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Ecotourism & Sustainable Travel

Nature and Tourism: It’s Complicated

Exploring the intricate relationship between outdoor tourism, sustainability, community stewardship, and mindful environmental engagement with today’s natural landscapes.

By now, we’re all aware that the number of people flocking to the outdoors since the pandemic has risen sharply. Parks Canada recently announced it expects to break visitation numbers again in 2024. This should not be surprising. Nature and tourism have a long if not conflicted history together. In the early 20th century when cars emerged, and tourism attractions had not yet caught up, people flocked to national parks. The outdoor adventure sector was the first to rebound post 9/11, post 2008 financial crisis, and post pandemic. We like to visit the outdoors.

Outdoor tourism encourages us to get outside and to travel to places we would never go to on our own. Ecotourism has been around for decades while the concept of regenerative travel is relatively new. The two share many more attributes than they differ on but for the label. Ecotourism is a contested term whereby some appreciate the eco and not the tourism or the other way around. Regenerative travel is more pleasing to the ears and avoids the cumbersome ‘tourism’ term. Regardless, the two concepts, in practice, drive a lot of the nature- based tourism we keep hearing about. 

So, are ecotourism and regenerative travel good for nature and humans or not? The answer is yes, when they are done well … but it’s complicated.

Responsibilities in nature-based tourism

Any form of tourism that claims to protect nature must support those who live on the land. We learnt this lesson in 1970s Africa when indigenous people were displaced from huge swaths of land to create parks and retaliated in the name of survival. We are often dealing with remote places far from typical forms of income generation making ecotourism an ideal way to connect the people to the land. If it’s done well, it allows Indigenous and other peoples to stay on the land and steward it for generations to come. It puts local people in charge of its development in scale and benefit meaning that they can slow or stop development while ensuring profits stay local. When properly implemented, the natural environment will not just be a tourist attraction because previous ways of life will be encouraged to flourish alongside tourism.

If it’s not done well, we can see all forms of social and environmental ills, ranging from overcrowding and over development to the displacement of local people and beyond. The principles of ecotourism ring just as true in the most remote places in the world as they do here in Canada. To do ecotourism ‘right’ we need an engaged local population, strong leadership, and external financial supports. Years ago, at a sustainable tourism gathering in Mexico I was asked where in the world had I observed the ‘best’ ecotourism? A tough question but the answer is actually simple, wherever the people have no intention of ever leaving the land, that is where you will find the best ecotourism.

Joe Pavelka PhD is a professor of Ecotourism and Outdoor Leadership at Mount Royal University in Calgary Alberta Canada [email protected]

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