What Is Ecologically Sound Tourism & How Can I Judge For Myself?

Dear EarthTalk: When I travel, how can I be sure that tour operators are practicing ecologically sound tourism? Are there certifications for “eco-tourism?”

—Joyce Duncan, Chicago, IL

“Eco-tourism” is a relatively new phenomenon. The International Eco-tourism Society defined the term in 1991 as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people.” Well-planned eco-tourism has proven to be one of the most effective tools for long-term conservation of biodiversity. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) suggests three basic principles of an eco-tourism project: It conserves biodiversity, promotes sustainable resource use and shares the benefits with local communities.

To better address the guidelines and certification of eco-tourism, UNEP and the World Tourism Organization declared 2002 the International Year of Eco-Tourism. A World Ecotourism Summit held in Montreal, Quebec in May 2002 was attended by hundreds of travel industry professionals.

The nonprofit organization Rainforest Alliance is also investigating the possibility of establishing an international accreditation body for sustainable tourism certification. As an example, Rainforest Alliance and an Ecuadorian environmental group have created a “Smartvoyager” certification program that sets the standards for the maintenance and operation of tour boats in the Galapagos Islands.

CONTACT: World Tourism Organization, www.world-tourism.org.