Putting the 'Eco' in Tourism

10 Journeys That Just Might Change the World…or At Least Your View of It

Swimming with dolphins. Bicycling on back roads. Trekking a 2,000-year-old trail. Crouching in the sand to measure a giant sea turtle. Sipping chai and savoring chapati prepared at a local Indian restaurant. However diverse the modern vacation, there's a common thread that ties each together: the traveler's thirst for discovery, passion for authenticity and interest in helping preserve and protect the planet.

Besides casting back the majestic silhouette of Mt. Cook, Lake Matheson in New Zealand's Fox Glacier National Park offers much opportunity for reflection, especially to these ecotourists who have stepped out from the fog.

Besides casting back the majestic silhouette of Mt. Cook, Lake Matheson in New Zealand's Fox Glacier National Park offers much opportunity for reflection, especially to these ecotourists who have stepped out from the fog.

“We're longing for gung-ho, do-something, learn-something, give-back-something vacations that will exhilarate us and leave us feeling good,” write Daniel and Sally Wiener Grotta in The Green Travel Sourcebook, eloquently capturing the sentiment of the globe-trotting environmentalist. “We want vacations that will allow us to experience intimately the people and places we visit, while not inadvertently polluting the environment or contributing to an oppressive political regime, and perhaps make the world a better place.”

Defining Green Travel

Ecotourism, or ecotravel, strives to do just that. “Ecotravel helps conserve fragile ecosystems, support endangered species and habitats, preserve indigenous cultures and develop sustainable local economies,” sums up Megan Epler Wood, president of The International Ecotourism Society. “By looking at travel alternatives and making informed choices, you can minimize your impact and positively contribute to the conservation of natural environments, local economies and cultures.”

That's something the mainstream travel industry has yet to accomplish. In popular resort areas like Cancun and Hawaii, over-built waterfront hotels have contributed to beach erosion, flooding and the disappearance of natural wetlands, while generating mountains of garbage without adequate means of disposal. The rapid growth of the trekking industry in Nepal has increased pollution in Kathmandu and caused dangerous crowding and destruction of trails; logging for hotel building materials and cooking fires has led to deforestation, flooding and landslides as far away as Bangladesh.

More than 500 million people travel for leisure each year, making tourism the world's largest industry at $425 billion and climbing, according to the World Tourism Organization. Tourism provides 10 percent of the world's income and employs almost one-tenth of its workforce. Ecotourism, although growing by 20 to 30 percent a year, still represents less than one-tenth of the total tourism industry.

Although “ecotourism” attempts to recognize the incredibly complex interactions among the environment, culture, economy and travel, it often eludes a clear definition. Guidelines are offered by such diverse groups as the United Nations Environmental Programme, Conservation International, the American Society of Travel Agents, Sierra Club and Mountain Travel*Sobek. “Certified ecotourism” has recently been introduced in Australia, offering consumers a “Good Housekeeping”-type seal like those used for certified organic produce and sustainably harvested wood.

Touring with a Purpose

Ultimately, however, the responsibility for the impact of your travel rests not with a label, but with you. Be an activist—traveling the world as a dedicated ecotourist is not a spectator sport. “Ecotravelers ask lots of questions,” says M.J. Kietzke, team coordinator of Co-op America Travel Links, which matches members requesting ecotravel with the operators or destinations that meet their needs. “Because ecotourism is consumer driven,” she says, “these questions help create a green demand for responsible travel options.”

If you choose an organized ecotour, ask about the trip fee. Besides responsibly sourced food and lodging, it can also help defray the cost of fieldwork, support local education or health programs and leave economic dividends with the host community. (Often, if paid to a nonprofit organization, the fees for service trips are also partially tax-deductible.) Ask whether you'll be visiting a place during the most heavily traversed time of year, contributing to overcrowding, and whether you'll be using mass transportation, to reduce pollution, and eating regional cuisine, to support local markets.

The answer to the most vital question, however, still hangs in the air: Can ecotourism help connect us with the rest of the world, and by doing so, actively make it a better place?

There are many who believe it can. The following examples are but a sampling of the vast array of ecotravel options and operators, for all budgets and for all age groups. Whether you have a few days or a few months, these ideas offer a glimpse into an amazing world, one we must either learn to protect or lose forever.

Oceanic Society Expeditions

Participants on Oceanic Society Expeditions need no prior scientific training, but their enthusiastic contributions will support the research that leads to environmental protection of marine life in Belize.

Barrier Reef Islands, Belize

This small, diverse Central American country nestled along the Caribbean Sea is still captivatingly wild. As of 1992, 90 percent of Belize's forests were very much intact, and much of the reef system—the second longest in the world—was considered so valuable that it received World Heritage protected status.

