used to. The brief familiarity of a Big Mac is worth skipping. Check out farmers markets or locally-owned shops and be sure to talk to your program providers for recommendations.
- Travel meaningfully. Travel with purpose. Meaningful travel means to see the world for what it truly is and respect that truth. Study each country’s culture beforehand, take initiative, and familiarize yourself with recent history. Ecotourism is all about accountability and eco friendly tourism. For an in-depth guide, check out the Meaningful Travel Manifesto, and sign the pledge!
- Avoid greenwashing. You know how some companies place a little recycling symbol on their packaging or throw the word “organic” around and they expect people to buy it? That’s greenwashing, and the only thing “eco” about these “eco travel companies” is their dECOration. Many programs claim to be environmentally or culturally conscious solely for the benefit of added business. Again, do your research, read reviews, and evaluate if your participation in the program will directly benefit the place you are visiting.
Benefits & Challenges
With an annual growth rate of 10-30 percent, ecotourism is the largest growing sector in the tourism industry, and it’s easy to see why. The benefits of ecotourism are innumerable: cultural preservation, local job creation, and environmental conservation, just to name a few. Aside from the wide variety of eco adventure tours and programs, the greatest personal benefit for partaking in an eco tour is getting to directly interact with the people and environments that makes these destinations so special. You’ll have the chance to truly experience a new place by allowing you to become a part of it for awhile.
The challenge? Ecotourism requires a vigilance and attention that may contradict your typical travel orientation. You have to do more than just show up. The conscientiousness required to choose and participate in an eco tour is suitably more demanding than blindly choosing an excursion on a brochure that looks interesting. Additionally, you may be exposed to environments, conditions, or people that you may not be used to or find uneasy at times. That being said, the most personal growth exists outside of your comfort zone.
Ecotourism is an alternative to the mundane cycle of gift shops and concierge suggestions. Eco tours are responsible yet far from selfless. It’s the “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” of adventure travel, and it’ll certainly create a deep, lasting appreciation for a world full of experiences!