The negative consequences of conventional tourism to local communities are well known, including excessive development, degradation of ecosystems, cultural homogenization, and the concentration of economic benefits in outside hands. On the other hand, more benign forms of tourism potentially represent an alternative to extractive, boom-and-bust economies.
Ritual salmon bake provided for ecotourists on the B.C. coast.
Tourism is the world's number one employer, accounting for 10 percent of jobs globally. There is an enormous opportunity to convert much of this activity to ecotourism, which emphasizes the interpretation of local ecosystems and culture by trained guides; minimal-impact visitation; commitment to local conservation issues; and direct benefits to local people. Ecotourism also promotes Green Building techniques for facilities and mitigation of travel impacts. For instance, travel agencies are beginning to offer an option for travelers to purchase sufficient carbon credits to offset emissions from their flight or car rental.
Ecotourism typically takes advantage of proximity to areas of special ecological or cultural significance. Such Core Reserves, archaeological zones, or historic sites are inherently fragile. The scale and kind of visits to these areas must not overwhelm their limited capacities to host people. Ecotourism operations that are owned and run by local people tend to offer the most authentic cultural immersion and provide the most significant local benefits. They permit communities to base part of their Local Economies on their ecological and cultural assets without allowing them to be damaged in the process.
Heiltsuk First Nation entrepreneurs Frank and Kathy Brown created SeeQuest Adventures in their community of Bella Bella. Now a stop on a new B.C. Ferries route along the mid-coast of British Columbia, the SeeQuest facility at McLoughlin Bay is a prime example of a locally owned and operated, culturally-based ecotourism enterprise. Many other First Nations ecotourism operations are springing up on the British Columbia coast.
The ecotourism Society has developed a process for initiating "green evaluations" in the field of tour operations. Such Product Labeling of ecotourism operators can help consumers make more informed decisions, but is still in its early stages.
Seek opportunities for ecotourism operations, but only if they can be owned and managed by local people, and adverse impacts to sensitive ecological and historical areas can be avoided.