The New Ecotourism – More than Mosquito Nets and Compost Toilets

“Ecotourism” is a term with a lot of baggage. For many, it conjures up images of mud huts and outhouses, limited electricity and campstove cooking. But today’s ecotourism is more than what it once was thanks to an influx of travelers looking to enjoy and explore their natural surroundings without feeling too far from the comforts of home.

Ecotourism has a nebulous definition but is generally considered to be responsible travel to natural areas with a focus on local people and historical land-use. The terms “sustainable tourism” and “responsible tourism” and even “green travel” are all often used interchangeably along with eco-travel, although they differ slightly in the responsibility placed on the traveler to contribute to the local environment. How is the broader category of responsible travel changing, and what does it mean for your next excursion?

Trends Around Ecotourism

Survey after survey shows Americans increasingly focused on making responsible, earth-friendly travel choices. Among TripAdvisor members, over 71% say they plan to make more eco-friendly travel choices in the next 12 months; another study showed that travelers who consider themselves “eco-conscious” travel far more frequently – 75% take two trips a year and 22% take five to eight! – than the average U.S. traveler.

A sharp rise in experiential tourism, that which encompasses nature, adventure, heritage, and more, has changed the average consumer’s expectation of what ecotourism activities should be. Among Baby Boomers, particularly, the demand for high-end, “soft” adventure tourism is up, and luxury ecotourism destinations are rising to meet the challenge. Boomers control 70-80% of the U.S. wealth, and statistics show they’re willing to pay for memorable, eco-savvy trips.

What’s New in Ecotourism?

One of the biggest shifts in ecotourism is the strengthening of domestic travel. In fact, over 20% of travelers coming into the U.S. choose to spend their time in natural locations such as our National Parks. Increasingly, American travelers are realizing the benefits of exploring nature-focused destinations closer to home: cell service, shorter travel times, and reliable Wi-Fi. Older travelers are taking more frequent, less-lengthy trips in order to stay connected to work or family, which domestic travel easily facilitates.

Another big change among the eco-travel set is the desire for high-end accommodations. Travelers want to have the opportunity to take local-focused excursions or spend an adventurous day in nature, but they also want to come home to beautiful lodging for a comfortable respite. Eco-lodges and luxury nature travel are in high-demand, particularly in secluded natural destinations wherein guests will spend a significant amount of time at their “home base.” The ecotourism of today looks a lot less like compost toilets and mosquito nets and a lot more like locavore eating and five-star spas.

How to Responsibly Enjoy Ecotourism

There are now dozens of organizations such as the International Ecotourism Society and the Adventure Travel Trade Association devoted to educating and regulating eco-travel, green travel, and other types of responsible tourism. In general, the rules outlaid for true ecotourism activities include:

  • Minimizing visitor impact to the surroundings
  • Observing and respecting the environment (cultural and natural)
  • Giving financial assistance for conservation through cost of travel
  • Increasing visitor awareness of the host area

When choosing to travel responsibly, citizens are putting their tourism dollars to work. Destinations that are committed to conservation, actively manage their environmental impact, and responsibly control the movement and activities of guests in the natural area should be a priority for any traveler looking for an eco-adventure.

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