Leave only footprints, take only memories

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Temps de lecture : 4 minutes  

tourisme solidaire Kenya
Another model exists in the face of mass tourism excesses: responsible tourism. It is increasing by about 20% a year, but it only represents a very small part of the market. The concept is still very vague and the field is lacking safeguards or reference points.

Fair tourism, sustainable tourism, environmental tourism, ethical tourism, alternative tourism, etc., there are many names for it. This concept is the opposite of mass tourism and its negative effects ; it is based on the traveller’s responsibility to the environment and the populations he or she is visiting.[1]

Sustainable tourism or responsible tourism are the two general terms that encompass the others. [2] Ecotourism is more about the environment; fair tourism is more concerned with social matters.[3] There are many definitions for ecotourism itself. The definition of the International Ecotourism Society is as follows: « responsible tourism in natural settings that protects the environment and contributes to the local populations’ well-being ».

Responsible tourism increases by 20% a year in the world. But in France as in many other countries, it only represents a very small part of the market (about 1% of the travel market in France in 2003).

Where « ecotourists » come from and where they go

Responsible tourism takes place everywhere in the world, whether it is in Western countries (rural eco-cottages, organic farms, discovering the local wildlife…)

Ecotourists are not all hippies: according to the International Labour Organisation, 34% of American ecotourists are in the 18-24 age bracket and 24% are over 55. People also often think that ecotourism is just for backpackers but there are a lot of options for family holidays.

It is often thought that ecotourism holidays are more expensive than mass tourism holidays to the same destination with the same standard of accommodation, but this is not always the case.


The World Bank estimates that 55% of tourist spending in developing countries goes to Northern countries, via international airline companies, hotel chains, travel agencies or imported consumer goods. Some even suggest that the figures are higher. But with responsible tourism, the proportions are reversed and in the best case scenario, up to 80% of tourists’ money stays in the local economy. [8]

For many countries like Kenya, Ecuador, Nepal, Costa Rica and Madagascar, ecotourism is therefore an essential part of the economy. In Costa Rica, a pioneer in ecotourism, it is the primary source of revenue : the sector raised 1.3 billion dollars in 2001 and it is estimated that over 140 000 families live directly from it.[9]

Ecotourism has become an important dimension for the economic survival of many environment, park and reserve protection schemes. Thanks to the entrance fees, restaurants, lodges and campsites, South African national parks (SanParks) are thus reaping the benefits. The largest one, the Kruger park, can alone protect 12 000 elephants, 1500 lions and 3000 hippopotamuses, …[10]

Limits and misuse

The first difficulty is the flipside of its success. Certain individual steps do in fact stop making sense on a large scale. The amount of people certain areas can take are exceeded and this leads to the degradation of the natural environment. The tiny Manuel Antonio National Park, in Costa Rica, is an example; it opened its gates to over 150 000 people a year, whilst its manager stated it could only comfortably welcome 300 a day at best. [11] [See debate]

The second difficulty is that the ecological footprint of a journey to the other side of the world is very large if one uses a plane. Travelling responsibly therefore means at least compensating one’s emissions when one travels a plane. Better still, one should travel closer to home. [12]

The final difficulty is identifying holidays that are truly responsible. However, it is difficult to find one’s way and as in many other areas, there are con artists. [See debate]

An international label

According to the NGO Tourism Concern, there are now over 400 types of certificates for ecotourism in the world and many of them are just marketing ploys. [13] To make things clearer, several groups have therefore tried to set up an international label.

The first certificate awarded by the AFAQ/AFNOR (French standardization organizations) was set up in France in March 2008 and belongs to the ATR (Agir pour un Tourisme Responsable /Acting for Responsible Tourism) association.[14] However, this certificate only applies to those operating in France.

Some people have challenged the very principle of a certificate. They believe that many local people involved, rural and local guides in particular, are threatened because they do not have the financial resources to take part in the certificate programs. The process therefore favours less authentic and less local projects. The same critics also note that the criteria for certificates are set by the North, often by organisations which are actively involved in the process without the interested parties being consulted, be it the tourists or those involved .[15]

A personal step

As there are no reference points or norms, it is worth noting that sustainable tourism is above all a step that everyone can take. Basically, to not pollute, to not disrupt ecosystems, « leave only footprints and keep only memories ». Most basic advice can be found on several sites and in several books.

D’après l’étude TNS-SOFRES menée en 2008 en France, concernant le tourisme responsable, près de 9 voyageurs sur 10 sont intéressés par le concept, principalement en raison du respect de la nature et du développement local (72% des sondés). La notion de tourisme responsable est mieux comprise, avec des attentes toujours aussi importantes en termes de contenu d’information (78% des Français se déclarent mal informés). Quelques idées reçues persistent : 42% des Français pensent qu’il s’agit d’un voyage plus cher à niveau de prestations identiques et 44% d’entre eux pensent encore qu’il s’agit encore d’un voyage au confort rudimentaire.

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