|Africa, vast and ancient, beckons the traveler
Campi Ya Kanzi: Chyulu Hills, Kenya
How can you appreciate a landscape you’ve never been to?
Thundering waterfalls and towering mountains lose their luster when seen on television or in books. You have to go there yourself – and many of us do. Everyone looks forward to a vacation to beautiful places.
Sunny beaches, tropical rainforests, green woods or vast expanses of ever-changing desert are so much more pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately, many tourists don’t leave these natural wonders the way they find them. It is not uncommon to step on the bottle caps and cigarette butts left behind on public beaches. Lizards and snakes are often killed or run over unknowingly by the adventurous in deserts. Trudging through the dense vegetation in forests will leave a path of squashed plants and scared animals.
The truth is that most humans are still clumsy travelers who have a habit of leaving destruction in their wake. “Take Cancun, for example,” says Laura Ell of the International EcoTourism Society (www.ecotourism.org), “If you have a large resort that’s not owned by anyone in the local community, mass tourism will destroy a lot of the environment. When tourists arrive and use so much water and other local resources, it really has an influence on the area. In Cancun, the beach is completely changed and now artificial.” In an era where accessibility to exotic locales is as simple as purchasing a plane ticket or chartering a boat, more and more people are becoming globetrotters and more natural areas are influenced as a result.
Through the use of ecotourism, thousands of tourists not only avoid destroying the environment they are so anxious to see, but also help to protect it for future generations. There are many definitions for ecotourism. “This is one of the challenges in our industry,” says Ell, “but we have the most widely used definition where ecotourism means responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of the local people.”
When residents of exotic regions first noticed the onslaught of tourists many of them quickly did all they could to promote their natural resources as lures. Hunting, safaris, kayaking or scenic jungle tours were (and in some cases, still are) pushed on travelers by residents or even international companies. Even though locals may benefit when they successfully sell a tour, it is not considered ecotourism since the environment often suffers. Internationally owned bars, hotels and restaurants also pop up to entice tourists to stay and spend their money in the area but since the most successful hotels are owned internationally the money typically doesn’t stay in the region.
When it comes to environmental awareness, tourism has improved immensely in the last few years.
Bluewater Adventures (www.bluewateradventures.ca) offers exciting ecologically friendly excursions to coastal British Columbia and South East Alaska. Randy Burke, director and owner of Bluewater Adventures loves his work. “I took over this position in 1988,” Burke says, “but there was a fellow who got this company going during the 1970′s. He was a pioneer. Ecotourism wasn’t even a term back then, but the founder of Bluewater realized there were wonderful opportunities for wildlife viewing in the area and teamed up with the local community. We currently operate three 65-68 foot boats. While giving tours we educate the travelers about wildlife and the cultures of Coastal British Columbia and South East Alaska. We travel with a biologist on every trip and with small groups of 12-16 people it is a very hands-on type of experience. On these trips we see fabulous scenery with an abundance of wildlife. Over 100 whales can be seen on a 1 week trip. Depending on the area, tourists will have the opportunity to see humpback whales, orcas, sperm whales and in some cases the extremely rare fin whales-the second largest whale on the planet.
Several of our trips also focus on bears, with trips along the British Columbia main land coast. This area is referred to as the Great Bear Rainforest in which the White Spirit Bear can be found. In this area the black bears have a recessive gene in 10% of the animals that make them all white.”
Indigenous people benefit from Bluewater Adventures as well. “The indigenous people benefit in a couple of ways,” continues Burke, “First of all, we have signed a protocol agreement with three of the nations along the British Columbia coast. In the agreement, we are committed to paying the local cultures for the use of their traditional areas and we are also committed to hiring native guides on our tours. For example, guides hired from the Gitga’at nation will take us bear viewing at a viewing stand that they have built. Also, when we need fuel or food, we will buy it locally going to the native coop store in the village rather than shipping it in or buying it from a larger city.”
Tropical Travel is another company with some great trips to offer. “We have conservation lodges in three different countries: Ecuador, Brazil and Peru,” says Elizabeth Sanders, President of Nature Travel (www.tropicalnaturetravel.com), “The newest lodge-the Napo Wildlife Center-in Yasuni National Park is run by the local Anangu Community. There are about 120 people within this community. It is their land, and they came up with the idea for the ecolodge…Some of the locals are trained to be guides, cooks, boatmen, and some take care of the rooms and maintenance. They have a salary, which is an improvement in their lives. In the past, they might have hunted in the jungles and sold the meats for food staples in the market, but they did not have an income.”
|Napo Wildlife Center – Amazonian Equador|
Like all ecotours, the activities offered by Tropical Travel all involve educating tourists about the environment and the locals living in the area. “On excursions people have the chance to see all kinds of wildlife,” says Sanders, “in the Napo Wildlife Center, tourists travel on lakes and streams in dug out canoes made from trees that have fallen victim to rain or floods (they are never cut). From these boats you can see parrot licks up close. Parrot licks are exposed clay hills where the birds come for the minerals in the clay which break down ingested toxins [found naturally in many of the foods eaten by these birds]. In the wildlife center in Peru, you can go out at night and see big 400-500 pound tapirs and watch these animals feed.” Sanders remembers how exciting it was for her: “On one of the excursions I went on, we traveled along the river in the southern forest of Cuzco and we saw a capybara laying along the bank. Not thirty minutes later, coming along the bend, we saw the head of an animal swimming across the river. When it reached the bank, it pulled itself out of the water and turned out to be a giant anteater. It was an amazing sight.”
