How to Pick an Ecotour
What is an ecotour? How is it any different than a regular guided tour?
Ecotourism: the practice of vacationing in exotic places while making a positive impact on the local ecology and community while learning something about that same place.
Although some travel companies use the term loosely to mean 'adventure travel' or 'travel to nature', standards have been set to establish the definition of 'ecotourism'.
An ecotour is a small, individually guided tour that takes into consideration conservation and preservation issues, donates to the local economy, and teaches the travelers something about the nature and culture of the area in which they are located.
The Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism was created at the UN International Year of Ecotourism meetings in 2002, where over a thousand people from 132 countries met to discuss issues.
The Quebec definition of ecotourism is an activity that:
-Interprets the natural and cultural heritage of the destination to visitors.
-Contributes actively to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage.
-Includes local and indigenous communities in its planning, development and operation, and contributing to their well-being.
-Lends itself better to independent travelers, as well as to organized tours for small size groups.
Sadly many unscrupulous businesses exploit the ecotourism trend by 'greenwashing' their products.
Hawaii can be used as an example of this "greenwashing." Some operators in Hawaii have started labeling their tours as ecotours, even though they do not meet the definition. While there are many good, responsible ecotour operators in Hawaii, some tour companies have business practices, like overcrowding an area with their clients, that negatively impacts that place and reduces the quality of your experience. Others simply have under-qualified guides, which also makes your experience sub-par, and can also be potentially dangerous.
This adds an additional challenge to the true ecotour companies, making it hard for the visitor to distinguish between real ecotours and companies that are just using the word "ecotour" as a marketing catch phrase.
So how do you pick an ecotour? Use the Internet.
Before a trip takes place, you should do a little research about the companies. You'll want to choose a tour that will be safe, educational, and enjoyable, but it's also important to know that the tour operator makes every effort to preservation of the environment and cultures you'll be visiting.
A little research on the internet makes this easy and takes very little time. Go to the websites of the companies in the area you plan to visit and see if the content is more than just “rent this for this” and “packages at these prices.” If the website has content on the ecology and/or history of the place they operate in, its likely they are better and more professional than companies that just tell you about their product. If they have a "conservation page," even better.
Just remember that neither accreditation, certification, nor recommendation by tourism authorities or travel agents is necessarily a measure of how good the operator is. Most recommendations by travel agents that sell the tour is simply a paid advertisment. Certification in some association is, many times, simply a membership that anyone, regardless of qualifications, could join. Many times large companies with high employee turnover will certify their manager as an “instructor” who then in turn certifies all the employees and then the company advertises that they are "better" because they are “certified.”
In actuality, many "certifications," beyond what is required by the their insurance company for the guides, is nothing more than paying for a membership in some association. It’s experience and professionalism you want in your guide, not a piece of paper.
Often the older, “established” company does not represent the forefront of ecotourism. Younger companies, more in tune with modern ecotourism may be more connected to contemporary research and conservation and actually have the more experienced people working with them.
Ideally, ecotours should not only minimize negative impacts on wildlife and habitat but also help the local people by providing stimulation to the local economy or employment, or by contributing to local conservation or education programs.
Question to keep in mind when surfing the web for an ecotour:
1. Is the company's site just about the activity or sport, or is the content about the environment and conservation?
2. Does the ecotour operator employ trained naturalists, that can translate complex scientific information into simple, everyday, understandable interesting conversation? Be careful, some operators will advertise trained or “certified” guides when the training or certification has nothing to do with environment or education or safety. If they have no content about the ecology, wildlife, etc. on their website, then they probably have no "naturalist" to write it, and therefore no naturalist to act as your guide.
3. Does the tour company stress learning opportunities, knowledge and sensitivity to the environment and people?
4. Does the operator limit group size and the number of participants overall, or do they send out as many people in a day as will book? This will affect how much negative impact visitors might have on fragile habitats, communities, and impact your experience as an ecotour client. Do they send out only one group of 10 per day to the sensitive place, or multiple groups of 10 at the same time?
5. Does the company involve itself in research or conservation efforts beyond a token annual “cleanup” which may be nothing more than a marketing tool?
6. Do they have a standing want ad on their website for employment? This shows a high rate of turnover, which shows a lack of professionalism in their “trained” and "certified" staff.
7. Does it seem like a large company with many “packages” advertised? This shows high volume, which is counter to a true ecotour. "Largest company" and "Oldest company" are red flag words. "Conservation" and "Environment" are green flag words.
8. Does the operator have a stated code of ethics and conduct (environmental or conservation policy) for both the company and for tourists?
Why spend a few minutes researching on the web for the right ecotour?
Visiting an exotic place on your own or with an inferior guide is like watching a movie with the sound off. You might see some pretty pictures, but you will miss all the plot.
Many times you can get a feel for the professionalism and “eco-ness” of a company by the content of their website. Its your vacation time, its your money, make the most out of it. Involving yourself in an ecotour will add to the quality of your visit to the area, and to the quality of the area your visiting.
"A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead