On our trip round to visit the various camps, lodges and hotels, the word on everyone’s lips was Ecotoursim. It has become such an important thing in the tourism sector over the last couple of years that if a tourist facility wants to be considered it needs to be trying to be an ecotourism destination. But what does this really mean on the ground and how can us the traveler make an informed choice.
Ecotourism is as defined by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) – “Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”
So by breaking down this definition we have 3 main points. Firstly the awareness of the traveler. As travelers we should realize that by visiting the National Parks or Wild Heritage Sites, we all impact that area whether we mean to or not, we can try and make a conscious effort to reduce this impact by supporting only the destinations that are trying to consider the environment, or support ‘local’ by researching the way they are giving back to the area or country before deciding on the places to visit. Once on the ground, there are small but significant things we can choose to do or not do that make a huge impact for example, by not insisting our towels are washed every day, thus reducing use of precious water. Or ensuring we support a camp that has recycling in place to reduce the rubbish going to landfills, we can make the responsible choice.
Secondly, supporting tourist facilities that in turn support local conversation efforts in their surrounding areas. Giving back into the area that they are promoting by donating time, money or assistance to a cause that helps both the environment and the local people, is a very important aspect too and is how the conservation project keep going. Not only does it make us travelers aware of the tenuous balance of ecosystems, it forces the facilities on offer to strive to find better ways to live and work in harmony with their environment and surroundings, and preserve the very thing they are promoting. Many of the camps in Zimbabwe National Parks have a project that is close to their heart, whether it be planting trees to reduce deforestation in their area, or donating time and money to the monitoring of the endangered wildlife that they seek out each day.
Thirdly is the human aspect. The education and employment of the local people around the tourist facilities is hugely important as these people live and are part of that ecosystem on a day to day basis. If they don’t understand that all things are connected and that doing one thing can upset the balance of everything around them, then there is no hope for conservation and the Earth. Education of the next generation, of both travelers and local people on the ground, is the key to solving so many problems we face today, from the cutting down of trees for firewood without replanting to not disposing of rubbish properly. It is the future generations that will suffer if this is not taught and understood TODAY. The local communities around national parks and attractions need to benefit from these areas for them to appreciate and look after it, be it through employment or trade. Without this the animals/land have no value, for example, to a person living a subsistence lifestyle who has elephants eating his crops everyday, the elephant is worth more to him dead (meat and skin to make trade items) than alive. But if the same village had the majority of its employment in the anti poaching or National Parks of this area, that elephant is valuable as a tourist attraction. Talk to the staff in the camps in Hwange National Park, and most of them live on the edge of the park, sending money back to their families. Each camp or safari company has a community project they spearhead or support, be it recycling glass into beads to sell in the camps or hosting childrens camps for those kids that live in the surrounding areas, so they learn how precious our natural wildlife is.
Sensitivity towards, and appreciation of, the local cultures and diversity of an area is also part of ecotourism. When we travel we want to see how other people live their lives, how they do things and tackle issues, that is the joy of travelling, so this difference has to be nurtured and understood. We all have something to teach others and to be taught by others, if only we take the time to listen and understand. So when you are deciding your next trip, consider carefully your destination and do a bit of research into whether that area or facility does anything to help the local communities and conservation efforts in the area.