The Low Down On Green Living
October 3rd, 2007
As more people become aware of the trouble that our environment is in, many of us want to venture out to see the natural world in person – perhaps before it’s too late. Thanks to advances in travel and the ability to learn about previously unknown places on the Web, these remote areas are becoming much more accessible. In fact, tourism is now the world’s largest industry, employing 200 million people and generating $3.6 trillion in economic activity (yes, that’s trillion, with a t!). Nature tourism represents the industry’s fastest growing segment, and this trend is expected to continue over the next two decades.
But exploring these wild, remote places can actually degrade an area’s natural state. So what is the intrepid explorer to do? The answer comes in the form of ecotourism.
The term ecotourism has become increasingly popular in both conservation and travel circles. Though some definitions vary, The Nature Conservancy has joined the World Conservation Union in adopting the following definition of ecotourism: “Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”
Notably, the definition includes a necessary respect for culture and the indigenous population, as well as an emphasis on conservation. In practice, ecotourism has many benefits, including providing revenue for the protection of natural sites. Ecotourism also educates travelers, leading to more enthusiastic activists and agents for conservation.
Some places have long held a few of the tenets of ecotourism, like the Grand Canyon: Grand Canyon National Parks “Pack it in, pack it out!” motto, requiring visitors leave nothing behind, (other than their footprints.) But most tourism in natural areas is not sustainable – as more people visit ecologically sensitive areas, the more damage can be done. This damage can extend to an area’s local culture, as communities struggle to adjust to an influx of wealth and foreign visitors. In addition, traditional mass tourism isn’t always a stable source of revenue, as it is subject to changes in weather, exchange rates, and even political conditions.
But ecotourism strives to overcome some of those obstacles. According to the Nature Conservancy, it can be distinguished from other types of nature tourism by its emphasis on conservation, education, traveler responsibility and active community participation. Specifically, ecotourism possesses the following characteristics:
- – Conscientious, low-impact visitor behavior
- – Sensitivity towards, and appreciation of, local cultures and biodiversity
- – Support for local conservation efforts
- – Sustainable benefits to local communities
- – Educational components for both the traveler and local communities
Fortunately, with the rise in eco-consciousness, opportunities abound to see the natural world without harming it.
Leaders in Ecotourism
Countries in South and Central America, many of which are experiencing a boom in travelers and have much to protect, are certainly embracing ecotourism. For developing countries, the move toward ecotourism signals a move toward sustainable development – a must for protecting their economies and natural resources for generations to come. Costa Rica, for example, has adopted ecotourism practices and has even developed a Certificate for Tourism Sustainability, which certifies each company and provides a sense of security for those concerned about greenwashing. This focus on ecotourism allows Costa Rica to enjoy the financial benefits of increased tourism, while protecting its environment and the inhabitants of the country. Ecolodges, like the Lapa Rios on the Osa Peninsula, offer relaxation and beautiful views while remaining committed to environmentally sound practices. While enjoying paradise, travelers also get to learn about conservation, biodiversity, and the area’s culture. Plus, since ecolodges use local resources, an estimated 95% of their revenues go back into the local economy.
If you’re looking for a trustworthy resource for a packaged, eco-friendly tour, look no further than your old friends, organizations like The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and The National Audubon Society. First up, The Nature Conservancy, which offers tours to exotic locations such as Peru, including visits to the Amazon and Machu Picchu. Closer to home, domestic trips might take you on a walking tour of the Redwood Coast in California, or the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas. Regardless of your destination, by traveling with experienced and knowledgeable Nature Conservancy guides, the trips are more than your typical group tours. You’ll learn about the entire ecosystem of each area, including human history and ongoing conservation efforts. Some trips focus on photography, or include workshops on subjects like grizzly bears.
Another organization, the World Wildlife Fund, offers trips to support their goal of conserving 19 of the world’s most important natural places. From the Galapagos, to the Coral Triangle, to the rivers and steams of the southeastern US, these places are key to the survival of natural diversity. The National Audubon Society, with their focus on birds and other wildlife, has gone so far as to create a “Travel Ethic” for environmentally responsible travel. The Ethic includes rules barring tourists from disturbing wildlife and habitat, governing waste disposal, and emphasizing respect for other cultures. Audubon offers trips in North America, like a Canadian trip to see polar bears, as well as further afield. Who wouldn’t want to go on a month-long trip that goes from the Straits of Gibraltar, along to North Africa, finally ending in Argentina’s Patagonia region?
World Heritage Sites
If a month-long trip just isn’t in the cards (perhaps you haven’t won the lottery…at least, not yet) you can still enjoy an eco-friendly trip. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage sites might be a good place to start. Located in 141 countries around the world, these sites encompass both cultural and natural treasures, protecting them for future generations. Due to the diversity of the sites, there is certain to be one that would make for an unforgettable trip. There are 20 sites in the US alone, including Independence Hall, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and even the Statue of Liberty. Through a partnership with Expedia, the nonprofit Friends of World Heritage Fund will receive profits from certain trips booked through Expedia, funneling the profits back in to the protection of these sites. A win-win!
The International Ecotourism Society
What? You need even more choices for destinations? OK then, to satisfy all of your ecotourism needs, check out this one-stop shop: The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). This nonprofit organization works to achieve its vision of becoming “the global source of knowledge and advocacy uniting communities, conservation, and sustainable travel.” In addition to resources and education, TIES’ site also includes a search engine allowing you to find travel agents, hotels, or other services that have signed TIES’ code of conduct.
Don’t Forget to Consider the Carbon Emissions from Your Travels
Of course, to get to one of these amazing places, you will still have to travel by car, train, bus or plane. And, even if you use the less-harmful modes of transportation (like trains and busses) you will still be responsible for…you guessed it…your dreaded carbon emissions. So though you might be embarking on an ecotourism adventure, make sure to work to reduce, and then offset, your carbon emissions – check out our August newsletter for details on why and how to do this. Or if you want to cut to the chase, you can just get offsets through our favored offset provider, Native Energy.
So go ahead and see the world – just make sure to do your homework to ensure that your nature travel follows the guidelines for ecotourism!
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