July 26, 2015

Our earth is a vast and wild place that offers countless unique and beautiful ecosystems, natural wonders, and wildlife.  Tourists from all over the world want to see and experience nature and new cultures, offering a variety of opportunities and challenges for communities.

However, these sites are also extremely delicate pieces of land, often located in the impoverished areas of the world, and, therefore, must be properly cared for. If done irresponsibly, tourism has a devastating affect on the local environment and citizens of the area.  For example, overbooking tourists and not regulating land use can overtax a community’s natural resources and destroy the natural landscape. That’s why the practice of ecotourism is an invaluable asset in the modern world. Sustainable ecotourism prevents the damage caused by commercial tourism, helping to preserve our world’s environment and benefit the local people who live around popular natural attractions.

Tourism is an ever-expanding industry. The number of tourists has increased exponentially in the recent years and now stands near a whopping one billion mark worldwide. With the emerging new markets, the growth is set to continue. The tourism industry is unique in a way that the product on sale is not owned by any particular business. It is shared by many, it is fragile and definitely needs protection.

However, the majority of tourism companies today operate in a purely profit-driven market, where everyone is extracting the most they can and there is no one replenishing for it. If care is not taken, eventually the tourist destinations will deteriorate and in turn, negatively affect the entire industry. This leads to an overall reduction in the value offered to the customer and the vicious cycle continues.

Some of the most popular tourist destinations across the world, such as Morzine-Avoriaz in the French Alps, Mount Everest, and Machu Pichu in Peru, are already experiencing the side-effects of irresponsible tourism practices. The unsuitable multi-storied structures in the Alps, mindless littering at the world’s highest peak, disconnect from the local communities in Peru are just some of the examples. Millions of tourists visit these destinations every year. The collective irresponsible behavior of these tourists, businesses and authorities is not only posing a threat to the ecology of these places, but also disrupting the local culture and heritage.

The past decade has seen a sea of change in the global economy as well as in environment. In this information age, customers have access to events across the world. Whether it is an oil spill or pesticides found in food products, people can and do punish the companies for being irresponsible  with resources. With this, the need and demand for sustainable tourism has been on the rise as well. So, governments and international bodies have also made interventions to provide for a better and more sustainable form of tourism in their respective countries. The World Tourism Organization has already launched The Sustainable Tourism- Eliminating Poverty initiative to make tourism a way of improving the economic status of locals. The United Nations has also set up the UN Commission for Sustainable Development that meets regularly to discuss issues pertaining to sustainable development globally.

Ecotourism offers a novel and more sustainable approach. It is possible to break the vicious cycle and enter a virtuous cycle that does not harm the environment. This approach offers greater rewards for business, benefit the local communities, and delight the tourists, all at the same time.

Viable models of ecotourism have been formulated and implemented across the globe that has now become a source of inspiration to others. One such notable case is the Himalayan Homestay Program in Leh-Ladakh, India. It began in 2001, as a partnership project between UNESCO, the Mountain Institute and Snow Leopard Conservancy. The project has been set up in the Hemis National Park, a protected area developed in 1981 for the conservation of the local ecosystem as well as the thinly populated snow leopards. Himalayan Homestay aims at involving the local communities to benefit from the tourist destination that Hemis is.

Training and complete support has been provided to the women co-operatives in the area to offer the visitors an option of a traditional homely Himalayan stay. They also run small restaurants. The locals are also encouraged to become guides and take tourist on short trips to explore the local flora and fauna. Other than this, the use of clean  energy has also been encouraged by providing subsidies on solar cookers and heaters. To further the cause, only 50% of the loan amount is required to be repaid. Local community funds have also been put in place.

There is also an emphasis over employing everyday practices that are environmentally friendly such as proper waste management, sale of boiled water to avoid accumulation of plastic bottles, cooking with natural gas or kerosene instead of the sparsely available fire wood and so on. For tourists, this offers a unique experience quite different from living in a generic hotel room and visiting only popular spots. They get to be up, close, and personal with the life in the Himalayas and that is surely a distinctive experience. For the local communities, it has helped them increase their incomes and also given them a chance to maintain their fragile mountain ecosystem.

