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Ecotourism is small scale, low impact tourism that offers travelers an opportunity to learn about the local flora, fauna, and culture. Unlike your standard tour guide service, the focus of ecotourism is to educate guests on how they can positively impact the environment and community they’re visiting. Tourists are able to immerse themselves in the culture and habitat, gaining an understanding of the positive impact each can have on the other. Ecological sustainability and responsibility is the heart of this educating and rewarding experience.
Who is this business right for?
As many consumers ponder the environmental impact humans have had on our environment, there are many who have taken it upon themselves to get out and do something about it. They’ve made it their life’s mission to make positive strides, educating others along the way. Entrepreneurs who have made this their lives’ work and who truly enjoy igniting this passion in others would be best suited for this business venture.
What happens during a typical day at an ecotour business?
Those who have found their calling in ecotourism typically immerse themselves in the cause. They personally host ecotours, spending the rest of their time researching new ways to give back to Mother Nature and the communities they visit. Some find their true passion in Uganda or other places abroad, while others dedicate their time and resources on a local level. Regardless of which path you choose, your days will be active and rewarding.
With Mother Nature playing a major role in your day-to-day activities, no two days will ever be alike. Your duties will include:
- Taking reservations from customers and answering questions.
- Setting up the itinerary and ensuring everything is scheduled properly. Finding solutions when something comes up that could push back the schedule.
- Educating yourself regarding the local culture and environment and how each positively and negatively impacts the other. You will be building relationships with those in the community to gain an understanding of what their needs are and how your business can help fulfill those needs.
- Spending time immersed in the natural habitat, gaining a clearer understanding of what changes are occurring, the impact this will have on its future, as well as that of the community.
- Routine maintenance of all vehicles used to transport guests.
- Interacting with your staff and local accommodations to ensure everything is on schedule.
- Hosting tours, interacting with guests, and answering questions.
- Brainstorming and planning new ecotour ideas.
- Putting your marketing strategy into action, making adjustments when necessary.
Experienced ecotourism hosts caution new entrepreneurs against trying to do too much too fast. Your responsibility is to make a positive impact on the environment and local communities. Since they’re both in a constant state of evolution, your business will need to be as well. Before adding new tours to your itinerary, make sure you’re fully educated on what impact you’re currently making and how you plan to pass this on to the next destination.
What is the target market?
Your work in ecotourism has the potential to enhance lives around the world. No matter where you go, you’ll run into skeptics who believe the only positive impact is a financial onel. While these are the people you hope to reach through your work, they are not your preferred customer type. Focus on the individuals who believe in what you’re doing and who are eager to be a part of the process. Hopefully, this will create a trickle down effect, eventually reaching the skeptics.
How does an ecotour business make money?
An ecotour business generates revenue from each hosted tour, focusing on funneling money back into the local economy in the process.
What is the growth potential for an ecotour business?
Generating revenue of over $77 billion, ecotourism is poised to be the fastest growing sector of tourism in the U.S.. With more and more Americans striving to learn about the environment, their impact on it, and how they can make positive changes, entrepreneurs seeking to enter this field have a unique opportunity to earn a healthy income while making positive changes in the world. What better legacy could you leave behind?
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful ecotour business?
You’ll incur a great deal of your start-up costs before the business has become a reality. Research will require hours of time away from your current obligations. It will require networking and, if your mission is outside of your local community, a great deal of traveling.
Once the legwork is done, there are just a few things you’ll need:
- Computer and telephone - $1,000 to $2,500
- Website - a cheap, basic design could work when starting out, but professional web design runs anywhere from $2,500 to $11,000
- Marketing materials - $1,000
- Insurance - Speak with a trusted insurance professional regarding the type of insurance this would require. If your ecotours require a great deal of travel, inquire about how to provide travel insurance for your guests.
If you plan to offer local tours, transporting guests should be considered. Some business owners choose to utilize services by local businesses, while others provide their own transportation.
What are the costs involved in opening an ecotour business?
Operating this type of business requires dedication to the cause and a great deal of flexibility. While not a requirement, a background in tourism, hospitality, and/or environmentalism is preferred. In preparation for each tour you plan, a considerable amount of research is required, as you must possess a deep understanding of local natural resources, facilities, rules and regulations, and safety issues. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and Sustainable Travel International both offer consumers and business owners ideas, advice, and solutions regarding how to get involved. TIES’ annual conference is a great way to network and come together with like-minded individuals.
This is as much about your mission as it is your business. To gain the knowledge necessary to succeed, you must be able to deeply connect with people from all different cultures. To truly inspire and educate your guests, you must first be willing to listen.
When passion and business collide, it’s easy to sacrifice one for the other. Those inexperienced in running an enterprise should consider partnering with a financial adviser or taking some basic business courses at their local college before mapping out their business plan.
What are the steps to start an ecotour business?
Once you're ready to start your ecotour business, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:
- Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
- Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your ecotour business is sued.
- Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
- Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your ecotour business keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
- Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
- Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
- Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
- Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
- Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.
Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.
