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Ecotourism: Appreciating Nature from Our Own Backyard

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By Lee Jin Hee
Jin Hee was a summer intern at Skillseed last year and is currently a final year student at Yale-NUS College. Majoring in philosophy, she likes to ponder about the purpose of existence, feminism, and climate change.

The 2007 film Bucket List follows two terminally ill friends – Carter (portrayed by Morgan Freeman) and Edward (portrayed by Jack Nicholson) – on a journey to fulfill their final dying wishes. Of the many places they visit, a safari in Africa stands out for its beautiful scenery of wild animals, accompanied by the two men’s duet of “A Lion Sleeps Tonight.” As they peer out through the roof of their jeeps, a herd of buffalos jump into a lake, as zebras and gazettes graze in the dusty savannah.

Carter and Edward’s choice to spend the last of their days touring around the world is, to say the least, understandable. After all, tourism has become something that one “must” do at least once in their lifetime. Exploring a foreign or unfamiliar place can bestow people an unforgettable scenery, exposure to diverse cultures, and even an opportunity to expand their sense of the world. Not only does tourism have personal significance for individuals, it also serves as a key growth driver for a plethora of countries and cities. Tourism has been recognised as the fastest growing industry and one of the largest economic contributors in the world. It adds to the GDP, creates job opportunities, provides incentives and revenue to improve infrastructure around tourist areas, and facilitates cultural exchange. Such a crucial industry has taken a hard hit due to Covid-19 with international visitor arrivals falling by 85.7 per cent in 2020 to reach 2.7 million visitors while tourism receipts declined by 78.4 per cent to S$4.4 billion in the first three quarters of 2020 in Singapore alone. The tourism sector has adopted a great deal of resilience and adaptability by remodelling and using technology to create a new normal in a COVID-19 world. As we evolve, perhaps this is also a good opportunity for us to mitigate and take intentional actions on the downsides of the industry. There are growing concerns about the potential adverse effect tourists can have on wildlife. For instance, research indicates that the increase in tourist presence in Kenyan natural reserves has altered migration patterns of wildebeests and disrupted hunting hours for leopards.

In turn, these changes have serious implications for the food chain within the reserve, contributing to loss of biodiversity. Furthermore, not only do aviation and other carbon-modes of transportation used in tourism contribute to greenhouse gas emission, but tourist development can directly harm ecological habitats. For instance, 70% of the reefs in the coast of Egypt have been threatened by poor sewage and rubbish disposals by tourists, as well as byproducts left from tourist facility construction in the Red Sea. The solid waste left behind by tourists then pollute the water and shoreline, as well as harm marine animals.

Given the climate crisis and ongoing environmental degradation, we must be willing to ask ourselves: How might tourism be more sustainable? What can I do as a tourist to be a part of the solution? For a glimmer of hope, we turn to ecotourism.

What is Ecotourism?

Ecotourism, the fastest-growing sector of the tourist industry, was born as a reaction against mass conventional tourism during the mid-twentieth century. With increasing awareness of the adverse impact of the tourism industry, “ecotourism” was first proposed by Dr. Nicholas Hetzer in 1965 as a form of “responsible (alternative) tourism.” According to Hetzer, ecotourism is guided by the following principles:

  1. minimum environmental impact
  2. minimum impact on, and maximum respect for, host cultures
  3. maximum economic benefits to the host country, especially grassroots community
  4. maximum ‘recreational’ satisfaction to participating tourists.<

Since its conception, ecotourism has been about providing a more conscionable, environmentally-sustainable alternative to mass tourism. For instance, in Botswana, where ecotourism contributes 4-5% to its GDP, nature-based lodges have made active efforts to reduce their carbon footprints; One lodge reports that it treats and recycles all of its water onsite and draws from solar panels to power 70% of the lodge. Ecotourism is not only environmentally aware, but also provides income for the local host community. One way to do this is for ecotourists to intentionally choose local facilities and consume local foods and services, as opposed to multinational corporations. Ecotourism also encourages participants to educate themselves about local communities and cultures, particularly when they enter areas where indigenous groups reside.

Furthering the notion of “responsible” tourism, ecotourism today also incorporates conservation and environmental education as its agenda. Take, for example, the marine-life tourism in the Great Barrier Reef, where profit from snorkeling with sharks and whales has helped sustain conservation plans in Australia, Palau, Fiji, and French Polynesia. Australia has further developed a National Ecotour Guide Certification that trains tour guides to deliver “an authentic, environmentally responsible and professional ecotourism experience” that covers minimal impact principles.

Nature in Your Own Backyard

At its core, ecotourism is about exploring while also respecting humans and nature. It’s about recognising that we are a part of the ecosystem and therefore should be mindful of our impact on it. In this vein, I invite you to consider how well you know the ecosystem that you currently live in? How well do you know about the trees that are planted in front of your house? Do you know the type of birds that knock at your window? Do you count stars in the night sky from your porch and become concerned about the air quality when you can’t see them? Do you notice how fresh your greens are when you make your salad?

The oft-forgotten truth is that we have always been surrounded by nature. Nature need not only be found after a long plane ride to Amazon. It is in your backyard, the air you breathe, the birds near MRTs, and the puddle that forms on rainy days. And you are a part of it, too. It is when we recognise our inextricable connection with nature that we come to truly care and respect it. With borders closing and limitations on traveling during this COVID season, perhaps now more than ever is the time to observe your surroundings. So today, take a moment to peek out the window and observe your surroundings. Trace back the steps that you had mindlessly walked by for work. As you explore your environment, I guarantee that you will rediscover your home and Singapore in ways that you never imagined.

As Singapore looks ahead to 2030, the government has also announced the Singapore Green Plan, a whole-of-nation movement to advance sustainable development. The government also encouraged everyone to play our part, in order to build a more vibrant and greener home for future generations, fuelling efforts towards the broader national movement. Starting from young, schools will implement the Eco Stewardship programme, to “strengthen the inculcation of informed, responsible and sustainability-conscious” mindsets and habits in youth.

One of the targets of the Green Plan is to develop Singapore into a sustainable tourism destination and a carbon services hub by promoting sustainable fuels for international trade and travel. This ambitious yet paramount plan is based on the partnership of both the ministries involved as well as active citizenry.

Youth Empowerment, social and environmental causes have always been at the core of what we do at Skillseed. We believe, aligned with the SG Green Plan, that small group, eco-based and sustainable tourism/learning journeys are the future. Since its beginning, Skillseed has stood by this philosophy, pushing hard for smaller groups so as to minimise impact, collaborating with fellow community based tourism Social Enterprises and NGOs, introducing vegetarian meals (where practicable), and so forth.

If you’re also inspired and not sure where to start, we welcome you to join us on our very own ‘Environmental Sustainability’ themed learning journey, where we bring you on a journey to rediscover and mindfully engage with nature in our backyard, as well as explore the urban agriculture movement in Singapore. Gain a holistic understanding in context through dialogues with local experts, activists and be inspired to pilot your own socio-environmental project! Reach out to us here if you’re interested!

Alternatively, you can also check our Asset-Based Community Development walkshops where we begin with a workshop segment and end with a guided walk at a chosen community. One of our walkshops featuring the theme of Environmental Sustainability, conducted at Our Tampines Hub is available both virtually and in-person. Are you ready to journey with us? Contact us here!

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