A Guide to the Emerging Ecotourism Tech Scene

Forward-thinking soft and hard tech is emerging every year in ecotourism startups, and it’s revolutionizing how we travel. While tourism that benefits the local people and environment, or “ecotourism”, is far from a new concept, people are more eager than ever for a CSR-conscious direction. With that in mind, innovative startups worldwide are tapping this rising market led by millennial families. In this article we’ll walk you through a brief history and definition of that trend, followed by a guide to some of today’s most inspiring ecotourism startups, tech, and incubators.

There have been many examples around the world of government-mandated “national protected areas”; California’s Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, is often considered the first. Yet, the current surge in demand is undeniable. A 2015 Stanford University report found international ecotourism in emerging markets grew 6–8% in the past decade. Of the 105.3 million Americans who traveled between 2013 and 2015, 60% went on a “sustainable” trip! This category of visitors tends to stay longer, spend more, and feel responsible for respecting their destination. Other positive impacts include increased job creation, charity, and volunteering. A 2019 survey revealed “13% of travelers’ behaviors were influenced by perceptions of a provider’s efforts toward environmental sustainability,” a 5% increase from 2018.

Entrepreneurs lead successful ecotourism ventures with a variety of strategies and goals to meet this consumer profile’s expectations. When Aditi Balbir founded V Resorts in 2014, her main focus was running and managing experiences for tourists at professional levels that were missing from India’s marketplace. The business then adopted an ecotourism model organically by meeting needs as they arose, such as using eco-friendly waste management to cut costs and recruiting locals so employees could be long-term. Now, V Resorts has expanded to over 170 properties across 20 Indian states. It’s done so with 90% local employment, 100% local supplies, and cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme, proving “ecotourism in its truest form”, as Aditi puts it, is as sustainable financially as it is environmentally and socially.

Successful ecotourism is not just about helping the local environment and people, though. According to the International Ecotourism Society, it’s essential to direct “interpretation and education” towards both staff and guests. An authentic ecotourism experience should teach about a foreign culture, habitat, or sustainable practice. Some ecotourism initiatives, like La Mano del Mono in Chiapias, Mexico, go even further than spreading awareness with a mission to impact people’s long-term lifestyles. As founder and CEO Mauricio Miramontes explains:

“We want to facilitate actions…To know their commitment to changing their relationship to water, to children, to nature remains.”

La Mano del Mono achieves its mission by educating students, training companies about sustainable practices, and consulting government agencies about what areas are safe for development. La Mano del Mono demonstrates ecotourim’s potential for lasting global change, but finding funding and talent is a challenge for them and other ecotourism startups.

When the number of startups rise in an industry, so does the number of incubators enthusiastic to invest in and mentor their growth. One of them based in Tel Aviv, InnoVel, takes a unique approach as a corporate innovation center. By connecting travel and hospitality corporations to tech startups who work in everything from Fintech to Big Data, they bridge the gap between two very different types of business. NYC-based Voyager HQ is similar in that it combines different values to create synergy and innovation, but as a global community of startups, investors, and corporations. With over 2,000 entrepreneurs in over 430 cities, initiatives like Voyager HQ’s accelerate the entire tourism industry and make the most of its interconnected parts.

When travel technology startups are at the pre-seed stage, however, funding can be the most crucial next step. This is where groups like Travel Startups Incubator (TSI) come in to commercialize ideas and engage investors. They are often accessible and essential resources for startup founders; for example, TSI has a completely virtual program and assigns each accepted startup a leader in the travel industry as a mentor. From Streetography’s custom photo maps to NeoJets’ instant private jet service, TSI’s investment portfolio proves the range of emerging software that tourism startups are using.

Yet, startups must consider what different incubators are looking for. For example, TSI Managing Partner and lead advisor Matt Zito says:

“The best travel investments in the next 5 years will be bets made in mobile travel startups. Will we look at other travel investment opportunities for sure but mobile will be our core focus.”

For tourism startups that use exciting tech but are misaligned with some incubators’ standards, it’s helpful to develop, learn, and fundraise with industry-agnostic but software-heavy programs like skyincubator’s. As a niche but increasingly relevant field, ecotourism tech presents wide possibilities regardless of focus or location. Every year, several ecotourism startups from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos participate in the Mekong Innovative Startup Tourism accelerator program. The program, which is assessed by TSI, accepts nominations in both Travel Social Enterprises and Travel Technology categories to support the best in both positive impact and innovation. Past highlights include Passa Paa, a design and print studio of textiles based on the local culture, and Dichung, which enables rideshare drivers to trade free seats in their vehicles.

On a global scale, the “Nature-Accelerator”, developed by ECOSTAR and powered by the impact investor Fledge, claims to be the first of its kind. It won’t be the last; Fledge CEO Michael Luni Libes believes “investing in green startups can be more profitable than investing in public companies and much more incisive!” The Nature-Accelerator guides early-stage impactful startups that are innovating in sustainable sectors; this includes not just ecotourism startups but also those in agriculture, forestry, and natural resources. In the program, 8 startups receive €15,000 in seed funding, €25,000 worth of mentorship services, and potential follow up investments in the €50,000 to €200,000 range. From a locally produced cooking oil to a cricket-based protein powder, the accelerator’s first cohort in 2018 sampled the brilliant innovations being made in green startups.

Another accelerator, Booking.com’s Booking Booster, awards a total of two million euros to 10 startups a year based on their investor decks and pitches. Examples include I Like Local’s online marketplace connecting tourists with locals in developing countries, Sumba Hospitality Foundation’s luxury eco-resort built with bamboo and powered by solar panels, and Hydrao’s showers that show the amount of water used in real-time.

As giants in the tourism industry embrace its ideals, ecotourism will become more than an alternative category, but the standard of doing business. Expect ecotourism to prosper as more incubators and investors recognize this trend and provide finance and advice.