Ecotourism has re-emerged as a buzzword among social justice warriors over the course of the past decade. However, the concept actually dates back to the early 1980’s. Since then, many individuals have designed their own forms of ecotourism in an effort to save the planet and its inhabitants. Some companies, too, provide opportunities for ecotourism. However, in many instances, these enterprises are simply profitable travel programs masquerading as ecotourism. Indeed, several tours in Hawaii allegedly qualifying as ecotourism produce little to no ecological benefit for the Hawaiian community.

So, what exactly is ecotourism, and how can you participate? And, if you are looking at tours in Hawaii, how do you identify which ones actually generate real benefits for the local community? Read on to find out!

What Is Ecotourism?

Most conventional forms of ecotourism involve conservation efforts in threatened ecological zones. Indeed, tours in Hawaii often include observation of endangered marine and plant life. But ecotourism is not simply traveling for the sake of enjoying and healing the natural environment. Rather, ecotourism is defined as responsible, sustainable travel that yields tangible benefits, both ecological and economic, for the host community. Ecotourism doesn’t just sustain local ecosystems; it also supports local communities’ livelihoods by providing economic support and promoting intercultural awareness.

The International Ecotourism Society explains that ecotourism is “about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.” They go on to stipulate that ecotourism minimizes social and psychological impact on the host community while promoting environmental awareness, increasing intercultural sensitivity, and empowering the hosts’ culture and economy. Finally, the expenses that ecotourists pay should be funneled into efforts to preserve the environment and bolster the economy of the local community.

Different forms of ecotourism will focus on different issues and projects. Common themes include water conservation, sustainable agriculture, eco-friendly transportation, local crafts, recycling, composting, and alternative energy. Most programs also include larger discussions about global patterns that negatively impact economies and ecosystems in third world countries. Some of the concerns that come into play, such as slow food, sustainable agriculture, human trafficking, animal protection, and fair trade, are actually branch-offs of the original ecotourism movement of the 1980’s.

Ecotourism as a Growth Strategy

For many countries, ecotourism is a viable way to promote economic growth without compromising the welfare of the local community. Other growth projects tend to undermine the livelihood of the lower classes. Urbanization leads to gentrification, siphoning the poor into densely populated fringe communities. Building large resorts can lead to deforestation and harm local businesses. Large-scale agriculture can deplete soil and reduce the diversity of the local food supply. Ecotourism is a culturally, economically, and environmentally friendly alternative to these other conventional methods of growing GDP in poor countries.

Why Ecotourism?

Conventional mass tourism can have devastating consequences for the ecology and economy of the host community. Large tours can disturb wildlife and lead to soil compaction and erosion. The mass generation of trash in a society that lacks the infrastructure to process it can lead to water pollution and overflow in local landfills. The direction of tourists’ funds towards restaurants and shops in large resorts diverts potential profits from struggling local businesses, perpetuating wealth gaps between local elites and lower classes. It was for these reasons, and several more, that the UN named 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism and Development.

Ecotourism seeks to kill two birds with one stone; that is, to promote travel that simultaneously heals local environments and supports local economies. If one occurs at the expense of the other, it’s not ecotourism. Even conservation efforts must have either no impact or a positive impact on the local economy. Ecotourism is thus an element of a long-term plan for economic growth, not a get-rich-quick scheme for struggling countries.

Perhaps that most impactful element of ecotourism is also the most intangible: education. Ecotourism entails both environmental and cultural education programs that enrich tourists’ understanding of local cultures and ecologies. The objective of these programs is to inspire passion for the environment and for the host culture. By extension, these programs also encourage tourists to adopt sustainable practices in their personal lives and promote awareness surrounding the environmental and economic concerns of the host community in their own communities at home.

Recognizing Ecotourism

Do your research before embarking on a trip advertised as “ecotourism.” Many travel companies leverage the term to attract business. The practice of falsely labeling a service as environmentally friendly, known as “greenwashing,” is capitalistic ploy that does a great disservice to host communities.

Several tours in Hawaii are guilty of greenwashing. Most tours in Hawaii expose touristic masses to Hawaiian plant and marine life without allowing them to participate in conservation efforts. Further, many of those tourists are staying in massive resorts built on appropriated, sacred grounds.

In discerning whether or not a form of travel qualifies as ecotourism, there are several factors that you must consider. Ecotourism doesn’t just minimize the impact of travel; it generates tangible, positive benefits for the host community.

Evaluate your forms of travel. Are you traveling by foot, bicycle, or local transportation? Or are you traveling in fuel-guzzling, private buses? Are you staying with host families, at campsites, or at local hostels? Or are you staying in a large hotel? Are you eating local food and using local building materials? Or are your material and dietary choices serving a private entity? Are you traveling in small, low-impact groups and limiting your generation of waste?  Who is your money going to, and what do those profits fund? Answering such questions will reveal whether or not a trip truly qualifies as ecotourism.

The Makings of an Ecotourist

True ecotourism also requires a significant degree of conscientiousness on the part of the ecotourist. To be an ecotourist, you must limit your use of energy; minimize your generation of waste; use your money to support local businesses; and choose low-impact forms of travel.

If you’re not traveling with a company, you may consider work-trade or staying with a host family. You may choose to perform service work with a local non-profit or school. Do your research on the unique facets of your local community so you can be aware of how your individual actions will impact your hosts.

Many tours in Hawaii offer only knowledge to impart to your own community; they provide few opportunities for direct involvement and impacts. For tours in Hawaii that allow you to get directly involved in preservation efforts, check out our Farm Tour. We also offer the Sustainable Living Course, which allows ecotourists to live and work on our low-impact farm. We strive to offer ecotourism in its purest form—direct involvement, minimal impacts, and tangible benefits.

Ecotourism in Hawaii

Ecotourism is especially important in Hawaii, which possesses the highest number of endangered plant and animal species in the world. Mass tours in Hawaii only contribute to the problem. But small, local tours in Hawaii that provide opportunities for direct involvement and stimulate economic growth are making positive change a reality.

Malama aina, or care for the land, was a central principle in the Native Hawaiian belief system. Hawaii’s diverse array of microclimates renders our natural environment even more special and sensitive than those in hardier climates. Thus, attentive care and appreciation are central to reversing the trend of endangerment in Hawaii.

If you are taking tours in Hawaii, do your research. Where is your money going? What impact are you having? You can minimize your impact and support the local economy by performing work trade or staying in an Airbnb. Eat local and organic food, like that we provide at Gingerhill. Purchase from small Hawaiian businesses and local artists. Do your research, do your part, and respect the aina.

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