E Contributor Starre Vartan enjoys taking a "zip line" through Costa Rica's rainforest canopy.© Brian C. Howard
Honey identifies three emerging trends. “There is authentic ecotourism, ‘ecotourism lite’ and greenwashing,” she says. “Authentic ecotourism incorporates seven or eight of the principles. Ecotourism lite refers to businesses that make only a few cosmetic and cost-saving changes, like not laundering the sheets every day. And greenwashing occurs when big resorts label themselves as ecotourism destinations but reject core principles.”
Obviously, it would be ideal on one level if we could all just stay home and leave the polluting airplanes on the ground and the forest paths untrampled. But that’s ignoring the considerable value in exposing people to nature in all its complex diversity, to other cultures and to other lifestyles, not to mention the economic boon that tourism in general and ecotourism in particular provides for many subsistence-level economies.
It’s impossible to boil down the best ecotourism destinations into a short list—there are far too many wonderful places for that—but here’s a listing of just a few of the ecotourism operations that are making outstanding efforts to walk the talk. These places are intent on leaving a small footprint and ensuring that protected areas will remain protected.
Global hot spots for travel include:
"Lindblad Expeditions. Lars-Eric Lindblad opened up such then-exotic destinations as Antarctica, the Galapagos and the Amazon to tourism beginning in 1958. His son, Sven-Olof, founded Lindblad Expeditions, which added a green tinge to the adventure touring. The shipboard tours allow visitors to listen to the songs of whales on hydrophones or watch live undersea video from a remotely operated camera. Away from the ship, tourists get close to nature in Zodiac landing craft, and are guided by naturalists and experts in local culture. “We seek to travel in an environmentally responsible way,” says Lindblad, “leaving the places we visit as we found them, and working with local governments and individuals to preserve them for others.” For many operators, that’s just boilerplate, but Lindblad practices what it preaches. 720 5th Avenue, 6th floor, New York, NY 10019, (800)EXPEDITION, www.expeditions.com.
"Tropical Nature Travel, South America. The U.S. arm of the Tropical Nature system of conservation organizations in Peru (InkaNatura, Selva Sur and Peru Verde), Brazil (Bio-Brasil Foundation) and Ecuador (Eco-Ecuador), Tropical Nature Travel conducts birding, cultural and natural history tours to its own Amazon rainforest lodges. In a trip to Peru’s Manu Biosphere Reserve, for instance, guests stay in screened tents. There are hot showers and flush toilets, but it’s not exactly luxury touring. Instead of indulging themselves, conservation-minded visitors look for the 10 species of local monkeys and take in the sights at a parrot and macaw lick. (The birds dine on cliffside clay.). P.O. Box 5276, Gainesville, FL, 32627-5276, (888)287-7186, www.tropicalnaturetravel.com.
"Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, USA. Victor Emanuel’s company, known as VENT, specializes in birding tours, with 100 to 140 destinations annually. Founded in 1974 when birding tours were in their infancy, VENT’s early guides included nature writer Peter Matthiessen and bird authority Roger Tory Peterson. VENT arranges tours for such environmental groups as The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the National Audubon Society. The company has worked to protect Mexico’s El Triunfo Cloud Forest Reserve, and it donates profits to local green groups. 2525 Wallingwood Drive, Suite 1003, Austin, TX 78746, (800)328-8368, www.ventbird.com.
"Sierra Club Outings Department. The Sierra Club specializes in membership-based wilderness trips, which are nonprofit and reasonably priced. A recent featured trip is a week-long, rim-to-rim family backpack around the Grand Canyon ($875 for adults). Kids over 12 are invited for $775, but they can’t be complete couch potatoes. If that doesn’t appeal, consider five days of rafting down the Colorado River’s last undammed tributary, the Yampa, with the opportunity to see bighorn sheep and eagles ($795 for adults). The Club also conducts special group trips and nature tours for inner-city kids, and it operates a network of lodges and huts, including the Clair Tappaan Lodge at the Donner Pass (503-426-3632) and other places in California. 85 Second Avenue, 2nd floor, San Francisco, CA 94105, (415)977-5522, www.sierraclub.org/outings.
"Turtle Island, Fiji. How close to paradise can you get? Turtle Island, purchased by American businessperson Richard Evanson in 1972, was at first only a way for one man to get away from it all. In 1980, it began its transformation into an exclusive eco-resort (rates start at $1,090 per couple per day), with room for 28 guests, 160 staff, and an approximate beach-to-visitor ratio of one to two. According to investor Andrew Fairley, Turtle Island is working to raise the standard of living of local people on the 500-acre island, in part by using them as building work crews and staff. It is also helping to publicize locally owned tourist facilities in the region. Cataracts and diabetes are rampant among the native population, and Turtle Island brings in teams of international doctors to stay free while treating patients. Turtle Island also works with Coral Cay Conservation, which organized the Fiji Reef Conservation Project, and has undertaken multi-year efforts to create reef reserves on Fiji. Another eminently worthy operation is Rivers Fiji, which operates kayak-based tours on the main island, employing local people as guides and paying a users’ fee to native land owners. Rivers Fiji, c/o Travel Outdoors, P.O. Box 581, Angels Camp, CA 95222, (800)446-2411, www.riversfiji.com; Turtle Island, 10906 NE 39th Street, Quad 205, Suite A-1, Vancouver, WA 98682-6789, (877)2-TURTLE, www.turtlefiji.com.
"Maho Bay Camps, St. John, Virgin Islands. Hardly an upstart, Maho Bay is instead a pioneer in small-scale, tent-based ecotourism. As with Tropical Nature Travel, 16-foot square canvas cottages adjoin facilities with modern plumbing and a state-of-the-art graywater recycling system. Many of the 114 tents ($75 a night in the low season, $108 in the high season) offer sweeping views of a jewel-like Caribbean cove, which boasts kayaking,
snorkeling and diving. Vegetarian food is available in the outdoor restaurant. Slightly more upscale accommodations are just a short distance away at Harmony Studios ($110/$185), which is built from recycled materials and gets its electricity from a passive solar installation. P.O. Box 310, Cruz Bay, Saint John, VI 00830, (800)392-9004, www.maho.org.
What You Can Do:
Here are some basic guidelines for going green, as developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists:In nature spots:
"Leave only footprints (no littering).
"Take only photographs (no “souvenirs” from the wild).
"Stay on trails.
"Don’t disturb wildlife or natural habitats.
"Don’t introduce foreign plants or animals.
"Don’t pollute water bodies with soap or detergents.
In all places:
"Don’t buy things made from endangered animals (like products containing ivory or tortoise shell).
"Don’t waste water.
"Turn off lights and air-conditioning when you leave your room.
"When possible, walk—it’s the best way to see the sights anyway. When you can’t, use the most environmental methods of transportation you can.
"Patronize hotels, airlines and tour operators that employ environmental practices, such as energy conservation and recycling.