Even though, ecotourism is known to be better on the environment, the issue of money has a major influence on the decision making process. For example, “Many governments love the idea of tourism as an investment in their country and they don’t really make international companies follow strict environmental guidelines on their development – they worry about losing business,” explains Ell of Ecotourism International.
|Search for Alaska’s elusive Spirit Bear
Hotels also worry about how ecotourism will affect business. In a report written by the Center for Ecotourism and Sustainable Development (CESD) (www.ecotourismcesd.org) and The International Ecotourism Society, hotel managers in popular tourist destinations voice their opinion about eco tourism: “In Costa Rica, while they agreed that CST (Certification for Sustainable Tourism) could probably help to improve the environmental reputation of their hotels, it was too expensive to adopt CST standards. Most importantly, these managers were not convinced of the appeal of green reputations to business travelers, their main customer base.”
These concerns are unfounded however. In 2004, The World Tourism Organization (www.world-tourism.org) released findings that ecotourism and nature tourism are growing 3 times faster than mass tourism. TIA was also quoted saying that of US travelers, over 75% feel their visits should not damage the environment; 38% are willing to pay more for that. The United States Department of State explains that “the economic benefits of ecotourism in many local communities across the country has been significant.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov) estimates that in 1995 nearly 25 million visits to over 100 national wildlife refuges generated an estimated $245 million from non-consumptive uses only (e.g. excluding hunting and fishing). Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia coast alone generated $21 million from non-resident visitors, supporting 545 local jobs. Birdwatchers visiting Santa Ana Refuge, Laguna Atascosa Refuge, and Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary contributed over $59 million in direct expenditures to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Obviously, ecotourism is growing in popularity and is a sizeable market. According to the World Tourism Organization, Ecotourism is considered the fastest growing market in the tourism industry with an annual growth rate of 5% worldwide and representing 6% of the world gross domestic product.
|Alaska’s Stunning Central Coast
Through education and employment in the tourism industry, local communities benefit from the travelers that pass through. Ell explains that “we want to make sure that the local people benefit financially. Travelers make donations which can be used for schools, libraries, hospitals and so on. In the case of Cancun, all the money spent doesn’t even stay in the community. We call this leakage, the money goes out of the country. Locals are not being hired to work there and they have to witness the area [their home] being damaged by foreigners. This should be avoided.”
There are many reasons that ecotourism is so enticing; tourists can witness the local customs and not depend on international tours with no real history or relation to the area as their guides. Mass tourism through stereotypical tours leaves the traveler with no real idea of local cultures. “From the travelers’ perspective, it’s not really a unique experience where they can understand the culture and their relation to the environment [when going through a mass tour group]. This is basically a resort where you learn nothing about locals. You don’t interact with them and you don’t see authentic local culture,” emphasizes Ell, “ecotourism, on the other hand, will encourage the local traditions to continue.”
There are even examples where the creation of ecotours within an existing culture has enhanced the lifestyles of locals dramatically. With an alternate source of income, locals abandon illegal activities that previously where the only way they could make a living. Ell mentions an example in Africa: “Hunting and poaching reached such an intense level that the wildlife parks came to an agreement with the poachers and offered them jobs as guides. The guides obviously knew the jungle very well and made much more money this way than they did poaching.”
|Land of the Midnight Sun
Ecotourism has become so popular that many companies advertise as having ecotours when in fact they do not. Burke from Bluewater Adventures describes the challenges: “Some companies run at a small scale, which is usually the case with legitimate ecotourism, but a cruise ship with one biologist and 2000 people on board advertising as an ecotour is not the real thing. The line is often blurred between real ecotours and fake ones. I think it is great that these tours have hired a biologist that can explain the natural environment, but it is still a limited program. The tour is on a set schedule. You can’t put ecotourism into the company’s description just because they’ve changed the bed sheets over to green.” Proper research on the traveler’s part is key.
Ecotourism seems like the perfect vacation. Unfortunately, even ecotourism has its flaws. When an area is popular, no matter how careful tourists are, they will still have an impact on the environment. “There is a danger that ecotourism could ruin our environment if we’re not careful,” says Burke honestly, “ecotourism needs to be careful if it gains popularity. We need to be careful not to love nature to death.” However, most environmentalists are confident that with proper planning and environmental awareness, well managed ecotourism will leave unique and sensitive environments intact.
