I’m often asked about the impact of travel, tourism, and even this special brand of “conservation travel” I’m so immersed in. The question usually pokes at the idea that we’re promoting all of this “ecotourism” to help save the world, but in the meantime we’re having an impact because of the carbon emissions we’re emitting to get to places, and we may even have an impact on the wildlife we’re viewing because we’re getting to places that few humans have even been (and wildlife certainly can’t be used to dealing with humans, can they?).
I applaud the question, even though it is poking holes in an industry and conservation strategy that is so near and dear to me. The reason I applaud is it simple—people are thinking critically about what we’re doing and what we should be doing when it comes to conservation and sustainability. As I often tout, if every single person on earth did this and had this mindset, I think we’d be in a wildly better place in the world from a conservation perspective.
However, just applauding the question doesn’t solve much, nor does it convey the information that is so important as to why we do what we do in this conservation travel space.
For starters, the word impact is a good one, and strategic from both sides of the conversation. Sustainability is usually focused on the concept of lessening the negative impact one exudes. For instance, if we switch to an electric vehicle and decarbonize our lives, we are lessening the negative impact of vehicles and carbon emissions. This is a classic case and example.
What people don’t often think of when pondering on the impact we humans have on the environment, ecosystems, wildlife, and even other human communities, is about maximizing the positive impact of actions we take. That is, what is the positive side of the actions we’re taking that may often be associated with the negative impact?
Here’s where conservation travel shines. This unique brand of responsible travel can actually be a model for how we can maximize the good on so many other things in life.
For conservation travel, the benefit is creating value for natural landscapes, wildlife, and local communities, by injects a heck of a lot of money into local economies. That is, tourism dollars. This happens when people stay at hotels that employ staff, pay park fees, eat at local restaurants, buy souvenirs, hire drivers and other transportation companies, and the list goes on. The list is so extensive that tourism is actually the single largest industry in the world.
What tourism turns into the the real magic. Tourism turns local folks (those living around a national park, or natural area of interest) into stakeholders for keeping the attraction as good, if not better, than it already is. That is, if people are leaving millions of dollars a year in a local village that borders a protected tiger area in India, those people in that village will be incentivized to protect their tigers and the environment they depend on.
When it comes to how you do conservation travel, ecotourism, responsible travel, whatever you want to call it, there of course are ways to do this better and therefore have a greater positive impact on the local economy.
Maybe it’s by going with a tour operator that leaves more money in the local economy and is fastidious about hiring local guides and staying in local lodges and hotels. Or maybe it’s an outfit that helps invest in local education or hospitality training as part of their business model. Perhaps it’s a tour company that directly invests in conservation in the areas visited. You can see how there is no doubt a good, better, best scenario going on here.
So, when it comes to travel, we have an impact, there’s no doubt of that. Frankly, every time we go out the door we exude some sort of impact on the world—travel and tourism is no different. However, what’s so remarkable about ecotourism, aka conservation travel, aka responsible tourism, is that it can absolutely change lives in the destinations being visited.
Thus, while we all must travel miles and emit carbon and have an impact on our world to get out there and explore it, we have the ability to offset that negative by focusing on the positive impact we have through our travels. It is up to each and every one of us to think critically about what this means to you…
How do you make your miles count?