Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Investing in Ecotourism: The Key to Colombia’s Future

Contributed by Emma Bell

Jaguar Lake, La Pedregoza
Our environment concerns are constantly changing as the effects of climate change not only increase at an alarming rate, but the struggle to find short-term as well as long-term solutions ensue. Programs which encourage investment in tropical trees are essential for the well-being of the economy and just as importantly, the fragile ecosystem and the respective societies which live around it. Hand in hand with these endeavors is an industry which has soared considerably in recent years, due to Colombia’s cultural appeal – tourism. As droves of eager explorers flock to hotspots which have been immortalized by Gabriel García Márquez as well as the wild reaches of one of the most beautiful countries in South America, it is only through ecotourism and adopting its principles which can provide a more sustainable foundation for economical and ecological endeavors.

Defining Ecotourism, Putting it into Practice

Cooling off in rainforest stream
The International Ecotourism Society offers a comprehensive definition of ecotourism, stating that it is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” This is the guiding theory which many organizations, businesses, charities and individuals have adopted, and there are a variety of ways to put the principles of ecotourism into practice by doing the following:
  • Encouraging conscientious travel which is non-invasive, minimizing impact wherever possible. Travelers can do this by using only established routes, using public transport where possible, cleaning up after their stay, and respecting their environment. Businesses can do this by off-setting their carbon through energy-saving practices as well as buying carbon credits from programs like CO2 Tropical Trees.
  • Building an awareness of environmental and cultural issues in the region and drawing appropriate attention to social and political challenges in an open and transparent dialogue.
  • Ensuring that profit from travel-related ventures go directly towards conservation and preservation efforts of the area.
  • Empowering local communities by giving them a direct role in decision-making, as well as helping their respective economies to flourish. Tourists should be encouraged to purchase local products and businesses should source local, ethical and sustainable goods where possible.
  • Providing an authentic and off-the-beaten track experience for travelers, enabling them to discover a part of the world through a non-corporate lens. 

Mainstream Industries and Specialized Ventures

Kayaking in the rainforest
While ecotourism has formed its own niche venture over the years with many start-ups gaining recognition for their work, many mainstream industries have also wisely invested in taking a cleaner and greener approach. Industries like cruising – which would rightfully be considered a huge carbon-emitting mode of travel – have reinvented their approach to tourism, using renewable energy and cutting down on emissions as much as possible. As big companies realize that big profit goes hand in hand with big conservation, it’s a sign that tourism is headed in the right direction. Individuals, smaller businesses and organizations play an equally vital role; the advent of voluntourism which focuses on environment-specific challenges has contributed to the overall endeavors of ecotourism considerably, providing a positive and immersive experience for locals and tourists alike. Colombia is an ideal destination for this movement as it holds the title of being the “most bio-diverse country per square meter in the world.”

Meeting an anaconda at night
Colombia’s “mega-diversity” makes it a truly spectacular venue which not only teaches awareness on a regional level, but an international one. It features a section of the Amazon Rainforest – “the Lungs of the World”, which is responsible for 20% of the oxygen we breathe, as well as a vast garden of fauna and flora. While much of Colombia’s incredible landscape has remained largely unscathed, the ravages of non-conscientious tourism and other damaging industries has taken its toll, particularly with the use of agrochemicals. Colombia – along with many areas in South America which have taken a progressive approach to agriculture and conservation – have suffered the effects of these. But with increased awareness and efforts by conservationists, activists and organizations, this can and will change.

Rainforest orchid
But how can ecotourism work in conjunction with programs such as investing in tropical trees in Vichada, Colombia? The answer is quite simple when reflecting once again on the principles of ecotourism, and taking into account the positive effects of voluntourism; these are programs which not only benefit all local economies and keep the land healthy, sustainable, and beautiful (thus increasing its touristic appeal), but can be used hand in hand with tourism to spread awareness. Whether it’s a trip to help plant trees or simply a vacation which helps to partially fund these endeavors, promoting ecotourism in a place like Colombia is a great way to share the diverse wonders this country has to offer, as well as protect it.