Responsible tourism in the rainforests

By 2015 we had felled 46 percent of the world’s trees since humans first began cutting them down. In many rainforests, the rate at which we are destroying them is increasing, which is a disaster for the people who live there, biodiversity and the climate.

There are many causes of deforestation, but economics play a big role. Local governments in poor regions encourage forest clearings to make way for farmland which produces food and animal feed that is exported to the UK, EU and USA. Similarly, permissions are granted for unsustainable practices like logging, mining and oil extraction. Poor communities also rely on cutting down trees to use as fuel or to sell. It will be impossible to prevent deforestation without addressing local inequalities. Some countries have even argued that wealthy nations should pay for the services provided by healthy rainforests, such as rainfall generation and carbon storage.

Responsible tourism is one of the best long-term ways to sustain local economies in rainforest areas. It has also been successful in regenerating areas of damaged rainforest, helping to protect the rights of indigenous people and funding wildlife conservation projects. The importance of tourism in conservation has been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Covid-19 has caused a massive problem,” says Aled Evans from our Africa travel specialists Undiscovered Destinations. “The guides, park rangers, security – they’re all paid for by the tourists. If the protection teams aren’t there, then poachers are going to go in. And it’s not just the Congo; it’s elsewhere. It’s vital that people start travelling again.”

Environment & wildlife

Deforestation & meat

Our eating habits are driving deforestation. In the Amazon rainforest, large expanses of land have been clear cut – sometimes legally; sometimes illegally – to make way for cattle ranches which export beef via large-scale meat packing companies to hundreds of countries around the world.
In 2020, an investigation revealed that large areas of forest in Brazil are being cleared to produce soya which is then exported to the UK to feed livestock. Palm oil, a major cause of deforestation in Indonesia, can be found in 50 percent of the packaged products we find in our supermarkets, from pizzas to chocolate.
What you can do

Reduce your meat intake and eat meat that comes from local farms and fed sustainably sourced feed. Visit rainforests, national parks and research centres, pay park fees, hire local guides and stay at community-run accommodation so that your money goes into local communities. This demonstrates that the rainforest has a long-term value when left intact. Eat locally produced, seasonal food while travelling. Avoid large buffets which cause food waste. Many travellers love having the opportunity to share home-cooked meals with their hosts in tribal villages that they visit. Reduce the amount of products you buy that contain palm oil and try to only buy products made with sustainable palm oil. Buy Fairtrade, sustainable products that encourage the preservation of rainforests, such as Borneo’s wild honey, mountain salt and locally made handcrafts.
Anne Smellie, from our conservation specialists Oyster Worldwide, explains the problem with palm oil:

“Palm oil production is said to have been responsible for causing 8 percent of the world’s deforestation between 1990 and 2008. The immediate instinct is to decide to completely avoid any food or products which contain palm oil. It is important to stop and think before making this decision, however. Palm oil production is essential for keeping communities in work and has helped huge numbers of people to climb out of poverty in developing countries. Additionally, it is also reported that palm oil trees do not require as many fertilisers or pesticides as others to grow them – which is excellent news for the environment.

“The better choice is to make sure that you buy sustainable palm oil that comes from places that do everything they can to farm sustainably. When it is done right, palm oil is more efficient and environmentally friendly to produce than alternative vegetable oils. The Ethical Consumer lists products which are either palm oil free or use only sustainable palm oil.”

Wood products

The use of low-cost tropical timber plays a significant role in rainforest deforestation. Much of the wood used in furniture and construction comes from tropical rainforests in Africa, Asia and South America. Although wood can be logged sustainably, logging rainforests for timber is unsustainable.
What you can do

Avoid products made from tropical timber and look for FSC certified products.
Anne says: “An excellent way to buy products that do not put the world’s forests at risk is to buy Forest Stewardship Council accredited goods. Wherever you see the FSC tick, you can be confident that the products maintain, conserve and restore ecosystems and do all they can to reduce negative environmental impacts. Additionally, they maintain and enhance the social and economic wellbeing of workers and communities – which is incredibly important in conservation.”


The global wildlife trade is huge. Millions of live animals, as well as animal skins and meat, are exported from rainforest areas every year. Poaching is also being encouraged by tourists who want guaranteed wildlife encounters; towns in the Amazon rainforest have been found attracting visitors with caged anteaters, parrots and sloths.
Bushmeat is commonly found in markets near the Congo rainforest, where illegal poaching takes place to provide food for poor rural and urban inhabitants. “In West Africa you can go to some of the markets and it’s horrendous, but you also have to understand that it’s peoples’ way of life there,” explains Aled Evans, from our holiday partner Undiscovered Destinations. “Yes, it’s wrong and illegal, but you can’t get involved directly when you’re there. But by being a tourist there you’re helping that.”
What you can do

Do not buy or eat bushmeat, which is dangerous and can contain diseases. Visit national parks and reserves where money from your holiday pays towards the training and salaries of park rangers. Do not buy souvenirs made from animal products like skins, features and ivory – many of which are likely to be illegal to import into your own country. Avoid zoos and do your research to make sure you are visiting a genuine wildlife sanctuary or rescue centre. Volunteer responsibly. Only pick placements that can demonstrate the long-term benefits of the work they do. Most will involve cleaning and constructing enclosures, preparing food or assisting with camera traps and surveys. You are very unlikely to come into direct contact with wildlife, particularly orangutans which are susceptible to human illnesses.

People & culture

Rainforests have long been home to indigenous people, many who built great civilisations before colonising countries arrived – but most of them face discrimination and persecution today. Indigenous people in the Amazon, the Congo, Borneo and Papua New Guinea are highly threatened by the destruction of their homelands through deforestation, urbanisation and local government policies that deny them legal land titles and criminalise traditional practices like hunting. As a result, traditional lifestyles and customs are being eroded, alongside their knowledge of plants, wildlife and sustainable agricultural and hunting practices that may prove essential in the fight against biodiversity loss and climate change.
What you can do

Buy artisanal and handmade items, which helps provide sustainable livelihoods for indigenous people. Community tourism offers an opportunity to learn about local customs and cultures and directly supports indigenous people. Stay at community-owned and run accommodation which provides jobs and income for local communities.
Harriet Whitmarsh, from our volunteering specialists The Great Projects, says: “Our project is in Batang Ai, where there are wild orangutans. You stay with a local Dayak tribe and go out trekking with them in the forest, which provides local jobs. Additionally, that particular community was on the point of being evicted from the forest by the government, but now that they’ve established themselves as a money-making tourist centre, the government were less inclined to kick them out. It really does help.”
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: Breno Machado] [Deforestation: Alexander Gerst] [Bushmeat: Jasmine Halki]