"Ecotourists take only pictures and leave no footprints."
Ecotourism Specialist
   

Tourism with a conscience? Ecotourism is just that: responsible travel to natural areas—travel that conserves the environment and preserves local cultures. Ecotourism is travel with a social motive.

One of the big advantages of ecotourism is that it benefits local economies directly. The monies generated go, not to big tour companies and out- fitters, but instead to locally owned lodges and homegrown tour guides and artisans. Tourist dollars also help fund the management of the natural areas that are visited. Equally important to supporting local economies is the way ecotourists see the areas they are visiting. Small groups stay at "eco-lodges" and "green hotels" (environmentally friendly lodging), travel with educational guides, and most important, stay on the trails, where, ecotourism manager Eileen Gutierrez says, "they take only pictures and leave no footprints."

Although ecotourism is still a relatively new industry, the term was coined in the early 1980s, when a handful of conservation biologists asserted that local economies could benefit from tourist dollars while maintaining local cultures and environments. Bringing tourists to visit an area responsibly has become a popular way to conserve natural areas and to allow travelers a chance to see destinations that they might otherwise never have a chance to see. In 2002, a United Nations summit in Quebec named that year "The International Year of Ecotourism," signaling the official worldwide acceptance of the trade and adding significantly to ecotourism's legitimacy as a beneficial and responsible way to see the world.

Eileen Gutierrez works for Conservation International, based in Washington, D.C. As an ecotourism manager whose regional specialty is mainland Asia, her job is to promote economic development and conservation in those areas by creating ecotourism initiatives. "We work in conservation. Our foundation deals with diverse areas worldwide that we call ‘hot spots'—highly biodiverse but threatened," explains Gutierrez. "We work with communities in and around protected areas whose threats are socioeconomic in nature. We help provide alternatives to their livelihood that can benefit conservation."

 

As an ecotourism expert, Gutierrez works on a policymaking level, designing and developing fundraising for ecotourism efforts. These tourism and development guidelines are carefully initiated because although they are designed to benefit communities, they could also easily threaten them. "Ecotourism plans for parks and protected areas and provides guidelines on development and how to zone for ecotourism. We design facilities (eco-lodges and hotels) to be more harmonious with the environment. We also analyze how community involvement and participation might take place and be encouraged," says Gutierrez.

Training for ecotourism is diverse. More schools are offering specialized degrees in environmental sustainability and even in ecotourism itself. According to Gutierrez, the variety of backgrounds among people working to further ecotourism's cause is almost endless. "Ecotourism employs biologists, social anthropologists, and people with business administration degrees working within the field," says Gutierrez. "The four key pillars for success in ecotourism are knowledge of international development issues, a solid foundation in business and economics, an understanding of community development issues, and an understanding of biodiversity and conservation."

These broad requirements mean that anyone interested in ecotourism must be prepared to get a broad education. Working in ecotourism might mean managing endangered areas, as Gutierrez does, or it might involve such varied jobs as managing an eco-lodge or conducting tours and educational programs. For Gutierrez, this kind of variety in her day-today job is exactly what motivates her. "Although ecotourism is not an extremely well defined field right now, there's a lot of groundwork that's being done, and the creativity involved in that is great. I've had the chance to develop methodologies for ecotourism assessments, and it has been exciting to be a part of that."

For more information on a career in ecotourism, contact:

The International Ecotourism Society
733 15th Street NW, Suite 100
Washington, D.C. 20005
Telephone: (202) 347-9203
Fax: 202-387-7915
http://www.ecotourism.org

Also:
United Nations Environmental Programme
(for further information on conserving natural environments and preserving biodiversity)
http://www.unep.org