For green-minded people, caring for the Earth shouldn't take a vacation when you're on, well, vacation.
A tourist interested in the Earth's health can travel to a special destination to gain authentic experiences, respect the resources and act as ecologically responsible as possible. At least that's part of the premise behind ecotourism, the movement to put green in travel.
But if the idea of traveling to a remote, environmentally sensitive site and bringing business to locals, all while enjoying some lounge-chair-and-umbrella-drink time and helping Planet Earth sounds just too good to be true — chances are it may be, say critics.
Skeptics worry that some sound-bite ecotourism packages aimed at tourists who have more conscience than facts could be no better for the planet than a rock star's entourage chartering a private aircraft and littering the atmosphere with jet fuel and bad attitude on its way to a weekend in Paris.
In fact, travel to the City of Light might be better for the Earth than a quiet wildlife-seeking trip to the Galapagos Islands or Antarctica if the Paris flight is on fuel-efficient jet, especially since the French capital is properly geared to handle the vacationers in an ecological way the latter two destinations may not be, say experts.
"People should ask themselves why they want to be ecotourists and behave accordingly," says Richard Butler, professor of International Tourism, Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. "If it is simply to 'tick off' a new species or a rare species or a new national park, fine, but don't pretend that is ecotourism."
The Accidental Tourist
There's little doubt, even with today's sour economy, that tourism is big business. International tourist arrivals inched up 2 percent to hit 924 million in 2008, and it generated some $856 billion, or 30 percent of the world's exports of services, according to the World Tourism Organization.
There's anecdotal evidence that suggests that the interest in ecotourism is increasing, says Ayako Ezaki, communications director at the Washington, D.C.-based International Ecotourism Society, even if the term's meaning isn't always clear to consumers.
"A common misconception is 'ecotourism equals roughing it in tropical jungles,'" says Ezaki. "Ecotourism is tourism carried out in a specific way, following a set of principles that promote social, economical and environmental responsibility in order to minimize the negative impact and maximize the positive impact."
Browse through travel Web sites, and the wide range of experiences, both good and bad, to be had with ecotourism becomes clear.
"Ecotourism Rip Off," reads the headline of an eco-lodge review written by a commenter on TripAdvisor.com. That's followed by a glowing review of the same hotel, titled "Safe, Secret, Spectacular Environment Friendly Luxury," that reads: "Fact that it was environment friendly and that they have built this location with good concern for environment and ecology and wildlife was amazing."
There are a few key components toward making ecotourism work, say experts. The first is sustainable development, which Butler describes as a concept or way of operating or managing and developing a destination in the context of tourism.
The second suitcase of the successful ecotourism movement is ensuring a certification of some sort exists, one which would ensure the claims of an ecological experience live up to the promise of protective travel.
True, there are organizations a traveler can visit to help flesh out ecological voyages and find out the veracity of the claims, such as Lonely Planet and Green Globe International.
But being able to find a meaningful rating is a missing step right now, says Butler. Such a rating would certify that a lodge is conducting its business in an ecological way, not overburdening the location with tourists and taking care of the natural resources the tourists came to visit.
"There is no universally accepted accreditation scheme, least of all one for tourists that they know and trust and can use," says Butler.
Lastly, a tourist has to do his or her research and choose to act responsibly if ecotourism and sustainable development are to be achieved. But that's easier said than done in today's world, say some naysayers.
"I would suggest that to, by far the majority of tourists, that sustainability continues to be of little import," says Brian Wheeller, visiting professor of tourism at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and the University of Tasmania, Australia. "Far more pressing are matters of price, value for money and fun, fun, fun."
If ecotourism doesn't work, there could be dire consequences, say environmental advocates.
"Any fragile, pristine wilderness is vulnerable, but particularly perhaps Antarctica and the Galapagos Islands, which are coming under increasing ecological pressure from the growing numbers of tourists arriving on their shores," says Rachel Noble, campaigns officer for TourismConcern, based in London.
Butler says the true answer to ecological vacation is one the consumer — and the tourism industry — might not want to hear about, but one that will help the Earth.
"The best, but rather impractical, answer is to stay at home and visit local nature reserves," says Butler. "Certainly traveling several thousands of miles to a wildlife holiday destination is not globally ecological responsible."
Yeah, but it sure looks good in the photo album.