Welcome to EcoElements, a UK based consultancy offering a specialist portfolio of services to tourism operators in our focus area of operation, the Victoria Falls, and the wider Zambezi river basin. Feel free to browse!

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What is EcoTourism

The term eco-tourism emerged in 1983 and is generally attributed to the Mexican architect and environmentalist Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin (who still serves as a Special Advisor on Ecotourism to the IUCN and World Tourism Organisation). Like sustainability, its definition has evolved over the years, but in its widest form, eco-tourism embraces the following principles: responsible and low-impact travel, adherence to ecological principles, conservation of biodiversity, respect for local laws and cultures, benefit-sharing for local communities with their informed consent, and educational input.

The concept gained ground during the 1990s, and reached global acceptance in 2002 with the UN-designated International Year of Ecotourism. Other phrases have also come into use within the industry, such as sustainable tourism, adventure tourism, geotourism, safari tourism, ecotravel and NEAT (Nature, Eco- and Adventure Tourism).

In the past 50 years, the growth in international tourism has been phenomenal. Nature and adventure travel have emerged as two of the fastest growing sectors in the tourism industry. Tourism is often described as the world’s ‘biggest industry’ - statistics produced by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) indicate that tourism generates 11 percent of global Gross Domestic Product, employs 200 million people, and transports nearly 700 million international travellers per year—a figure that is expected to double by 2020.

According to the World Tourism Organization, international tourism:

• accounts for 36 percent of trade in commercial services in advanced economies and 66 percent in developing economies;

• constitutes 3–10 percent of GDP in advanced economies and up to 40 percent in developing economies;

• generated US$464 billion in tourism receipts in 2001;

• is one of the top five exports for 83 percent of countries and the main source of foreign currency for at least 38 percent of countries.

The rate at which tourism continues to grow presents both opportunities and threats for biodiversity conservation. Unless it is planned and implemented carefully tourism development can be a threat to biodiversity. Responsible tourism – or eco-tourism – in hotspots and high-biodiversity wilderness areas can be both a sustainable economic alternative and a successful conservation strategy. Eco-tourism is set to grow by an estimated 6.5 per cent per annum over the next ten years.

Whilst eco-tourism is a relatively new concept, it is often misunderstood or misused. While the term was first heard in the 1980s, the concept of eco-tourism came into its own in 2002, when the United Nations celebrated the ‘International Year of Eco-tourism’. The first broadly accepted definition was established by The (International) Ecotourism Society (Lindberg and Hawkins, 1993) and is now one of the most widely accepted:

"Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."

Responsible tourism creates a requirement to not only retain the status-quo, but to nurture environmental awareness and to directly invest resources in the improvement of the local environment.

Distinguished from nature-based tourism, which refers only generally to tourism activity in a natural setting, and from adventure tourism, which involves physically exerting activities in a natural setting (Ceballos-Lascurain, 1998), eco-tourism more specifically links travel whether leisure, adventure or educational to the conservation of the destination’s natural and cultural heritage.

Several other definitions of ecotourism are worth mentioning in order to demonstrate and emphasize the potential benefits that may be realized. One is given by Ceballos-Lascurain (1996):

“Eco-tourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low visitor negative impact and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations.”

Another useful definition is provided by Martha Honey (1999):

“Eco-tourism is travel to fragile, pristine, and usually protected areas that strives to be low impact and (usually) small scale. It helps educate the traveller; provides funds for conservation; directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of local communities; and fosters respect for different cultures and for human rights.”

Eco-tourism respects the desire of indigenous peoples and other local communities, government, business and society as a whole to profitably generate sustainable economic and social development. With proper planning and supervision, eco-tourism can help protect ecosystems and preserve biodiversity. It can also empower local communities to recognise the ecosystem as an intact rather than exploited resource, promote environmental responsibility, and increase environmental awareness.

As of yet, there is no international certification standards for eco-tourism, although best practices have been documented. The Ecotourism Society in the United States and the United Nations Environment Program have published widely accepted industry guidelines.

We believe that eco-tourism is about connecting conservation and communities through sustainable development - for the benefit of both. Those aiming to participate in responsible tourism should strive to achieve the following eco-tourism principles:

• promote and implement environmental best practice

• monitor and minimize operational environmental impacts

• compensate for unavoidable environmental impacts

• provide direct financial benefits for conservation (financial ‘offsetting’)

• build environmental and cultural awareness and respect

• promote responsible operator and visitor behaviour

• provide benefits and empowerment for local people and communities

Eco-tourism must:

• have a low impact upon a protected area’s natural resources;

• involve stakeholders (individuals, communities, tourists, tour operators and government institutions) in the planning, development, implementation and monitoring phases;

• respect local cultures and traditions;

• generate sustainable and equitable income for local communities and for as many other stakeholders as possible, including private tour operators;

• generate income for protected area conservation; and

• educate all stakeholders about their role in conservation.

By promoting these standards, and providing tourism operators with the tools and recourses necessary to measure and manage their environmental impacts, we believe we can encourage eco-tourism capacity development within all aspects of the tourism service industry and create market demand.

Why eco-tourism?

Ecotourism has brought the promise of supporting conservation goals and encouraging sustainable economic development — promising a rare win-win situation.

Eco-tourism offers the opportunity to develop specialised services in a growth industry. Eco-tourism creates jobs in food service, accommodation, transportation, and other industries. Because it relies on healthy ecosystems, eco-tourism provides a powerful incentive to protect the environment and we believe people who earn their living from eco-tourism are more likely to protect local natural resources and support conservation efforts.

Although there are many national and international codes of conduct, charters and certification programmes, most have no sound verification process and none have legally binding consequences. ‘Greenwashing’ is increasingly commonplace, whereby operators claim ambiguous support for conservation or community initiatives and use terms like eco-tourism and sustainable use, bending definitions and creating the impression of an environmentally and ethically aware business.

The name eco-tourism is often used to market specialist services to environmentally aware clients. However, such eco-tourism claims are often hard to substantiate, and in some cases their merits are dubious to say the least. By championing and promoting high eco-tourism standards, we believe we can not only encourage environmental awareness within the tourism industry, and also its clients, but also achieve significant progress in developing grass-roots conservation and environmental initiatives towards larger conservation goals.