In recent years tourism has been promoted heavily as an alternative source of income for many remote mountain communities, especially in the Himalayan/Tibetan Plateau region. Tourism offers an alternative source of income, which is critical in years of drought or heavy snowstorms, which can decimate a family’s income for any given year. However, tourism can be a dangerous tool as it has the potential to reshape local culture and have negative impacts on the environment. Eco-tourism, as a subset of tourism, is highly regarded among development professionals as it promotes environmental sustainability and improvement to indigenous social structures. However, a clear definition of ‘ecotourism’ has yet to be established among practitioners, opening the door to much ‘green washing’. So what is ‘ecotourism’? I believe it consists of three key areas:
- Environmental Protection – tourism should be applied in a way that the local environment does not suffer/degrade, rather is improved somehow through active efforts in conservation
- Improving Local Livelihoods – tourism should benefit locals. Local communities are largely dependent on the very resources that make an area attractive (beautiful forests, mountains ecosystems, etc). So visitors to the area should somehow improve local communities through income generation, improving resources, and promoting cultural/social structures in place.
- Education – visitors do not only come to lay on a beach and read a book, but interact in a meaningful way with the surroundings. They learn about the environment, the culture, and the aspects of that location that make it special.
Ecotourism doesn’t just concentrate on one of these aspects, each one is critical and one should not be stressed at the expense of the other. Without a balance of these three, in my opinion, we are not talking about ecotourism, but rather another subset of tourism. In which case, responsible tourism has not been fully actualized.