Ecotourism caters to travelers looking for an excursion in the natural environment without damaging it or disturbing habitats. Compared to traditional commercial tourism, visitors are introduced into relatively undisturbed areas on a small scale with minimal impact.

If done ethically and sustainably, ecotourism – a term defined by The International Ecotourism Society – is the conservationist’s answer to tourism. Ecotourism has been one of the fastest growing segments in the travel space. In 2019, the global ecotourism market size was expected to double by the end of 2026, according to one report.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is taking a toll on some ecotourism programs. Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) Crime Prevention Officer James Slade said the pandemic has completely changed the world we’re used to. “It’s meant that we’ve had to change and adapt.”

How Tourism Helps

Most people are unaware that protecting and maintaining a remote wildlife area is expensive and often relies heavily on donations and grants.

“You’re always combatting the problem and up against the wall with people trying to come in and poach elephants, rhinoceros or other wildlife. You’re always on your back foot,” he said.

Ironically, once your program becomes successful, ongoing fundraising is more difficult.

“It’s harder to get more funding because donors see poaching has been reduce or eliminated. The funding starts to dry up,” he said.

But Slade points out ecotourism can provide a consistent stream of funding.

“It provides an important, stable revenue source to maintain the successful programs. Without it you can find yourself in a really difficult situation,” he said.

The pandemic and its travel restrictions has created that tough spot.

In southern Africa, there are conservation organizations reliant on ecotourism dollars to help fund operations and to help maintain the standard needed to protect the area. The places collecting most of their resources from visitor dollars are the places impacted the most.

Slade once managed operations for an anti-poaching enterprise entirely reliant on private support. He said they’ve lost important resources.

“Money came in through levies on room rentals and conservation fees for the area. They’ve taken a hit because there’s no tourism in the area because of restrictions and that means valuable income has dried up,” he said.

A Lifeline for Remote Communities

H+I Adventures, mountain bike tour specialists, is committed to having a positive impact on the communities they visit, many of those in remote locations. One of their popular trips to Morocco takes travelers beyond the tourist traps and into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

“These communities have a history of subsistence farming, which continues today, but the main income enabling these proud people, largely of Berber descent, to remain in their home villages comes from tourism,” said Catherine Shearer, co-owner of H+I Adventures in Scotland.

During the summer months, local mountain guides lead hikers and mountain bikers safely through the mountains, on paths that have been vital links between remote villages for centuries.

“One such guide is Lahcen Id Mansour,” Shearer said. “Lahcen lives with his family in the village of Imlil in the shadow of the Atlas, roughly a two-hour drive from Morocco. He comes from an impressive lineage of mountain guides, his grandfather having pioneered the profession of mountain guiding in Morocco.”

“Lahcen usually works almost every week between the start of April until the end of October guiding hikers and mountain bikers through the spectacular landscapes of his homeland. All of the income he makes from his work as a guide supports his wife and three children for the whole year.”

This applies to most of the people living and working in these remote communities, some of which are not accessible by road.

“Families rely on their mules to carry provisions and tourists into the village. Accommodation providers, food suppliers, transport providers … adventure tourism is intrinsically woven into the fabric of society in the Atlas Mountains,” Shearer said. “Of course, there have been no hikers or mountain bikers venturing into the Atlas this year and these communities are having to rely heavily on one another for support to make it through this drought until travelers start coming back to Morocco.”

What You Can Do

Multiple media reports state the pandemic is helping the environment, from decreased carbon dioxide emissions and less energy use to cleaner air in many cities. What has replaced man-made pollution is deforestation, animal poaching and illegal mining — all equally harmful.

“Ecotourism, if done ethically and sustainably, is a benefit, providing a service to the local community,” Slade said.

He suggests travelers look into newer initiatives, such as volunteer experiences.

“Volunteerism has certainly been growing in popularity as a means of engaging in conservation efforts, giving the safari industry new and unique ways to provide client experience,” he said. “These alternative forms of tourism have developed over the past decade or so, such as allowing guests to take part in wildlife research or learning from rangers in the field.” 

From trail sustainability to local support, H+I Adventures believes travel can be a force for good in the world.

“While we recognize that any form of travel has an energy impact, we believe by travelling responsibly we are having a positive impact in all of our destinations,” Shearer said.

She provides an example: “We work with small operators and local suppliers in every area we visit, many of whom are in remote communities with limited prospects for employment. Around $70 of every $100 spent remains in these places, where it matters most and supports small scale tourism. Travelers will return to the Atlas Mountains. It’s a question of when and we hope that ‘when’ will be soon.”

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