Every year the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) organizes an Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC) to offer learning and networking opportunities. This year the conference took place in Quito (Ecuador) and it happened last week (27th-30th April). It brought together 600 professionals from around the world to discuss the role of tourism in sustainable development. This year the focus was using ecotourism as a tool for poverty eradication and environmental protection, in alignment to the recent UN resolution. The goal was to promote policies and practices that benefit businesses and communities.
One of the main news of the event was the acknowledgement that Ecuador received by the GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) for being the first country in adopting the sustainability guidelines for tourism management. Ecuador has everything to be the perfect ecotourism destination; from the Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos Islands, Andes Mountains, volcanos, hot springs, Inca ruins and historical cities. With so rich natural and cultural heritage, it is very good news that this country took the step to be first one in adopting the sustainability guidelines.
It is important that more countries take this step. For that reason, one of the main topics during the last day of the ESTC 2015 was the guidelines and certification for ecotourism and sustainable tourism. But the main topic during the whole conference was the role of the communities in tourism and how they can benefit from it. Several speakers highlighted the situation of some local communities that in spite of being located next to major tourist attractions of the country, are not receiving much benefit from it. It is important to find a way to change this situation so the communities get involved in the tourism industry and improve their living conditions as a result of it.
These annual conferences are an important platform for industry stakeholders engaged in ecotourism and sustainable tourism. They offer an opportunity to provide solutions to the problems that tourist activities may cause to environment and local communities. Ecotourism can be used as an effective tool for nature conservation and for improving the livelihood of local communities, as long as it is practiced in a correct way.
But, what is ecotourism? It is important to give a good definition if we want to use it effectively. Ecotourism is defined by the Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people‟. We can say that there are three main elements that are required in ecotourism: be nature based, be educative (learning as an outcome) and provide economic benefit to the local communities. Tourist activities that are not including these three aspects cannot be considered ecotourism.
Sustainability is the key word here and it is the ultimate goal of ecotourism. However, when practicing ecotourism, we are not always achieving this goal. Tourism Concern and Worldwide Fund for Nature define sustainable tourism as tourism that does not compromise the future productivity of resources, recognizes the contribution of the local people who should have an active role and accepts that these people must receive economic benefits from tourism.
I believe that with a previous assessment of the place where the ecotourism activities will take place, followed by a careful planning, step by step and considering all the aspects involved, we can achieve sustainability. And we cannot forget to include the local communities’ needs and wishes during the process, as they should be the main actors and decision makers in collaboration with the businesses providing the holidays. This will ultimately lead to enhance the conservation of the natural resources of the area.
Author: Belén Paredes
Co-founder and general coordinator of EcoMind Travel