Ecotourism: Environmentally Friendly or Greenwashing?

A Pipe Breaks Killing 300 Turtles (c) WSPA

A Pipe Breaks Killing 300 Turtles (c) WSPA

In recent years, we all know that eco-tourism has become a hot buzzword for environmentally minded travelers, but these days, groups like the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) advises tourists to research visitor attractions to ensure they are operating responsibly, keeping in mind the welfare of animals and the environment, and avoid those that are simply greenwashing.

So, using the Cayman Turtle Farm as an example, Elizabeth Hogan, oceans and wildlife campaigns manager at WSPA, put together a list of five tips that can help tourists identify when an eco-tourist attraction is not as animal- or environmentally friendly as it claims. We’ll admit, this news comes at a great time as we can’t always tell at first look what programs are legitimately helping versus those that are simply greenwashing.  What’s the problem with the Cayman Turtle Farm? It’s a popular tourist destination that alleges to focus on the conservation and the protection of endangered sea turtles, but it also sells them for food and has a poor track record on animal protection issues.

1)      Avoid direct interaction with the animals.

As a general rule, you shouldn’t be touching animals at an eco-tourist attraction. Whether it’s swimming with dolphins or holding sea turtles, this kind of contact with hundreds or thousands of tourists can traumatize the very animals being protected and compromise their health, sometimes in serious ways. Be wary of any eco-tourist attraction that encourages or allows this kind of contact and know it may also pose a health risk for you personally. For example, at the Cayman Turtle Farm, tourists are encouraged to handle the sea turtles, putting themselves at risk of contracting E.coli and salmonella.

2)      If there is a high entertainment to science ratio, stay away.

Eco-tourist attractions must balance science and entertainment. Unfortunately, some lean too heavily on the latter. If the eco-tourist attraction you’re considering has too much entertainment, such as snorkelling with sea turtles in small artificial ponds as the case at the Cayman Turtle Farm, it may not be paying enough attention to welfare of the animals it’s supposedly protecting and the science of conservation.

3)      Don’t eat any of the animals supposedly being protected.

Done properly, there’s nothing wrong with farming. But it’s a very different thing than conservation. Any eco-tourist attraction that tries to balance conservation of a species with selling it for meat is caught in a conflict of interest. At the Cayman Turtle Farm, it claims to be helping endangered sea turtles while simultaneously selling sea turtle meat to local restaurants.

4)      Look for what trusted third parties have to say.

Before you visit an attraction, spend a few minutes on the Internet to see what trusted third-party groups have to say.  In the case of the Cayman Turtle Farm, WSPA as well as other animal and conservation groups have expressed concerns about its policies and practices which are online and come up in any search on the farm.

5)      Ask you travel agent, cruise line and hotel concierge lots of questions.

With the four points above in mind, come armed with questions for anyone recommending you visit an eco-tourist attraction. Ask members of the travel industry to investigate the attractions they are promoting and provide proof that the property is operating with animal’s and the environment’s interest at its core. If they can’t answer all of your concerns, look for other animal- and eco-friendly options.  WSPA says keeping these five simple tips in mind will help environmentally minded travelers avoid eco-tourist attractions that fail to meet industry standards.

“Ultimately people want to do the right thing and eco-tourism sounds good, it feels good, and people like the idea that they are helping make the world a better place while they are on vacation,” added Hogan. “But it’s not that simple. Luckily if you know what to look for it’s fairly easy to spot problem places even if no one tells you.”

To learn more about WSPA’s campaign to end sea turtle cruelty visit: http://www.StopSeaTurtleFarm.org.

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