Where can I find a business mentor?
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
What are some insider tips for jump starting an ecotour business?
Successful ecotour hosts offer the following advice:
- The relationships you build will be critical to your business’ success. Get to know a travel agent that can assist you and your guests in finding the most affordable travel options. Collaborate with NGOs and public/private enterprises for renting equipment, environmental conservation, training and education programs, and natural resources management.
- Consider selling/marketing your ecotours to associations and other well-known agencies that have similar values.
- While your guests are there to learn and give back, they’re also there to unwind on vacation. Incorporate outdoor activities that appeal to your target audience.
While this is a rapidly growing business, there are a number of companies who mislead consumers into believing they support sustainability while having little to no positive impact on the environment. Hold yourself to the highest standards and ethics and work to support other businesses who share your same dreams.
How to promote & market an ecotour business
Focus on being a leader in your industry and build relationships with like-minded individuals. These connections can span the entire world, opening up new doors you never dreamed imaginable. They will be mutually beneficial relationships, as you and people you meet will help grow each other’s businesses while helping to preserve Mother Earth for our successors.
Additionally, the associations previously mentioned, along with The International Ecotourism Society, offer members certifications and marketing tools to assist in getting your business recognized internationally.
The Internet is a great way to reach interested travelers. Consider hosting a blog series, getting involved with online platforms, and volunteering for guest spots in magazines that reach those interested in making a difference.
Recommended: Get started with local advertising for your business with a $300 credit from Yelp.
How to keep customers coming back
It’s important to remember that each guest is, in a sense, a marketing tool for your business. Wherever they go home to at the end of their travels, there are people waiting to hear about the experience. This will not only attract others, but it will increase the likelihood of a return visit. Without sacrificing your organization’s mission and ethics, work to ensure each visitor has a safe and educational experience. Ideally, at the end of your trip, each guest should be inspired to share what they learned with others in their community.
How and when to build a team
Many ecotourists start their business small, hosting each ecotour themselves. As the organization begins to make a name for itself, it will also attract aspiring ecotourists who share your passion and drive to make a difference. They may come to you with their own ideas, or simply be there to learn. Those are the individuals who should comprise your team. You each stand to grow from one another, extending your reach to whatever parts of the earth stand to benefit from your services.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate an eco tour business. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, read our article, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
For more information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office
- Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Maintain Personal Asset Protection
Don’t think that just forming an LLC, or any other type of business, will save your personal assets in case of a lawsuit or other matter by itself.
When your personal and business accounts are mixed, your personal assets (your home, car, and other valuables) are at risk in the event your LLC is sued. In business law, this is referred to as piercing your corporate veil.
Two of the simplest steps that will protect your business, and yourself, are to:
Open a business bank account
- This separates your personal assets from your company's assets, which is necessary for personal asset protection.
- It also makes accounting and tax filing easier.
Get a business credit card
- This helps you separate personal and business expenses by putting your business' expenses all in one place.
- It also builds your company's credit history, which can be useful to raise money and investment later on.
How much can you charge customers?
Your fees will depend largely upon how extensive your ecotour is. One company offers expeditions to places like Uganda, Peru, and Brazil. Prices for a trip of this magnitude include: a donation to the community, local lodging, guided tours hosted by members of the community, and locally sourced food (guests are responsible for airfare). Fee per guest ranges from $5,600 to over $10,000. For many ecotourism businesses just starting out, this type of expedition is something to reach for. Smaller scale trips could include half or full-day tours that include hiking, bird watching, or water activities. Fees for this type of adventure average $139 to $300, depending upon a number of factors.
What are the ongoing expenses for an ecotour business?
Your ongoing expenses will be defined by the types of tours you offer your guests. Traveling expenses for you and your team, and payroll expenses will take up the largest portion of your budget. Standard operational costs such as rent, fuel costs, etc are minimized, as much of your work is done on the road, eliminating the need for a storefront. When traveling overseas, be sure to keep all immunizations up to date and keep up with all insurance and licenses that your work requires.
How much profit can an ecotour business make?
Unless you start your business with a great deal of experience, you’ll likely want to start small-scale. If a full-day tour yields you $300 per customer, and each tour hosts 10 guests, you’ve brought in $3,000. For this example, let’s assume fuel and amenity costs and park entry fees come out to $60 per person, equalling $600. If you personally host 5 of these a week, you’ve earned a profit of $12,000 in one week. While this stands to be a very profitable business, true ecotourism hosts caution new business owners against getting caught up in the profits. Doing so causes many to lose sight of the original mission, which is to support sustainable living and make a positive impact on the environment and communities.
How can you make your business more profitable?
One strategy to keep your expenses at a minimum is to support the businesses and individuals from the area where you are hosting your tour. This will have the greatest impact on the local community, with the lowest impact on your budget. This can take even the form of hiring employees from the region of the world where you frequently host tours.
Offering discounts for travel packages that include multiple tours will help ensure that your customers are satisfied with their experience, and it will make them more likely to want to travel with your company in the future.