Tourists interact with the local community and learn about local cuisine and culture in the Spiti Valley region of the Himalayas.
One of the best things about travel is that you can see there are a million ways to live a life, and most of them are very good.” Through all his years of experiencing, studying and teaching about travel and tourism, this is one of the most important lessons Joe Pavelka, associate professor at Mount Royal University, has learned and continues to pass on to his students.
Education through direct experience is in growing demand across the globe, especially in Pavelka’s field of study: tourism. More and more people seek to blend their holiday experiences with learning about the destination’s land and people, while minimizing any negative impacts.
Traditionally, tourism can promote overconsumption of goods and pleasures, and is often marked by exploitation of the destination’s people and environment. Unchecked, tourism can seriously aggravate environmental and social issues.
For example, the tourism-related impacts of coral bleaching in the Caribbean are well documented. Along with the Atlantic reefs, the Caribbean accounts for 7.6 percent of the world’s coral. This region has seen an increase in coral bleaching events over the past three decades, and while tourism is not the only source of damage, it is a significant direct and indirect contributor.
The Caribbean economy is tourism-intensive. Activities such as snorkelling, diving and boating cause direct damage to the reefs by breaking delicate and branched reefs and causing gashes to large corals. Anchors and boat groundings also cause problems, while tourists’ demand for seafood reduces the reef’s fish stocks.
Indirect negative impacts of tourism include improperly treated wastewater discharge from resorts and multiple small-scale oil spills from recreational vessels. Coastal development and increase of tourism infrastructure also adds to coral reef bleaching. This trend is observed in other coastal regions of the world as well.
The rise of cruise ship tourism, a widely cited type of mass tourism, is severely compromising local economies. In Venice, for example, overnight stays in local hotels have decreased by almost two thirds over the past 25 years. Today, only half of Venice’s yearly 20-million tourists spend the night. Additionally, tourists spend less time in restaurants and shops as cruises offer buffets, accommodation and entertainment on the ships.
However, the rise of ecotourism is making things better for both people and environment. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as responsible travel that “conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” The United Nations World Tourism Organization reports that nature-based tourism now represents 20 percent of total international travel, and continues to grow.
This form of tourism aims to inspire sustainability in the industry. Rather than exploiting a local ecology and culture, ecotourism strives to contribute to the local economy while teaching diversity and sustainability principles.
Getting out of the traditional “brick and mortar” schooling approach, and instead seeking practical, hands-on learning experiences can change lives."
Knowledge sharing is an essential component of environmentally and socially responsible tourism. Getting out of the traditional “brick and mortar” schooling approach, and instead seeking practical, hands-on learning experiences can change lives. Take, for instance, Joe Pavelka’s extraordinary project, Canoes for Peru.
In 2011, Pavelka, an ecotourism professor at Mount Royal University, and his colleague Ryse Huamani, founder and guide of an ecotourism company based in the Peruvian Amazon, had an idea. They would re-introduce canoeing as a tourist activity on the Alto Madre de Dios River in the Manu Biosphere Reserve of Peru, where high-impact motorized boating has virtually replaced paddling. However, since Pavelka couldn’t find suitable canoes in South America, the donated boats would come from Canada.
In 2014 they began crowd funding, and by May 2015, Pavelka and a group of students from Mount Royal University had shipped 19 donated canoes from Calgary, Alberta, to the Manu region of Peru and along with their hosts, were shoving their Calgary canoes off the Alto Madre de Dios riverbank to start their five-day Amazon field trip.
The interactive exchange of knowledge and culture between the hosts and students was unique. Visiting students taught the local community how to canoe, while other activities included playing football and enjoying enthusiastic traditional dance performances.
The students learned more than survival skills in a wilderness setting. As Pavelka said, “The best thing is the contact and relationships the students can have with local people in a genuine way.”
The students’ feedback on this unique learning experience was telling. One student said, “I like the exchange that we had. They learned a little bit about canoeing from us and we learned so much about the jungle.”
Another shared, “The exchange of playing soccer with the local community, I really liked that. Kind of like a universal language.”
The experience challenged the students’ thinking and illustrated to them the diversity of ways different cultures can exist. And the host community learned a new way of providing an ecotourism experience for Huamani’s family-owned tourism company.
This kind of natural-based tourism not only changes the visitors’ lives for the better, but also the host region’s people and environment by promoting conservation of land and culture.
Done the right way, tourism can be a tool to create a better planet by emphasizing knowledge and experience, rather than focusing on consumption."
Examples of responsible tourism can be found the world over, and the options are as diverse as they are exciting. In the Himalayas, Ecosphere is a tourism organization recognized for its contribution towards innovative, responsible tourism in the trans-Himalayan region of Spiti Valley in India. Their mandate includes ploughing all revenues into the conservation, economy and development of the
Another example comes from the small community of Arviat, Nunavut. With only 2800 residents, the World Travel and Tourism Council has internationally recognized their local tourism industry for their contribution towards community and aboriginal tourism by providing equal benefits to both the hosts and tourists.
The company reports that on average, the Arviat community earns $3000 per tourist trip, and the proceeds are directed towards community conservation efforts, while delivering little or no-impact guiding excursions. Around 30 to 35 people from this community are involved full-time with the ecotourism program in this region.
Visitors have the opportunity to authentically experience the pristine Canadian Arctic. Depending on the season, tourists can opt for wildlife tours where they can spot animals including polar bear, caribou, muskox, arctic fox, grizzly bear and birds such as the peregrine falcon, sandhill crane and tundra swan.
When participating in cultural tours, visitors experience the traditional music of drum dancing, ayaya singing and throat singing, and they taste local foods such as caribou stew, arctic char and seal meat. Tours include a unique storytelling component, hosted in caribou skin tents, as well as visits to homes of senior citizens who grew up on that land. These residents share stories with visitors about their history, and explain how old artefacts were used as traditional tools. This productive dialogue between the hosts and tourists facilitates environmental and community learning. Truly, community-based ecotourism offers some of the richest and most in-demand learning experiences available.
Ecotourism does have limitations, as any kind of travel can be a significant contributor to climate change. However, carbon offsets, carbon taxes and slow travel are some of the ways to tackle carbon emissions. Ecotourism’s experiential learning benefits can be harnessed from local and national travel as well. Done the right way, tourism can be a tool to create a better planet by emphasizing knowledge and experience, rather than focusing on consumption.
That said, you might be wondering how to find the best ecotourism, near or far. Says Pavelka. “My answer is wherever you find people who have decided they are not ever leaving the land; that they intend to pass the land on to their children. If you are seriously and genuinely committed to staying on the land, you will be good to the land and yourself in equal measure.”
The lessons learned through ecotourism experiences are life-long and helpful for transformation towards a sustainable lifestyle. Resisting conventional tourism and opting instead for ecotourism is not always easy, but it is essential. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is the first step towards embracing change. As the Norwegian proverb goes, “Only one who wanders finds new paths.”
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