There are some fascinating tourism opportunities out there. It is a misconception that ecotourism is more expensive than the alternative. Prices range between expensive luxury bungalows to relatively cheap excursions that include everything a person needs without all the extras that many tourists don’t desire. Ecotourism is for everyone. It all depends on personal preference. There are literally hundreds of ecotours and ecolodges to choose from. Many companies also offer a variety of packages where you have the choice between relaxing on pristine beaches with no other person in sight, or taking in all the sights on exciting jeep, boat or even balloon rides.
The following are some examples of what to expect while on an ecotour.
|Campi Ya Kanzi: Chyulu Hills, Kenya|
In Kenya tourists have the option of going on land-based safaris or viewing lions, elephants, rhinos, thousands of zebra and wildebeest from the heights of a balloon ride.
Micato Safaries (www.micato.com) offers these experiences. The Campi ya Kanzi camp (find them through Uncharted Outposts, Inc. www.unchartedoutposts.com) is another style of ecotourism. The camp is owned by the local Masai herdsmen and while here, tourists will have the chance to experience the incredible wildlife in the area and learn more about the cultures in the region.
Campi ya Kanzi is one of the most environmentally friendly camps in East Africa. The weather there is sometimes compared to that of California with subtropical, temperate temperatures.
With great weather conditions it is no wonder that this area of Kenya is such a popular tourist destination. Solar power is used to heat the water and instead of firewood, charcoal made of coffee husks is used in the kitchen.
Perhaps the most unique feature of the Campi ya Kanzi is the water that is recycled through lava filters, which supplies the camp’s vegetable garden and ponds where local wildlife, including lions, come to drink. Just imagine waking up before dawn and hearing lions eagerly lap up water right in front of your door at sunrise.
|Sunset on the rim of the endless Pacific
Voyages Wilson Island
If you prefer to relax, you can do so at Sri Lanka’s famous ecolodge- Ranweli Holiday Village (www.ecoclub.com/ranweli).
North by North East Tours (http://www.ede.ch/nne/) offers boat tours along the Mekong where tourists can see pristine areas hardly touched by western civilization.
Ecotours are not restricted to the tropics. Neophron Ltd. (www.neophron.com) is a tour operator operated for the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSBP). Cultural tours, historical heritage tours, bird watching, botanical tours and brown bear and wolf watching are just a few of the memorable experiences to enjoy through Neophron.
In Sweden, Saga Adventures (www.sagaadventures.com) offers exhilarating tours where visitors ride through the highlands on horseback during the day and appreciate local cooking and storytelling around the campfire at night. This is definitely a top tour for those who appreciate horses.
MIDDLE EAST – JORDAN
Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (www.rscn.org.jo) offers a variety of phenomenal adventure tours. RSCN provides tours from the highlands of Northern Jordan to the river canyons leading to the Dead Sea where tourists have come for centuries seeking out the healing properties of the saltiest sea in the world. You can enjoy hikes in the desert canyons, safaris through the endangered Oryx reserve, boating and archaeological site seeing.
LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
When people imagine a vacation, the image of palm trees and beaches appears more often than anything else. Here you can snorkel through coral reefs, doze off amongst sea grape and coconut trees or take part in guided fishing tours. Casuarina Beach Club (www.Casuarina.com), Tiamo Resorts (www.tiamoresorts.com), Adventure Life (www.adventure-life.com), and Nature Air (www.natureair.com) are just a few of the great companies offering ecotours to the public.
|A turtle lumbers in the Pacific on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef
Voyages Wilson Island
Australia has an incredible array of tours for eco-travelers. There is so much to see in this unique country.
Along the verdant east coast of Queensland Kingfisher Bay Resort (www.kingfisherbay.com), and O’Reilly’s Oceanfront Guesthouse (www.oreillys.com.au) offer tours that allow tourists to experience the incredible wildlife via guided walks or atv rides.
One of the most recognized ecotourism destinations in the world is Turtle Island (www.turtlefiji.com). This beautiful island is covered with white powder beaches and gorgeous tropical forest. As a finalist in the World Legacy Awards and the filming location of “Blue Lagoon” starring Brooke Shield’s it is no wonder that this resort is considered the closest thing to heaven on earth.
UNITED STATES & CANADA
Bluewater Adventures (www.bluewateradventures.com) is just one of the great ecotourism companies operating in the region. In areas like the Alaskan coast, North American parks, and Canadian reserves you can enjoy everything from wildlife viewing, kayaking, hiking and boat tours.
The list is seemingly endless. There is an ecotour out there for anyone who is interested. Ecotourism is the ultimate package, where everyone benefits. You enjoy yourself and you know you are doing your part helping natural and cultural heritage sites. What could be better than that?
Additional Great Resources:
International Ecotourism Club
The International Ecotourism Society
Conservation International’s Ecotravel Center
Sustainable Travel International