Oceanic Society groups in Belize, under the guidance of top specialists in the field, alternate between conducting scientific research on dolphins—including observing their behavior and recording their vocalizations—and taking naturalist-guided excursions, snorkeling in the pristine waters around Sergeants Caye, or birdwatching in the mangrove lagoons.

To avoid tourist-saturated San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, the Expeditions are now based on Spanish Lookout Caye at the Belizean-owned Spanish Bay Resort. The solar-powered resort offers its guests sun-washed cabanas over the water and native family-style cuisine in the main lodge. Evening slide shows and discussions about the dolphins, reef and mangrove ecology supplement the daily experiences. “These trips help us learn, grow and give back,” says Elly Schaefer, a recent volunteer.

Beginning in 2001, the dolphin project will move to the Blackbird-Oceanic Society Field Station at Blackbird Caye, and Spanish Bay will host a project on coral reefs.


Oceanic Society Expeditions
Fort Mason Center, Building E
San Francisco, CA 94123-1394
Tel: (800) 326-7491

Spanish Bay Resort
71 North Front Street
Belize City, Belize
Tel: 501-2-31960

Mountain Travel*Sobek

For over 30 years, Mountain Travel*Sobek has helped thousands of cubicled office workers transform themselves into modern-day replicas of Indiana Jones. Although this ecotravel doesn'

t scrimp on comfort and cuisine, environmentally sensitive practices like solar showers and leave-no-trace camping are part of the painstakingly planned cultural and wilderness experience.

Kathmandu, Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal

Breathtaking describes both the spectacular landscape and high-altitude effects that come from trekking with Mountain Travel*Sobek's ecotrip in the Annapurna Himal region of Nepal. The magical panorama includes some of the highest mountains on the planet, 20,000-plus-footers like Annapurna South, Annapurna I and III and Machapuchare, the so-called “Matterhorn of Nepal.” A tattered topographic map will lead you along ancient, stone-stepped passageways and narrowly carved trails, through terraced rice paddies, rhododendron, oak and bamboo forests. The journey brings you, too, in close contact with the Gurung and Tamang clans, who have practiced sustenance agriculture in the region for centuries.

An active supporter of global nonprofits, Mountain Travel*Sobek and the grassroots conservation work of white-water rafters led in 1993 to the preservation of the Tatshenshini River in Canada and Alaska as an international park, saving it from development as a giant, open-pit copper mine.


Mountain Travel*Sobek
6420 Fairmount Avenue
El Cerrito, CA 94530
Tel: (888) 687-6235

Conservation International and Community Partners

In the rainforests of Guatemala, slash-and-burn agriculture and other deforestation pressures continue to close in on the four-million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve, which contains the popular Mayan temple complex of Tikal and the El Peru and Tikal National Parks. Conservation International (CI), along with USAID/Guatemala, the Guatemalan government, the National Council for Protected Areas and local conservation organizations, has set out to redirect development there in a more life-preserving direction.

Guatemalan Rainforest, Central America

Guatemalan Rainforest, Central America

The Mayan Trails, or Caminos Mayas, provides ecotravelers with the opportunity to explore both the cultural and natural heritage found beneath the forest canopy of Guatemala's Peten region. Three distinct trail systems await the ecotraveler: The Scarlet Macaw, El Mirador, and Zotz-Tikal. Hosted by communities along the path and guided by local experts, each offers a spectacular glimpse of flora and fauna—tropical birds such as Mot Mots, Macaws, Toucans and Trogons, and spider and howler monkeys—and the ancient Mayan ruins. Accommodations are at rustic campsites where guests rest in hammocks with protective mosquito nets, falling asleep to the late-night symphony of nocturnal rainforest life.

“The services, including meals, lodging, guides and horses or boats, are offered by the communities themselves,” says Juan Carlos Bonilla, former coordinator for CI's Ecotourism Enterprise Development and Marketing Program. “Conservation International is trying to build community-based, conservation-savvy entrepreneurship, not that big of a stretch.”


Conservation International
1919 M Street NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20037
Tel: (800) 429-5660, x 264

Wilderness Travel

Scotland is a hill walker's paradise. A journey there features rugged mountains, heather-covered moors, sparkling lochs, swift-flowing streams and cragged coastlines. The country's wilderness—from alpine flowers to colonies of Max shearwaters, guillemots, razor bills and Arctic terns—complements its ages-old castles and ancient Standing Stones.

Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Ecotravelers on the Wilderness Travel trip make their way through the highlands to the poignant Isle of Sky, rich in tradition and a spectacular landscape created by ancient volcanic activity. At a local pub, the Gaelic language still hangs heavy during discussion of the latest rugby match. After a spirited day of hiking, you'll find yourself warmly invited into this proud culture—perhaps for a “wee dram.” A quaint country inn will welcome you to stop and rest for the night.

“Many of [our clients] see tourism as contributing to a more sustainable economy,” says Barbara Banks, director of marketing and new trip development for Wilderness Travel. Rather than engage in destructive activities that may “benefit a region in the short term,” she says, “the host communities can safeguard their land and bring money into the economy for years to come.”


Wilderness Travel
1102 Ninth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710-1211
Tel: (800) 368-2794

Concordia Eco-Tents

The sun-bleached and wind-swept slope on which Concordia Eco-Tents rests contrasts with the lush green landscape of the surrounding Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John. It's difficult to imagine that Maho Bay Eco-Tents, Concordia's sister resort, nestles among the forested terrain just a short drive away.

St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

Concordia Eco-Tents is an ongoing experiment in the practical use of sustainable design. On St. John, where water is a precious commodity, owner and developer Stanley Selengut was inspired to create truly low-impact accommodations—a resort that brings people literally closer to nature. Guests collect their own solar-heated water in a cistern. Solar panels and wind generate much of the electricity that powers energy-efficient lighting and a small refrigerator. Floors and boardwalks are made with a recycled composite wood and each eco-tent includes a composting toilet with low-water flush.

“Living within the Earth's resources is something that we have to do to survive as a race,” says Selengut. “There are a growing number of people interested in these problems, and we're probably one of the most popular resorts in the Caribbean because of it.” Vistas of undeveloped coastline and sparkling turquoise water, accompanied by a constant breeze, certainly don't hurt either.


Concordia Eco-Tents
20-27 Estate Concordia
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands 00830
Tel: (800) 392-9004

Earthwatch Institute

Great, fluttering butterflies, dragonflies the size of softballs, and huge spiders resting on shimmering strands of web, melt into the lush forest understory of the Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia. This steamy, tropical rainforest is also home to endangered orangutans, known locally as the “humans of the forest,” and the subject of the Earthwatch expedition called Orangutan Health.

Joining an Earthwatch expedition is an opportunity to both explore the world and assist the scientific community. Volunteers for the Sumatran project follow orangutans, making behavioral observations from close distances, in the hopes of learning how these lumbering primates use specific plants to heal the

mselves. Situated at the edge of the park along the Bohorok River, the base camp is what you might expect from such a jungle adventure: a simple, clean bungalow with a bed and mosquito net, cold-water showers, Asian toilets and freshly made Indonesian dishes of rice, fish, chicken, vegetables and amazing tropical fruit.

Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia

The diverse projects and global presence of Earthwatch attracts volunteers from all over the world. The trips, which usually last several weeks, are organized by research focus, and the fee, which covers the meals and accommodations of volunteers, also directly supports the research of leading scientists in the field. On the Sumatra expedition, besides tough hiking terrain, high humidity and manic mosquitoes, the nearly two-million-acre park also harbors 130 mammal species (including gibbons, leopards and Sumatran rhinos) and 325 species of birds. So there's plenty to do when not observing orangutans.


Earthwatch Expeditions
680 Mount Street
Watertown, MA 02272
Tel: (800) 776-0188

U.S. National Park Service and the Teton Science School

When travelers to any of the U.S. national parks venture forth from their cars for more than just a quick bathroom break, their experiences can be transforming. Numerous wildlife interpretive programs, which offer travelers valuable insights to area flora and fauna as well as the unique histories of the parks themselves, help put the all-important aspect of education in ecotravel.

Wyoming, U.S.A

Grand Teton National Park in the U.S. Rocky Mountains is one of the most majestic—high enough to support a dozen mountain glaciers, with 12 Teton peaks that reach above 12,000 feet. Grand Teton itself rises 13,770 feet above the bucolic valley of Jackson Hole, the Snake River threading the terrain below. Plant communities thrive there, from ribbons of riparian plants to sagebrush flats, lodgepole pine forests, subalpine meadows and alpine stone fields.

Wyoming, U.S.A.

The nonprofit Teton Science School offers Wildlife Expeditions, a program in which locally trained wildlife biologists teach people not only about the wildlife, but also wildlife viewing ethics and habitat preservation. These specialized safari-style tours help visitors turn a casual trip to the park into a more intimate, ecologically friendly experience.

“Often times, people approach wildlife, endangering themselves and disturbing an animal's natural behaviors,” says Christy Bradburn, administrative coordinator for Wildlife Expeditions. “We teach people how to enjoy wildlife and understand their natural history.”


