By Claire Harding
Over the last year the ecotourism industry has grown by 15%, and is one of the fastest growing areas of tourism worldwide. Ecotourism is often described as sustainable tourism or travel, often having an educational, ecological focus which is respectful and beneficial towards local cultures, geographies, communities and economies. Despite the rising popularity of ecotourism, tourism in general continues to rise, with more tourists wishing to travel from developing economies such as Brazil, India, Russia and China.
As more and more people want to see the world and experience new and interesting places, one of the major challenges for the tourism industry is to adapt traditional tourism in a way that is more sustainable, limiting its global ecological and cultural impact? This article suggests that tourism should head towards the seas.
Cutting long distances
When someone mentions tourism, the first thing that springs to mind is visiting new and exotic places. Almost by definition, it is impossible to get to new and exotic places without involving some form of travel. How can we fulfil our travel needs in a sustainable way?
Air travel is often spoken of as a highly unsustainable mode of transport. However, many people also observe that travelling by plane can actually be more efficient than other modes of transport such as a train or a car. Although a Boeing 747 burns approximately 5 gallons of fuel per mile, it must also be remembered that the aircraft has a carrying capacity of 568 people, therefore using approximately 0.01 gallons per person per mile, using roughly the same amount of fuel as a car carrying four people.
So what is the biggest problem with air travel? One issue is that because of the altitude planes travel at, harmful emissions and greenhouse gasses are released directly into the upper atmosphere where they do more damage. However, by far the greatest problem with air travel is that it facilitates long distance travel, encouraging people to travel further and use vast amounts of energy more frequently.
Travelling over short distances
One of the most important challenges for sustainable tourism is the need to encourage people to travel shorter distances, and take their vacations locally or in neighbouring countries which are accessible by boat or train. The recent growth in UK tourism has been accredited to the economic recession and the fact that people are unable to travel long distances. In the US also, the economic climate and increasing fuel prices has resulted in people travelling shorter distances in their cars, taking their vacations closer to home.
The cost of travel clearly has a dramatic effect on the choices people make concerning their vacations. Higher tax regulations on fuel used for leisure and holiday travel, would be a very efficient way of encouraging people to travel shorter distances and use more sustainable modes of transport over long distances.
Long distance travel by boat
If you do need to travel long distances, one of the most sustainable modes of transport is to travel by boat, such as passenger ship or ferry. Recent advances in ship engineering, tighter regulations involving the use of sea water ballast in the fuel tanks of large cruise ships and ferries and Load on Top refuelling all mean that modern large ships are producing far less sea water contamination than traditional designs.
Furthermore, there is a large emphasis on producing modes of shipping which use less energy. For thousands of years, wind, which is a renewable energy resource, was the preferred mode of shipping before steam came along. Recent efforts are underway to bring wind travel to power large cargo vessels. If these are successful, it is very likely that wind may become a popular and entirely green option for mass human transportation. Could we see resurgence in cruising holidays as a method of ecotourism?
Cruising as sustainable tourism
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, cruising holidays declined in popularity. However, cruising companies are putting a lot of effort into restoring the image of this once highly glamorous mode of tourism. Furthermore, there has been a large emphasis on the development of green cruising, in order to make cruising holidays a more sustainable form of tourism.
If cruise ships are able to become increasingly energy-efficient and reduce their carbon footprint, cruising could be a highly accessible and sustainable form of ecotourism. The idea of a giant luxury cruise liner roaring through the seas may not sound very green. However, one fine example of how cruising can be considered ecotourism is by looking at the use of cruising on the Galapagos Islands.
Due to their isolated geographical location, warm water, and volcanic nature, the Galapagos Islands have one of the most diverse and visually exciting ecosystems in the world. These are tightly regulated and protected by conservation regulations which prevent any building or permanent dwellings on most of the Islands. The only way to see the abundance of nature available at Galapagos is on board small vessels which are effectively small cruises.
These cruises have a limited impact on the surrounding ecosystem and require little or no permanent infrastructure to be left behind on the Islands. In addition, money from tourism helps to fund education about the need for further conservation. The model of the Galapagos Islands suggests how ocean- or water-based vacations can be a sustainable and effective form of ecotourism, and meet our global tourism demands.