In today's world, where travel, especially by air, has become increasingly accessible, local governments, tourism organizations, and tour operators face more and more challenges. While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily slowed things down, recent passenger traffic trends over the past two years have shown a remarkable renaissance of travel.
The increasing numbers of tourists boost local economies without a doubt, but they also bring a lot of issues. Not enough staff at the airports, hotels and restaurants, pollution and tourists who disturb the peace and quiet are just some of the problems.
The negative impact of mass tourism also includes tons of waste, littering in nature (even in protected areas) and reports of damage to the world’s natural and cultural heritage. And while travelers come and go, local communities are left to deal with the aftermath after every tourist season.
On the other hand, more and more people are becoming aware of the importance of preserving the planet. This makes them look for ecological options also when they hit the road and as a result, there's a growing interest in travel that's eco-friendly. This is where ecotourism comes into play – it's a way of traveling and enjoying your vacation while being kind to the environment.
Indeed, many travelers nowadays make it their top priority to be responsible to the world we live in and to vacation sustainably. People understand the importance of protecting nature and supporting local communities. They also make an effort to minimize their carbon footprint but if they have to choose air travel as their primary means of transportation, this might prove to be a difficult task.
Airports and air companies follow the trends though, and try to not fall behind. They do their part of the job in protecting the environment. Many air hubs and airlines invest in fuel efficiency, carbon offset programs and solar and renewable energy sources. They are also working on reducing single-use plastics, managing waste and conserving water.
If you are interested in ecotourism and its compatibility with air travel, keep reading! In this article we will:
- explore the world of ecological travel experiences;
- discuss how the air travel industry is adapting to the goals of ecotourism;
- hopefully increase your awareness about the importance of being kind to the environment.
At its heart, ecotourism changes the way we think about traveling. It is more than just a vacation; it's a commitment to being sensible and respectful when away from home. The term emerged in the 1980s and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education."
We have to make an important distinction, though: ecotourism is not the same as sustainable tourism. While the former refers to a specific form of tourism, the latter is a broader term that can be applied to all types of tourism.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) says that sustainable tourism “takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” So if you want to fully practice sustainable tourism, you need to consider a lot more than what you do at your vacation spot, including the way you get there.
Ecotourism: preserving nature
An important part of ecotourism is traveling to natural areas. These destinations, often far from the busy city life, can provide you with unique and enriching travel experiences. Whether it's observing wildlife in their natural habitat, hiking through lush rainforests, or kayaking along pristine rivers, ecotourism allows you to connect with nature on a deeper level.
These travel experiences can also teach you different things about the place you are at. Tour operators offer many ecotourism activities that are not only fun, but also educational. You can go on guided tours led by knowledgeable experts who will tell you fascinating facts about the local flora, fauna, and cultural significance of the area. This way, you can learn about the natural and cultural value of your chosen destination and get inspired to preserve the environment.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sees ecotourism as a valuable way to support conservation efforts. Its main idea is for profits from tourists to be directly used for environmental protection and restoration projects.
So when you are an eco-tourist, you know that the money you pay will help save threatened natural environments, ecosystems, and wildlife. And respectively, local ecological organizations will be happy that they can take care of their areas without any additional costs. What’s more, ecotourism creates jobs and income for local communities, making the connection between nature and society even stronger.
Ecotourism: helping local communities
Ecotourism is not just about preserving the environment; it's also about empowering local communities. By promoting nature-based tourism activities and cultural experiences, it creates opportunities for locals to participate in and benefit from the tourism industry. Thus, economies get a major boost and people don’t need to financially depend on activities that harm the environment.
In ecotourism places, you often find locals running eco-lodges, guiding tours, and offering authentic cultural experiences. This way, the money you spend stays in the community. Also, a lot of the profits made from ecotourism go back into projects that protect nature, making the bond between nature and society even stronger.
Another main aspect of ecotourism is being respectful to indigenous peoples and their local culture. These communities often inhabit some of the most ecologically significant places on the planet (sometimes even in national parks) and have a special connection with the nature surrounding them.
If you are an ecotourist, indigenous people will share their knowledge, traditions, and stories with you. This exchange brings different cultures closer together and helps everyone respect and understand each other better. What’s more, it preserves the traditions and languages of indigenous communities, which are often at risk of disappearing.
A Spotlight on Costa Rica
Probably the best example of all that we discussed until now is Costa Rica. The Central American country is often regarded as a global leader in sustainable travel. The Costa Rican nation has successfully embraced responsible tourism practices and integrated them into its national identity. The country is blessed with natural beauty and an amazing biodiversity, including lush rainforests, pristine beaches, and abundant wildlife, which of course helped make it an ideal eco-destination.
