CSR Hot topic: Eco-tourism – is there any such thing?

Later this month tourism and biodiversity experts will meet to discuss the potential links between tourism, biodiversity and sustainable development. This worthy discussion is prompted by ‘World Tourism Day’.

Eco-tourism is a burgeoning industry and it is one which CSR consultants should keep an eye on. However, the questions to be asked are what actually is eco-tourism and is there really any such thing?

From a CSR perspective, ecotourism in its pure form would appear to be a form of tourism which does not have a negative impact on the environment, and which protects and builds the life of local ecosystems. It should also involve close partnerships with the local community.

The issues come when unscrupulous operators realise they can make a fast buck by labelling their tour ‘ecotourism’. If buyers are not careful and check the small print their ‘eco’ trip could end up being anything but. It could even end up damaging the wildlife and ecosystem, which the customer is so keen to preserve.

Tourism companies with thought-through CSR strategies and which are committed to genuine ecotourism suffer from the lack of one unifying international standard which is seen as the ‘gold standard’ and universally adopted. There are a number of transparent and well thought through standards around, but they are not used everywhere, making it difficult for companies to prove their CSR credentials.

Animal lovers on an ecotourism trip may find themselves contributing to the problem. Martha Honey, quoted in her role as Executive Director of The International Ecotourism Society, said that in some instances people were ‘loving the animals to death’.

The Christian Science Monitor highlighted this issue in a piece as far back as 2004, noting the number of whales injured or killed by whale watching boats. These are the third biggest killer after naval vessels and cargo ships. This is not really the height of CSR achievement for the companies involved.

But the bald truth of the matter is that ecotourism generates so much cash. This is often desperately needed by preservation groups working to protect wildlife and biodiversity in order to continue their programmes. It is possible for these groups to run sensitive and careful trips, but it is still a challenge as the tourists, merely by being in a place, are automatically impacting the ecosystem, albeit temporarily.

So what should responsible tourist operators do? Firstly, they should be honest. Not all ‘green’ trips are ecotourism – they might be ‘low carbon’ or the hotels might source local food and operate sustainably - but that is not the same thing. However, it doesn’t need to be. Ecotourism is a particular strand of travel and that is not what all travelers want. Secondly, they need to publicise the ecotourism standards which are trustworthy, why they are trustworthy, which one they have chosen to sign up to and why.

Ultimately, an aspiration would be one, international and universally adopted standard. Then the responsible traveler would know what he or she was getting and hopefully by that stage there will still actually be some ecosystems to enjoy.

Photo credit: Michael L Dorn