Real Time. Interactive. Educational. Immersive.
The Virtual Ecotourism project uses interactive on-line tours to connect the general public with conservation projects and local communities in ecologically and culturally sensitive areas worldwide. We aim to nurture curiosity about the natural world, promote effective world citizenship, contribute to alternative livelihoods for communities living in areas of high conservation importance, and combat environmental degradation.
vEcotourism is a project of the Chimp-n-Sea Wildlife Conservation Fund, and was invented in 2004 by Mark Laxer – the director and founder of the Virtual Ecotourism project. Currently, tours are centred on the rapidly growing nation of Uganda, but the vEco philosophy is application on a global scale. In the past, tours have also taken place in Madagascar.
Connecting and empowering conservation projects through new media: state of the art technologies integrating traditional storytelling with online tours and exploration; creating a new storytelling and educational tool for conservationists.
What is a Virtual Ecotour?
vEcotours are presented online in real-time by live tour guides around the world. vEcotourists, logged in over the internet, can experience images and live audio (real-time images coming soon…) from the field, and have the opportunity to ask the guide questions during the actual tour. Upcoming features, being tested now, include real time ambient sounds of nature, 360-degree panorama images, and the integration of satellite data with 3D gaming technology. Tourists build emotional connections to featured sites as they gain an on-the-ground perspective of conservation challenges while learning about wildlife and local culture.
The vEco team is currently creating an entirely new type of real-time tour that connects geographically accurate landscapes using 3D interactive animation software. For a preliminary glance into this rapidly evolving technology and to experience other elements of Virtual Ecotourism, you can:
Immerse yourself in 360’ panoramic photos in our pano gallery.
Watch a recorded tour of Madagascar.
We are also experimenting with ways of incorporating augmented reality into the 3D tours: for example by going inside of a leaf to learn about photosynthesis. We will be launching each new technology via the virtual ecotourism blog home page, so bookmark it and be the first to experience each new generation of vEco!
Why is Virtual Ecotourism Needed?
Ecotourism has been widely heralded as a means to provide an income in a way that encourages protection of biodiversity. However, even Ecotourism done sensitively has disadvantages including: high carbon footprint, wildlife disturbance, potential for disease introduction, and development of roads and infrastructure which have a detrimental effect on wildlife. Furthermore, many people are unable to afford the high price of ecotourism, or are too old, young, or otherwise unable, or unwilling, to travel. vEcotourism overcomes these challenges by providing a way to experience a conservation site virtually, using many exciting on-line technologies combined with a live, on-location tour guide.
Conservation concerns are mounting throughout the world as biodiversity is lost and natural habitats are converted to agricultural areas, expanding industrial sites and other development. This is causing not only an irreversible decline in the beauty and diversity of life on this planet, but also a long-term deterioration in ecosystem services, natural resources, and human health and well-being. Lack of financial alternatives is one reason for this widespread conversion, and another is lack of awareness about the long term consequences of such environmental degradation. These threats are especially pressing in Uganda, where the population is expected to explode over the next few decades, making it the fastest growing nation in the world. This extreme increase will likely cause poverty and instability, leading to further degradation of natural landscapes and parks as people struggle to survive. The vEcotourism project aims to pre-emptively address this looming crisis by mitigating one or both of the fundamental reasons for environmental degradation: lack of viable alternative livelihoods, and lack of environmental awareness.
First, the traditional ecotourism industry has been heralded as a means to provide an income in a way that encourages protection of biodiversity. However, even ecotourism done sensitively has disadvantages including: high carbon footprint, wildlife disturbance, potential for disease introduction, erosion, and development of roads and other infrastructure which can have a detrimental effect on the natural environment. There is an urgent need for a form of ecotourism that doesn’t cause so many problems, and that is where the concept of virtual ecotourism becomes essential. vEcotourism can provide many of the same benefits as its traditional counterpart by providing incentive for communities in ecologically sensitive areas to protect their natural surroundings in order to gain funds from tourists. It also encourages international citizens to connect with distant conservation areas, and directly support the people who are keeping it safe and healthy. Furthermore, physical ecotourism cannot work in all parts of the world – especially those that are remote or extremely sensitive. vEcotourism can fill gaps in current ecotourism coverage and expand this market to people who are unwilling or unable to travel, all in a truly sustainable manner. By paying tour guides and promoting the potential monetary benefits of conservation projects, vEcotourism will provide an alternate livelihood for local communities.
Secondly, it is well documented that short-term unsustainable resource use, including habitat conversion, is a leading cause of biodiversity decline and environmental degradation worldwide. However, it is also acknowledged that merely creating parks and barring communities from entering them is not an effective means of protecting natural landscapes. Instead, as is suggested by publications such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity (TEEB) report, it is necessary to engage communities with the notion that in the long run environmental degradation will severely affect their livelihoods, health, and personal well-being. Educating local communities about the negative impacts of certain actions and empowering them to make positive changes is a crucial and necessary part of the vEcotourism vision. To this end, the outreach strategy includes showing recorded tours to local villagers of all ages. Community leaders will be privy to cutting- edge biological and scientific knowledge that can help their villages to use their resources effectively. As the population grows in Uganda it is extremely important to educate as many people as possible about the necessity of environmentally sustainable development, for their well-being as well as the continued health of the beautiful ecosystems and wildlife the whole world has come to love.