Ripping up the earth in a rainforest while driving a Hummer and riding an ATV through the sensitive Sonoran desert. What do these two trips have in common? They are both dubbed ‘eco-tourism’ by the outfitters that offer them.
A term heavily affiliated with green-washing, “eco-tour” is freely bandied around by lots of tourism professionals looking to cash in on people’s hunger for a taste of the natural world.
Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of legitimate environmentally-oriented vacations that fit the International Ecotourism Society’s definition of “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of the local people.” But without running every would-be tour operator through a raft of questions, it is still too easy for even the most well-intentioned traveler to find herself ransacking a rare habitat without realizing it.
Luckily for any adventurer anxious to get to Belize or Botswana before airplanes are grounded for anyone but the elite, the ease of finding a travel package that is truly sustainable – environmentally, culturally and economically – is about to get a whole lot easier.
Working for over twenty years on creating criteria and certification programs for sustainable tourism, the Rainforest Alliance recently announced the launch of the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council, planned for early 2009. Within the council, several international organizations, including the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation and the United Nations Foundation, will work with the Alliance to create the first set of comprehensive global requirements for sustainable tourism certification programs around the world.
To be run by an elected international board advised by scientists, academics, and others on the forefront of related research, the proposed Council will evaluate the social and environmental impacts of programs, provide guidance for the establishment of new certification programs in countries where there are none and give assistance to governments looking to raise the profile of destinations with high environmental standards.
Given different definitions by the Rainforest Alliance, both eco-tourism and sustainable tourism are important tools for alleviating poverty and creating the impetus for saving threatened environments.
And in a world where the go-green label can be slapped on any excursion from abusing animals for the sake of sight-seeing humans to a safari where guides are imported from far away, this overseeing body will provide welcome relief for conscientious travelers and tour operators everywhere.