OSLO (Reuters) - Australia and Costa Rica are good examples for the multi-billion dollar world ecotourism business, which is growing at about 30 percent a year and in need of tight quality controls, experts said on Monday.
Ecotourist destinations, ranging from environmentally friendly Thai beach resorts to jungle lodges in Kenya, now attract about 15 percent of the global tourist market, leaders of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) said.
But many destinations lack sufficient “green” certification or follow-up checks by governments or other groups to ensure they keep their promises of not harming the environment.
“Australia is a great example, Costa Rica is a good example” of how to certify and check destinations, TIES executive director David Sollitt told Reuters during an ecotourism conference in Oslo of almost 500 experts.
“A critical element is to have follow-up,” said Kelly Bricker, chair of the U.S.-based TIES board. “Even with some certification program there have to be check-ups by people who understand the criteria.”
Both praised Australia’s national ecotourism accreditation program that they said set ever tougher goals for operators. “Over time they have raised the bar,” Bricker said.
And they said Costa Rica had a scale of compliance under which top marks might go to a company whose headquarters — not just a vacation centre in a cloud forest — was run on environmentally friendly lines, for instance with solar power.
Many countries are improving follow-up checks, they said during a May 14-16 conference organized by TIES, the U.N. Environment Programme and a Norwegian ecotourism group.
“But I don’t think there is a lot of trickery out there,” Bricker said. She said many well-educated tourists simply go elsewhere if standards slip at ecotourist destinations.
“I’ve seen it happen rather quickly in Fiji. The market says ‘I don’t want this’,” she said.
They said there were questions about the limits to growth for ecotourism — wildernesses will not stay unharmed for long if more and more people visit, especially if they fly half-way round the world in polluting jets.
“The best way to grow capacity in ecotourism is by increasing the size of protected lands,” said Sollitt. About a tenth of the world’s land area is in protected areas — putting more in parks will help the environment, and ecotourism.
“That’s a more compelling social and economic argument than to say that ‘we have to lock these places away’,” he said. He said Gabon in Africa, for instance, was creating new parks.