As tourism in the Middle East gently begins to lean closer towards a search for authentic local experiences, eco tourism has found itself with an unexpected accomplice in the pursuit of a more responsible, ethical and conscious style of travel. Emily Millett reports.
In a region where destinations are often measured by their rapid urbanisation and infrastructural development, there seems little room for the conscious consideration of environmental or social responsibility.
And yet, through the dust clouds of construction, and extreme extravagance, eco tourism in the Middle East is quietly gaining ground, finding its feet and increasingly amassing a growing number of loyal and dedicated customers.
Simply trying to define this exclusive brand of tourism is a challenge. What exactly do we mean when we say eco tourism? What does the label include and what does it omit? And what does a hotel or tourism company need to do in order to gain acceptance into the club?
According to founder and managing director, EcoHotels, Nabil Tarazi: “Eco tourism is responsible travel to natural areas that helps conserve the environment and sustains the wellbeing of the local community, while providing interpretation and education to both guests and staff.”
While this definition offers up one aspect of the niche, with so many variations, subsets and definitions, eco tourism can be hard to pin down. At one end of the spectrum it refers to real genuine responsible travel which has positive repercussions on the sustainable support and development of a local society or environment. On the other end, it could also include hotels or companies such as Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea in Jordan implementing CSR initiatives as part of a commitment to do what they can to protect the local environment.
“The hotel policy is to operate its business as a corporate citizen, committed to effective environmental management and with concern for the wellbeing of our common environment, and to ensure that company facilities and operations are in compliance with environmental standards,” commented general manager, Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea, Peter Hoesli to TTG.
“We believe that an appropriate balance can and should be achieved between environmental goals and economic health. More than describing our resort as an eco-hotel, we are committed to sustainability and we intend to be a leader in responsible environmental management.”
CONVERTED TREE HUGGERS
These loose and often misinterpreted definitions can be further examined by looking at the varied pool of consumers for this growing niche. Often simply seeking authentic, local or unique experiences, rather than following a particular moral compass, these travellers rarely call themselves ‘eco tourists’ as Tarazi explained to TTG.
“Eco tourism is an industry term. Consumers do not identify themselves as eco tourists. They are travellers seeking unique experiences when they travel. We are noticing a rapid increase in the numbers of tourists wanting experiences as part of their trips. They are no longer satisfied with merely sightseeing, they want to ‘sight do’. Eco tourism, being one of the prime suppliers of experiences, is seeing increased demand. As a result, there are also more experience providers in the region emerging, focusing on nature and eco tourism.”
Indeed, in an auspicious turn of events, EcoHotels is seeing the surprisingly contagious benefits of its own unique form of eco tourism at its Feynan Ecolodge property in Dana Biosphere. “An interesting observation from our work at Feynan Ecolodge relates to our initial expectations and what actually happened. When we first took over the management of Feynan, we thought that the visitors will be mainly ‘tree huggers’, hardcore environmentalists,” explained Tarazi.
“The reality was very different. Most of the guests arriving at Feynan were regular travellers looking for nature and local community based experiences. However, through their visit to Feynan, their interaction with the staff and the environmental practices and presentations that they saw, they left us as converted ‘eco tourists’, [Meaning] in the sense that many are likely to start making small changes in their lives to be more environmentally conscious and in their next trip, they are more likely to consider staying at an ecolodge or other environmentally responsible hotels, and supporting conservation and local community betterment.”
Looking into the markets that are most inclined towards eco tourism, owner Desert Rose Eco Lodge in Egypt, Mohamed Tahoun said: “The main groups that visit and appreciate our eco lodge are Japanese and Europeans (mainly German, Dutch, French and some British). Also more recently we are seeing Koreans and Chinese visitors.”
“Egyptians, especially the youth, are now starting to take more of an interest and bookings with locals are on the increase. One of the main reasons people come to our lodge is for the desert safaris where they can explore the beautiful surroundings and learn more about the area. They love the concept and how it has been created, and our passion for it.”
While the Middle East may have been a little slower on the uptake of eco tourism than other regions, the concept is catching on quickly as tourism professionals see the response to this unique brand of conscious travel.
“Eco tourism is a small but growing niche,” explained Tarazi. “There is a huge opportunity for growth for experience providers including adventure and eco tourism. However, there is still a lot of work to be done by governments in creating protected areas, and from tourism boards in identifying the great opportunity that this niche forms as part of a national tourism strategy that requires a much higher priority.”
Trying to pin down a true and consistent definition of eco tourism is no easy task, however, in doing so what becomes abundantly clear is the significance of this vital and growing niche.