Teton Science School
PO Box 7580
Jackson Hole, WY 83002
Tel: (888) 945-3567

Tread Lightly, Ltd.

Immeasurably rich in geography, ecology, culture and history, Bolivia is home to expansive cloud forests, unique salt flats, savannas and the snow-capped Andes, making it one of the most biodiverse portions of the Amazon region. Tread Lightly trips to Bolivia, completely set up through in-country operating partners, offer backstage views of the prehistoric ruins and indigenous villages of the mystical islands of the Sun and Moon in the expansive Lake Titicaca, at 3,810 feet the highest navigable lake in the world.


Tread Lightly provides intimate cultural and natural experiences for ecotravelers to Latin America. It favors lodges that respect natural surroundings, carefully use water and other valuable resources, and employ alternative energy and waste-disposal techniques. Tread Lightly partners sponsor guide-training courses that provide rich careers for locals, helping preserve community integrity while increasing awareness for the environmental diversity and fragility of their surroundings.


Visits to Potosi and the magnificent capital city of Sucre offer ecotravelers an opportunity to enjoy Bolivia's unique cultural, as well as natural, attractions. Located at an altitude of nearly 13,100 feet, Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world and best known for the extraordinary quantities of silver extracted from Cerro Rico, “Rich Mountain.”


Tread Lightly Limited
37 Juniper Meadow Road
Washington Depot, CT 06794,
Tel: (800) 643-0060

Canodros, S.A.

Amidst a sea of cruise ships competing for the honor of biggest and most grandiose, the 100-passenger Galapagos Explorer II is putting luxury in a more intimate, and environmentally sustainable, context.

“We want to be the most environmentally friendly ship in the Galapagos,” says Freddy Espinel, hotel manager of the Explorer II. He proudly points to practices like on-board desalinization of water; its purification with ozone, rather than chlorine; composted biodegradable waste and recyclables flown to the mainland; and the use of only biodegradable soaps and detergents.

While the service is impeccable and on-board atmosphere inviting, the islands themselves are the real showstoppers. On excursions escorted by the ship's naturalists (trained by Galapagos National Park) visitors see firsthand the unique adaptations of island fauna, such as flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, giant tortoises and Darwin's finches. Opportunities for photography are rife, as is snorkeling with schools of brightly-colored fish or hiking in search of the more perfect vista. Small group size and tight Park Service control help protect the fragile ecosystem and ensure that even on this limited terrain more wildlife than tourists are encountered.

Galapagos Islands

The new interpretation center on San Cristobal Island is well worth exploring, and after you return to the ship for some native Ecuadorian cuisine and to sail to your next destination, you can watch a slide show about the natural history of the archipelago, discuss with fellow shipmates environmental challenges faced by the islands, or browse through the science library on board.


Canodros SA
PO Box 09-01-8442
Guayaquil, Ecuador
Tel: (5934) 285711

Yourself, as a “Free Independent Traveler”

Winding along the sweeping valleys and rolling hills of unglaciated southwestern and central-western Wisconsin, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail tempts both bicyclists and walkers alike. Interrupted occasionally by cavernous rock tunnels through which bikers pass, the trail showcases local history and wildlife as it crosses trout streams and weaves through farmlands and hardwood forests. By staying in quaint bed and breakfasts, eating at family-owned restaurants and shopping for unique gifts or handmade Amish furniture along the 32-mile trail, visitors help preserve the area, support struggling agricultural communities and revive interest in natural corridors for wildlife and recreation.

The Elroy-to-Sparta trail is among the first of the U.S. rail-trails, recreational trails created from abandoned railroads, advocated by the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservan

cy. Such trails provide a link among historic, cultural and natural sites, boost sagging local economies and, in some cases, completely revive economically depressed towns (see Currents, this issue). Playing hopscotch across the landscape, the number of trails has grown from 75 in 1986 to more than 1,000 today; they cover 11,000 miles.

Ecotourism operators and “free independent travelers” each share a commitment to tread lightly on the land and culture, and support the local economy at their destination. Ecotourism is not defined by the distance traveled, but rather how it's accomplished and what is experienced, so don't overlook natural attractions like rail-trails right in your own backyard. After all, for most travelers, a fully satisfying journey can be one of less than 100 miles.


Wisconsin, U.S.A

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
1100 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: (202)331-9696

The 10 trips profiled here are mere snapshots of the rapidly growing world of ecotourism. A little more research will turn up countless other operators and destinations well worth exploring. E's editors wish you safe travels, and by all means, send us a postcard!