Costa Rica's commitment to keeping this title is evident in its extensive network of national parks and protected areas. For example, Corcovado National Park, situated on the Osa Peninsula, is a well-known eco-destination. You can enjoy beautiful views and get close to exotic animals like jaguars, tapirs, and scarlet macaws. Another famous Costa Rican spot, Manuel Antonio National Park, on the Pacific Coast, is a great chance for you to explore tropical rainforests and spot capuchin monkeys and sloths.
Local communities in Costa Rica have embraced ecotourism as a means of economic development and environmental protection. Many eco-lodges and tour operators are locally owned and operated, ensuring that the economic benefits of tourism remain within the communities themselves.
Ecological advancements in aviation technology
While the focus of ecotourism is primarily on responsible behavior once you reach your destination, the journey itself also plays an important part in the efforts towards achieving sustainability. Sure, there are many ecological transportation options like electrical cars, trains and buses. However, traveling by plane is still the fastest, safest, most convenient, and sometimes the only option to get to some destinations.
As good as it might be to get on a plane, sit back, and relax, you might feel a little guilty when you think about the carbon footprint you will leave. But don’t worry, the aviation industry is trying to stay on top of this issue and has been making significant advancements to reduce its negative impact on the environment. These include innovations in electric and hybrid aircraft, sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), and carbon offset programs.
Electric and hybrid aircraft
Electric and hybrid aircraft represent the future of aviation. The goal of these eco-friendly alternatives is to significantly reduce carbon emissions and noise pollution. Companies like Airbus and Boeing have been actively researching and developing electric and hybrid propulsion systems, paving the way for cleaner air travel.
Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs)
SAFs are another key development in the industry. SAFs are derived from renewable sources such as biofuels and can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of flights. Many air companies are already using SAFs on selected routes (usually mixed with traditional fossil fuels though). United, American Airlines, JetBlue, KLM-Air France, Lufthansa and even low-cost carrier Ryanair are among the companies that use the most SAFs, with plans to expand their usage in the next 4-5 years.
Carbon offset programs
Many airlines have implemented carbon offset programs that allow passengers to voluntarily offset the emissions from their flights by investing in environmental projects. These programs help mitigate the environmental impact of air travel.
In addition to technological advancements, airlines are actively working to achieve carbon-neutral operations. This involves reducing emissions through measures such as optimizing flight routes, improving fuel efficiency, and investing in carbon offset projects.
Several airlines have committed to ambitious sustainability goals. For example, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has set a goal to reduce its carbon emissions by 25% by 2030 and to operate with zero net emissions by 2050.
Sustainability at the airports around the world
Airport management is a key part of the travel ecosystem and more and more airports worldwide are adopting sustainable practices. Here are some examples of ecological solutions:
Renewable Energy: Many airports are harnessing renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. For example, Denver International Airport has the largest solar power farm of any commercial airport in the United States.
Another American airport, Boston Logan is also a leader in using alternative energy sources: wind turbines, materials that reflect excess heat from the terminal building were used for the floor and roof, and low-flow water fixtures are the main ecological features of the Massachusetts major air hub.
Waste Management: Effective waste management is crucial for airport sustainability. Airports are implementing recycling programs, reducing single-use plastics, and adopting sustainable building materials to minimize their environmental impact.
Rome Fiumicino Airport‘s management for example is dedicated to recycling all of its waste and is building a huge compost site which will be used for the food waste from the airport’s restaurants. The Italians have also pledged to become completely plastic-free in the next few years.
There are many other good examples for “green” airports around the world:
- Galápagos islands, Ecuador. Located in the Galápagos archipelago with Heritage status, this airport was completed in 2012 and has since evolved into an amazing eco-friendly hub. All operations are powered with solar and wind energy, a desalination plant purifies the seawater so that it can be used in the terminal, and the facilities were built with 80% recycled materials.
- Changi Airport, Singapore. This modern airport is committed to sustainability and has plans for zero carbon growth until 2030. Among the eco-friendly features are an indoor terminal garden, recycled concrete for the runways, baggage tractors with clean energy, and perhaps the most impressive - a system that recycles food waste into water!
- Zurich Airport, Switzerland. The Swiss airport impresses with a fossil-free electricity grid (they use underground soil energy piles) and always available SAFs for refueling. On top of that, Zurich uses rainwater for the toilets and even recycles the water from plane de-icing operations during the harsh Swiss winter.
As you can see from what we discussed until now, ecotourism and sustainable air travel can coexist and will become even more compatible in the future. As the demand for ecotourism continues to rise, we can expect that destinations and the aviation industry will keep coming up with innovative solutions that will be good for both the environment and the well-being of local communities.
So if you would like to practice eco- and sustainable tourism while enjoying the convenience of air travel, you can: the advancements in aviation technology will allow you to explore the world responsibly while minimizing your impact on the environment.