More of us are aware that travel impacts the planet, and ecotourism has become popular as a result. From polar bear trekking in the North Pole to birdwatching in Argentina, ecotourism initiatives have popped up all over the world. They help to educate and connect travellers with the local landscape and community while raising awareness (and money) for conservation.
Like many things this year, COVID-19 has put a spanner in the works. Fewer of us are willing – or able – to travel. This means that many ecotourism businesses, which rely on money from visitors, are facing cashflow issues. This has a knock-on effect to the environment, animals and communities that they work with.
We want them to keep doing their great work and be ready for tourists once we’re able to get back out there. So how do we help them while international travel is off the table?
How to help
1. Join a virtual safari
Like business meetings, exercise classes and pub quizzes, wildlife experiences have also moved online this year. While it might seem a bit strange, it’s an important way for rehabilitation centres to make money. It takes a lot of resources to care for animals, even if the plan is to release them back into the wild.
In normal years, tourist ticket sales – which are usually higher than the prices locals pay – contribute towards this. Sadly, visitor numbers have been way down in 2020. Initiatives like the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC), in Malaysian Borneo, usually gets hundreds of visitors per day, but have had none since the pandemic began.
To compensate for the lack of ticket sales, many rehabilitation centres are now offering virtual experiences. For the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, this means online virtual talks for a small fee. In cooler climes, Polar Bears International offer a livestream of their tundra buggy in Manitoba as it trails polar bears. It’s not quite the same as being there in person, but it’s still thrilling to see and learn about rare animals.
2. Book for next year
Paying in advance for a trip you’re planning to take next year will give the ecotourism initiative some funds to play with now. If you can afford to pay upfront, and in full, then do it, but even a deposit will give them a little boost. It’s worth checking the company cancellation policy before you book. Flexibility is going to be a big deal in travel until the pandemic is under control, and you want to make sure you’ll be able to move your experience if required.
If you don’t want to commit to dates, look at buying a voucher. The ecotourism company gets money in their pocket now, and you get to enjoy an amazing experience later. As well as giving you peace of mind – you don’t need to lock in your trip while things are still up in the air – it also gives you something to look forward to. Research has shown that having exciting things in the calendar can do wonders for our wellbeing, and travel planning plays a massive role in that.
3. Make a donation
Many ecotourism projects operate as non-profit organisations. Some even work alongside charities in their local community. Show your support for the great work they’re doing by sending some cash their way. It doesn’t have to be as much as you would spend during a trip, but even the smallest donations can help them to ‘keep the lights on’.
There are a lot of important ecotourism companies out there, and unfortunately one person can’t help them all. The best thing to do is think about the ones that are most important to you. Which ecotourism experiences have you enjoyed in the past, and which ones were on your list for the future?
Next, head to their official website and find out if they’re accepting donations. Lots of initiatives will already have a page set up for people who want to give a little extra. For example, Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai has multiple ways to give – from sponsoring an animal, choosing something from the wish-list or donating cash. Other projects have only just set up their donation pages in response to the pandemic. If your favourite ecotourism initiative doesn’t have a website, try reaching out directly via email to find out if they need help.
4. Support local ecotourism projects
When we think of ecotourism we often imagine incredible experiences in Asia, Africa and South America. It’s easy to forget that there are also some amazing natural attractions right here in the UK. As ecotourism initiatives usually rely on tourists from overseas, it will help them immensely if we give them some support. It also gives us a new perspective on our local environment. Because of lockdown, tiers and local travel restrictions, this will need to be a hyperlocal staycation.
Have a quick search online to find out what initiatives are taking place in your area. It might be something as simple as a conservation project focusing on an inner city waterway, or as exciting as rewilding a nearby national park by planting trees. Although it had to put working holidays on the backburner, The National Trust still relies on volunteers to help preserve the British environment. They have multiple volunteering opportunities, from maintaining footpaths to rebuilding natural habitats.
5. Leave online reviews
Even if you don’t have money to spare, you can still help out by spreading the word. Whether it was a community-led market tour, a wildlife conservation centre or a guided hike, chances are you’ve taken part in sustainable tourism. Remember that these initiatives rely heavily on word of mouth. Think back to some of your favourite travel experiences over the years. You probably learned about them from online research or a recommendation from friends.
You don’t need to be a famous influencer to encourage people to book. The internet is a competitive place, and a five-star review is worth a lot to a small business. By leaving positive reviews, writing blog posts or simply chatting about the experience with your friends, you’re increasing the chances of people booking.
Start by leaving five-star reviews on Google, TripAdvisor and Yelp. Add a few short sentences about why you enjoyed it, and why their work is important. If you’re in the mood to reminisce, post some photos from the experience on Instagram for Throwback Thursday. You might only have a handful of followers, but you’re still spreading awareness of the project and could inspire more people to help out.
Ecotourism needs us more than ever
2020 has been a tough year for travel and it’s had an even greater effect on the communities and conservation projects that rely on tourism money. By making an effort to support these initiatives, we can make sure that they’re still doing the good work – even if we can’t be there in person.
The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.’
Ecotourism is important because it helps to protect the environment, increases awareness of issues and raises funds to help conservation. It also makes sure that tourists are contributing to local economies, not just passing through. Basically, it’s gentler on the world and helps to preserve it for future generations.
The three pillars of sustainable tourism are environmental sustainability, socio-cultural sustainability and economic sustainability. This is sometimes known as the three P’s: planet, people and profit.
Most ecotourism initiatives fall under three categories: cultural, wildlife and adventure tourism.
Cultural ecotourism involves learning about and engaging with local people. For example, joining a community-led cooking class where you buy ingredients from market vendors before learning to make traditional dishes.
Wildlife ecotourism focuses on the conservation and rehabilitation of endangered animals, and also helps raise awareness about their plight. It could involve tracking animals in their natural habitat, or meeting creatures that have been rescued and now live on a nature reserve.
Adventure ecotourism is all about experiencing the environment in a sustainable and mindful way. This could involve hiking, biking, climbing or kayaking. There is usually a cultural element as well, with local guides and visits to small communities.
Travelling is tough just now, but there are ways to support overseas conservation efforts from the comfort of your living room. You can join paid virtual events, book a trip for next year, buy a voucher for a future trip or donate money.
If you want to get out and about, look for ecotourism initiatives in your local area and consider joining them. You could also tell people about eco-trips you’ve taken in the past. Leaving positive reviews online could encourage more people to book once the pandemic is over.
Discover where you can go
Making plans to get back out there? Find out whose borders are open with our interactive global map, and sign up to receive email updates when your top destinations reopen.
Want to read more?
- Coronavirus travel advice: from current restrictions to airline cancellation policies, this is all you need to know about travelling during the pandemic (updated daily)
- How to plan travel in 2021: want to plan a sustainable holiday next year, but aren’t sure where to start? Our travel planning tips will help
- How to be an eco-traveller (and still have it all): if you’re new to eco-tourism, you can learn all the ins and outs of travelling better here.