Ecotourism is defined as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." (TIES, 1990) The International Ecotourism Society is a non-profit organisation with members in over 120 countries. They promote awareness of sustainable practice in the tourism sector, and provide guidelines on standards, training, technical assistance and educational resources. In the decade between the Earth Summit in 1992 and the International Year of Ecotourism in 2002, a web of over 100 certification and award programs appeared, (most of which are of varying quality).
The World Ecotourism Summit (WES) is organized by UNEP and the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) aiming to strengthen ecotourism as a tool for sustainable development and conservation. Separately, the World Ecotourism Conference aims to provide a networking platform for businesses and policy makers, but with little apparent impact. The European Ecotourism Network (EEN) and the European Ecotourism Labeling Standard (EETLS), which is co-funded by the European Commission, has been recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) and in comparison with WEC and WES, there is more focus on certification and standardization. However, there is no single ruling body for global ecotourism certification, and this has inevitably led to considerable controversy and uncertainty. As it stands, the GSTC appears to be the most credible.
The Green Globe Standard was one of the leading certification bodies to come out of the Earth Summit in 1992 and is based on the following international standards and agreements: GSTC, Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism Criteria (STC Partnership), Sustainable Tourism Certification Network of the Americas, The ISO 9001/14001/19011 (International Standard Organization) and Agenda 21. EcoAustralia, in conjunction with Green Globe, has proven to be a successful international standard and has also employed in India.
Basic ecotourism principles:
- Sustainable management e.g. design and construction, health and safety and communications.
- Socio-economics e.g. supporting local community initiatives such as education, fairly traded goods and securely integrated local employment.
- Cultural heritage e.g. protection of historical, archaeological and spiritual sites and respectful incorporation of local culture.
- Environmental e.g. sustainable management of water, energy, waste and protection and awareness of biodiversity.
Case Study – Lapa Rios Eco-lodge, Costa Rica
In 1993, a professional couple from Minnesota liquidated their assets and bought 930 acres of rainforest in the south west of the country. In 2013, they signed an agreement endorsed by The Nature Conservancy and CEDARENA that perpetually protects the land as a primary forest. It neighbors a National Park, which is home to 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity and acts as a migration corridor.
Although Lapa Rios eco-lodge is a leading example of ecotourism, it has not been certified by organisations such as Green Globe. Instead, they are certified by the Costa Rican tourism board agency known as the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST), following similar principles outlined above. The CST has been recognized and approved by the tourism ministries in every country in Central America, as well as Mexico, Belize and many countries in South America have expressed interest in developing similar programs. Learn more about Lapa Rios here.
It is evident that ecotourism can and does create real positive change, even when it operates outside of well-intentioned conferences, however, many resorts will often use it as a buzzword to attract gullible travellers, so beware!