Ecotourism: Preserving the Heritage of Our People

Gemma Hunt, January 2015

Ecotourism is one of the most important concepts to be introduced in the 20th century – a vigilant effort to preserve the precious wildlife resources of the world while empowering local communities to have a better say over the future of their environment. While ecotourism itself has been around for centuries – in the national parks following the visionary principles of Emerson in the United States, and the fundamental life practices of indigenous peoples from all over the world, it is only within the last few decades where its value has been recognized on a corporate and governmental scale. The value of ecotourism should not be underestimated – its contribution to conservation projects on a global scale is paramount. But it is also a crucial endeavour for helping communities across the planet – especially in Australia – preserve their own heritage.

One of Ecotourism’s Most Important Principles

Encouraging a more conscientious approach to travel involves several factors: conscientious travellers and businesses that reduce their carbon footprint where possible, exerted efforts for conservation projects to be put into place, promotion of local economies, and a better access to off-the-beaten track experiences. All of these go hand in hand with one another, and protecting local communities who have a direct influence on decision-making is key. By empowering local communities, ecotourism provides a basis for respecting old and valuable traditions, the opportunities for tourists to learn and discover a different way of life, and an economy which is sustainable and non-invasive to both the societies and cultures within a particular environment.

Whenever a major development project is put into place, it is essential to take into consideration which factors will impact the environment and those who live in its vicinity, and in what way. In the case of tourism, big projects like resorts and theme parks can have a detrimental effect on neighbouring communities when mismanaged. A conscientious scheme, on the other hand, will engage with these local communities to see how such a venture can be non-invasive, provide local jobs, and have minimal impact on the ecosystem. Promoting local businesses here is essential as well. Family-run businesses – whether it is accommodation, food, entertainment, or shopping – provide a better alternative than larger corporate investments, pooling money straight back into the local economy.

Respecting Our People

Industries like ecotourism have the capacity to be highly productive when it comes to drawing awareness to pivotal issues. Because the very essence of tourism is to celebrate what is already there, there isn’t a stronger voice within the travel industry to draw awareness to specific social problems. Many ecotourist ventures work alongside communities and organizations which address such issues. The Respect Our Culture (ROC) Program is a development tool established by Aboriginal Tourism Australia (ATA) whose goal is “to ensure tourism experiences meet customer expectations in a professional and sustainable way. It also encourages the industry to operate with respect for Indigenous cultural heritage.”

This is especially important for countries like Australia where travel comprises a huge portion of the region’s income, and for the aboriginal communities which have experienced devastating hardship since the time of the settlers. Programs like ATA ensure that key areas are protected and that aboriginal communities not only have a say in how these are developed, but are provided with the opportunities and funding to develop their own sustainable tourism infrastructure.

This benefits not only the local community, but the conscientious traveller in many ways. Firstly, it provides a unique opportunity to experience such an environment firsthand, rather than the more contrived settings of holiday resorts. The money spent contributes directly to the local economy, and travellers can usually get more value for money by purchasing local, hand-crafted souvenirs and dining and sleeping by community-run businesses as well. Sustainable travel is considered one of the most budget-friendly methods of getting out and about and experiencing the world, as well as the most authentic – and for this reason, it has become popular. Australia is considered one of the most progressive countries in terms of promoting ecotourism without exploiting land and people, operating on what is a common sense principle for one of its most vital industries. If its natural resources are not protected, then nothing will be left for future generations to enjoy. And while Australia faces strong international criticism for its current policies regarding the Great Barrier Reef, it is ecotourism which will help to give rise to the strongest voice which opposes its destruction.

We often dissociate the words “ecology” and “economy” yet both contain the same root: “eco” which signifies “home.” This is why an industry like ecotourism has the potential to preserve both economy and ecology, and invest in a future which is hopeful not only for travellers, but for the communities which have shaped and continue to shape such an integral part of Australia’s history.