The definition of "eco-tourism" is hard to nail down. If forced to, I'd probably say something like: Eco tourism is any travel whose primary purpose is the enjoyment of nature in its wild state and upon which special effort has been made to minimize negative externalities - and maximize the positive ones.
As such, anything from a camping trip to the local state park to an elaborate international adventure would probably qualify. In terms of grander trips, the Galapagos is probably one of the more well known eco-tourism destinations. So what are the basic ways tour companies are minimizing impact? And how are they going above and beyond?
Strict Rules Imposed
Galapagos National Park, which controls 97% of the islands, enacts strict regulations concerning where people can go, what they can do, and how many people can turn up in an one spot. Even prior to boarding the plane, travellers' luggage is screened for organic material that might worsen the islands' invasive species problem and once airborne, a pesticide is sprayed in the plane to finish any invaders off (don't ask me what this does to people).
A limited number of overnight boats are allowed to operate and each boat is equipped with a tracking device so that authorities can verify exactly who is going where at any given time. As such, tour companies are very much under the eye of park authorities and their plans and activities are largely not under their direct control. This makes for a situation where compliance with rules is a constant pressure and is very strictly abided by. The crew of our boat shared with me not only their lengthy books of regulations and guidelines but also a universal enthusiasm for the need for such rules. The general consensus seemed to be that the rules were there for good reasons and if anything needed to be tighter, not looser despite the business challenges such compliance might pose. The result, in my opinion is that guests are left with a sense of respect that they can take home with them and apply when traveling in protected areas in the future.
I wish I could say that all the boats were powered by solar energy or something fanciful along those lines, but it's just not a realistic option. That said, waste is recycled and organic matter is discharged at sea in deep water.
Beyond the strictly environmental, challenges do remain. Specifically, the self-contained nature of cruising means relatively little money is spent by travelers directly into the local economy. The National Park remains well funded but the 3% of the islands with an ever growing population of humans has challenges and insufficient employment. In conversing about this issue, some suggest that tourism should be less restricted in populated areas to allow hotels to fill to to allow day trips in smaller boats operated directly by locals.
The central Equadorian government has put pressure on the Galapagos to allow for hotel development and this day-trip concept, which would also be far more affordable for tourists (the overnight boats tend to be on the luxury end). However, the issue of water supply alone may be enough to make such development very limited regardless of any other debate.
Ed Note: Accommodations, travel and guidance in the Galapagos were courtesy of EcoVentura, which runs 7-night cruising expeditions around the islands.
Nick Aster is the founder of TriplePundit.
TriplePundit.com has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place. It was acquired in 2017 by 3BLMedia, the leading news distribution and content marketing company focused on niche topics including sustainability, health, energy, education, philanthropy, community and other social and environmental topics.
Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He also worked for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.
Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.