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Ecotourism: The Business of Sustaining the Earth through Travel

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After the mighty industrial military complex (the companies behind the missiles and the satellites to guide them), tourism is the world’s largest industry, according to the World Tourism Organization.

While tourism is big business, much of the industry can be just as destructive as the other extractive industries (mining, lumber, agriculture), sometimes operating in the same places around the world, places like the spectacular Alaskan Wilderness or rainforests of Indonesia. Oceans containing fish or oil hidden deep below the surface in certain parts of the world, provide the setting for the popular love affair by many people, of living on floating cities called cruise ships, turning port stops into Mall of America-type shopping sprees.

Not all tourism, however, thrives on the consumptive value of mass tourism that burns through resources or exploits people for the benefit of pleasure seekers. A small, but rapidly growing segment of the tourism industry, “ecotourism” has emerged which now accounts for as much as 4 to 7 percent of the industry, depending on definitional terms. While the academics debate the definition of ecotourism ad nauseum, the industry and number of ecotravelers are growing at double digit rates according to The International Ecotourism Society.

After studying ecotourism for several years while completing my M.S. at Penn State University, I’ve settled on my own definition of ecotourism:

Ecotourism: Travel that sustains, enhances or restores diverse ecological systems, preserves the economic and social well-being of the local and global community, and fosters a greater understanding on the part of the traveler of nature, culture or the community visited.

In many ways, it’s the “triple bottom line of profits, planet and people” applied to the travel industry.

On many occasions in my global journeys — captured in my first book The Least Imperfect Path — I traveled through slash-and-burned rainforest to reach pristine wildlife preserves or active conservation areas. My journey funded stewardship, preservation and conservation efforts through my park entrance fees and payments made for local porters or guides. By frequenting locally and native-owned lodging establishments and restaurants, my travel dollars helped provide viable livelihoods to community residents who might have otherwise been forced to destroy exactly those cultural and ecological features that attracted me to the area to start with. As I’ve written in E Magazine, Mother Earth News and Natural Home, among many others, ecotourism can be both a tool for conservation and restoration, but also guide more socially responsible and ecologically sound business practices.

Studying and traveling as an ecotourist wasn’t enough for me to feel qualified to write about it. My wife and I have operated the award-winning Inn Serendipity for over a decade as an ecotourism accommodation and destination. We’ve seen how the business of sustaining the Earth can be effectively accomplished through ecotravel. We write about our journey in both practical and inspirational ways in Rural Renaissance and ECOpreneuring. Our guests underwrite our organic gardens and soil restoration efforts, the implementation of renewable energy projects, and in myriad other ways help in the healing of the planet and preservation of cultural heritage. We saved our corn crib/granary by transforming it into a strawbale greenhouse. In terms of marketing, our customers search us out. They are also among our most enthusiastic marketers, telling their friends who might likewise enjoy the experience we provide that helps restore the planet at the same time. We’ve even managed to figure out ways to help offset our carbon emissions related to our operations, a big issue all businesses should address by how they operate.

This is the first of a series of blogs related to ecotourism. Future blogs will also include dispatches from the field, based on recent trips and innovative approaches taken by ecotourism businesses to leverage the power of travel to preserve and restore the planet. Please let me know what you’re doing, if you’re an ecotourism business. What businesses do you know that have embarked on a journey to participate in a restoration economy through the promotion of ecotravel?

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