The Cheese Route through the Bregenzerwald in Austria is another beautiful example of cooperation and combined effort to protect the environment as well as the local art and culture. The Cheese Street provides the visitors with a sneak peek into the local dairy farming practices and the lives of the farmers. A wide variety of cheese and handicrafts by local artisans are available for the tourists to purchase as well. This project is supported by the European Union, which also supports a similar program – Via Alpina, a unique hiking trail from Monaco to Italy. The Via Alpina project aims Both these projects have been highly successful in attracting tourists and creating employment for the local communities while relieving stress on the few highly visited tourist attractions.

Masai Mara in Kenya is another excellent example in terms of making tourism eco-friendly as well as viable in the long term. It is a globally renowned reserve that draws thousands of wildlife enthusiasts each year. To protect the ecosystem, the Basecamp Foundation, a non-profit organization, started working with the local Masai community to create the Mara Naboisho Conservancy.

Masai Mara was established in 1998 and founded on the principles of ecotourism. The camp plays a key role in preserving the savanna and helping nearby citizens. Environmentally, the camp supports wildlife preservation and plants trees to combat deforestation. Also, it is constructed of native products and only participates in low-impact tourist activities such as bird watching and village visits.

Economically, Masai Mara provides the Kenyan villages nearby with jobs and new technologies. 95% of the camp’s 48 permanent employees are from the local area and receive healthcare, educational opportunities, food, and accommodation, but even those who are not employed directly by the camp receive indirect benefits.

The Basecamp Foundation (BCF) run by Masai Mara is a platform for community development. Most of the meat and produce used at the camp is purchased locally, helping the region’s farmers, hunters, and vendors earn a living. BCF has also developed community enrichment programs such as the Masai Brand Project which employs 118 women who make traditional jewelry from beads and recycled plastics.

Villagers in the area are also given access to the camp’s water and healthcare facilities at no charge. The facility allows locals to fetch water from their on-site well and has dug two additional wells in the surrounding villages. Also, three health clinics in the region are supported by funding from Masai Mara that provides the rural villages with access to health services that were previously non-existent.

The tribe ensures that the human footprint is kept to a minimum. The camps are designed in a manner to blend in with the natural backdrop. Only locally available material like mud, gravel and wood are used in constructing the accommodation for the tourists. Care is taken that the movement of the animals is not obstructed by any fence or construction that is uncharacteristic of the habitat. Even the supplies are sourced in bulk in order to prevent trash that comes with packaging. Moreover, all chemicals used in the facility are biodegradable. The plant also uses solar power as the main source of energy to run the electrical appliances, boilers, water pumps and so on. The staff at the conservancy is trained in environmental management. The water waste is recycled in the treatment plant. Solid waste is collected, separated and accordingly recycled.

Overall, the Masai Mara Camp has improved the standard of living in the local community. They have helped bring over 1,000 solar power systems to surrounding households that can power lighting and home appliances. Finally, the camp has awarded scholarships to 15 local students, allowing them to attend boarding schools that are normally too expensive for villagers.

From the direct environmental benefits to the indirect benefits that Masai Mara gives the indigenous people of the region, ecotourism is succeeding. The Masai Mara and BCF are a shining example of how the concepts of ecotourism can be applied to the real world to educate travelers in a way that preserves the environment and culture of a tourist region.

The idea is not only to conserve the local wildlife, but to host tourists from across the world while simultaneously empowering the local community. The Masai people are educated and imparted with the right skills to be part of the tourism industry. They are also supported and encouraged to pursue their businesses like making ethnic jewelry.

There are many other such tourist destinations across the world that has already adopted ecologically sustainable ways to move forward. Whether it is the Lao Chai village in Vietnam, the mountain village in Patagonia, Brazil or the Banff Heritage Tourism Strategy in Canada – they have all realized the importance of being in sync with nature and maintaining the connection with the local communities for sustainable growth. Such initiatives are being recognized across the globe, winning awards for their efforts, garnering good publicity and in turn receiving higher tourist traffic, which is of course good for business.

Eco-tourism is one of the most potent tools in realizing the business opportunity that is available while conserving the natural habitats. It is not only a healthy long-term strategy, but also a powerful aid in community development. It creates a win-win situation for all the stakeholders involved, whether it is the tourists, the locals, the governments or the whole industry itself.


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