Laurel in Guatemala

The Importance of Ecotourism

By Kelly Taylor Osborne

One of the most influential factors of my relationship with the Earth around me was that of the yearly vacations that my parents would take my brother and I on. Each year we’d travel to new places, exploring everywhere from the large metropolis of San Francisco to the quaint, hard to reach settlement of Meat Cove at the peak of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

Each year we’d go somewhere new, but we’d always have the same traditions, of which there were a lot. Just a few of these are: seeing a sports game, seeing a theatrical performance, going horseback riding, hiking at least three times, going to a zoo and/or an aquarium, and, whenever we were on the coast, going whale watching.

That being said, my family and I are quite familiar with the tourism industry, particularly the tourism industry that is focused less so on the anthropocentric culture created in the area, but instead the history found within the wildlife that calls the area its home.

Of all of our traditions specifically focused on the local wildlife, none have left as much of a resounding impact on me than our experiences going whale watching. Whether it was in Bar Harbor, Maine where I swore up and down to my family that I had seen a whale fully jump out of the water and put on a show for everyone on board (I was a rather creative child who was always towing the line between fact and fable) to the private raft experience in Nova Scotia where a minke whale (for real this time) came up no less than ten feet away from the raft my family was on.

There are few examples that better exemplify the grandiosity of mother nature than that of whale watching. However, up until the last whale watching tour my family and I went on, I never really understood that whale watching, while appearing to be all about and for the environment, can, in fact, be the worst enemy for the animals they claim to celebrate.

We were on a cruise that departed out of Edmonds, Washington and went through Puget Sound. As we took off, we were told what I could only imagine to be the number one thing that tour guides for experiences such as this are told not to say- that there is a likely opportunity that we might not be seeing any whales that day at all. This surprised me, as while it is definitely realistic, it doesn’t paint the cruise in a good light, and surely makes the people on board who spent their money to see whales at least a little disgruntled by the news. However, what followed was one of the most inspiring testimonies and history lessons into the orca whale. An explanation on the reason that this company has a statistically less likely chance than other whale watching companies.

As it turns out, many whale watching companies attach tracking devices to whales in the area they work in, allowing for a stream-lined, guaranteed sighting of a whale. Only there is a major issue with this, particularly concerning orcas. Orca whales have the ability to utilize sonar to help detect obstacles in the water or where their prey is. This ability can help orcas not only survive in their climate, but thrive as well; however this is all disrupted with these trackers. This not only disorients the whales, but puts them in danger without this skill. While whale watching tours are posed to represent and promote preservation of the natural environment, many aren’t natural at all. None of this even brings into account the kinds of fuel being used to power the boat, the respect of the creatures that the tour is showing, and the knowledge tourists are taking with them after the cruise has completed.

It is no secret that the tourism industry has not been kind to the orca whale, as well as many other creatures. The widely acclaimed documentary, Blackfish, which delves into the exploitative industry of whale performances and the mistreatment and disrespect that are ingrained with the biggest titans in the tourism industry, is only one of hundreds of examples of why taking a second to educate yourself on the tourism options within the areas that you and those your traveling with choose to embark on is so important for many ways. Not only are you promoting a more environmentally conscious alternative, which would become more prevalent in the tourism industry with the rise in demand; but also many times the ecotourist company gives back to the exact thing that they are educating people about.

Focusing on pursuing an ecotourism based vacation on your trips helps create a personal relationship with you and the area your visiting, helps you see wonders of the world that few others have made their way to see, and give you a hands-on example as to why preserving the environment around the world is so important, as without that preservation, those experiences wouldn’t be possible.

Eco-friendly alternatives are available in every vacation destination, whether that be delving into the national parks or conservatories that are placed throughout major cities, to traveling to a cultural and environmental hub of nature being guided by individuals who have pledged their life to celebrating its beauty, to a personalized adventure into the wild forests of the world. While the classic tourism options will always be available, as someone who has endless experiences with a wide variety of tourism options, the most influential and long-lasting experiences have always been from the grass-roots, environmentally centered, personalized adventures into the place that every living being calls home.

While people tend to create a separation between their impact on a day-to-day basis and their impact while on vacations, we don’t need to sacrifice sustainability for experiences, and in fact in combining both, we can create lifelong memories for ourselves and others in accordance with nature.

Kelly is a climate activist from Southwestern Ohio and an advocate for living life to its fullest potential. Her ultimate goal is to be able to say that she was one voice in a million that helped come together to allow our planet to be cherished to its full potential for generations to come.

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