The last few years have been rough on my passport which was worn down from constant use until I tucked it away in my office as Australia closed its borders.
The COVID-19 pandemic had all but stopped tourism, giving the natural world a break. Roadkill rates were more than 40% lower compared to pre-pandemic years, fewer ships reduced the risk of strikes on marine animals and lowered ocean noise pollution, and populations of some animals began to recover. People, seeking refuge in their backyards or by looking outside their windows, began seeing animals in unusual places.
In light of the reopening of the world, our mindset toward travel seems to have shifted. While the desire to travel is palpable, the importance of conservation, and responding to climate change at the personal level, has added a sense of urgency.
“Ecotourism is based on three main concepts: conservation and protection of the environment, supporting local cultures and economies and environmental education for both locals and tourists,” explains researcher Ben Sander.
Several developing countries with limited growth options see tourism as a driving force for economic growth since it’s one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Many believe it possible for ecotourism to contribute to the socio-economic development of less developed countries, particularly the Small Island Developing States like the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Timor-Leste.
“Tourism is one of the major engines of economic growth in the Pacific region, and marine species-oriented ecotourism, an undeniably growing sector, will benefit from structured and sustainable guidelines,” said Ms. Pascale Salaun, from the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Management Division of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP).
“[Our aim is] to develop a long-term framework that respects emblematic and vulnerable marine species and local knowledge and traditions but also brings economic benefits for the local communities in their territorial waters.”
“The pandemic has provided our planet with a much-needed wakeup call and an opportunity to see what’s possible when nature has a chance to rebalance itself,” Alan T. Marbou, board member of Palau Visitors Authority, said in a statement on their recent Ol’au Palau app launch, which seeks to encourage responsible tourism.
For some, it is hard to believe that travellers can indulge in both luxurious comfort and environmental stewardship. However, several global examples of eco-travel destinations demonstrate this balance, exemplify the growing trend of luxury travel intertwined with conservation initiatives.
Costa Rica is famous for offering a wealth of eco-luxury options. It is considered that Costa Rica created the first so-called “eco-lodge,” Rara Avis, which was established in the 1980s. The protected area spans more than 1000 hectares, and it is home to 367 bird species, 47 mammal species, and thousands of plants (such as this one discovered on the property).
The nearby onsite biological station also is home to 24 scientists who study a multitude of iconic endangered species which use this area as a migratory corridor, including the stunning quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), the elusive jaguar (Panthera onca), and the resplendent green macaw (Ara ambigua).
Costa Rica has had tremendous success with eco-tourism as a tool for preserving nature and reducing rural poverty throughout the years, generating more revenue from it than from coffee, bananas, and cattle combined.
Here, one can enjoy nearby national parks and be a part of local conservation and wildlife conservation programs, all while enjoying luxurious accommodations. Moreover, most Costa Rican hotels are now eco-friendly, demonstrating a commitment to preserving the environment. For example, the nation of 5 million people only emits 0.02 percent of global emissions, with nearly 98% of its electricity coming from renewable resources, and about 30% of its territory is protected natural land.
Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada has a clear vision of the future: “I imagine a city where mobility is based on clean energy; a city that bets on technology but prioritizes people’s well-being, freedom and right to privacy; a city where you breathe clean air; a city that manages waste sustainably and a city where you are in contact with nature to find peace of mind.”
But what if your government isn’t behind the ‘green movement’? In contrast with other Latin American countries, Mexico’s biggest source of CO2 emissions is power generation and gets less than 30% of its power from non-fossil sources.
But in Mexico’s west coast, south of Puerto Vallarta, is Xala – an ecotourism venture that brands itself sustainable.
Renewable energy sources, water conservation practices, and eco-friendly materials are integrated into the architecture and operations, aiming for a guilt-free indulgence for guests seeking a lavish experience.
But Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador isn’t making it easy. Although the country is in one of the best potential locations for renewable energy generation in the world (specifically solar), investment in renewable energy has stalled under the controversial populist. Mexico has stopped issuing permits for solar projects and canceled auctions, effectively cutting off private sector investment. “Mexico is going in the opposite direction that the world is going in. This is a missed opportunity. Mexico has absolutely outstanding wind and solar resources,” Diego Rivera Rivota, a Research Associate at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University explains.
In spite of this, Xala has pressed ahead, preparing their buildings for the day they can fully run on renewable energy. While they wait for that to happen, their wildlife projects flourish, with visitors able to participate in programs that safeguard endangered species like sea turtles and rare birds.
Travelers can contribute to these local conservation efforts through activities like turtle nesting observation, reporting wildlife tracking, and active habitat restoration.
Like many eco-tourism ventures, Xala’s commitment extends beyond the natural environment to local communities. The destination engages with nearby villages, providing employment opportunities and supporting local businesses.
Through partnerships with indigenous artisans, travellers can participate in cultural experiences, such as traditional craft workshops and visits to local markets. These interactions foster sustainable tourism practices that benefit both visitors and the local community, aiming for a harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship.