EcoWorld's 2008 EcoTour Survey

THE GRAND OASIS: ECOWORLD’S TOP ECO-TOURS FOR 2008
Gorilla with Baby Gorilla
Visit a family of gorillas on your next family vacation.
(Photo: Terra Incognita Ecotours)

Have you ever looked a beautiful pristine place shining brightly on your computer’s screensaver and thought how much you would like to be there right now?

For some people, a couch, cold drink and a decent video rental make up the key ingredients for their perfect vacation. What is a vacation anyway? The dictionary defines the word as “time away from work”, but for many of us, the ideal vacation doesn’t just mean a quick escape from the job, but an escape from the day to day lives we’ve become accustomed to. Working the 8-5 jobs leaves many drained and wondering what else the world has to offer. A plastic plant gathering dust next to the computer screen we stare at all day is never going to satisfy the need for a healthy dose of nature.


Nominated as “Best Tour Operator” in the 2006 First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards, Terra Incognita Ecotours, is a tour operator that has left many clients impressed. Terra Incognita founder, Gerard Caddick, spent many years working to conserve endangered species in South America before starting a business in the travel industry. Caddick’s tours include trips to Rwanda where visitors can spend the day with wild gorillas, to Costa Rica where it is rare to leave without having seen toucans, parrots and monkeys in the jungle canopy or Borneo where orangutan’s and elephants are a common sight.

Gerard Caddick, explains what makes eco-tours special ones: “I would say that what makes our trips different is that we’re focused on taking people to natural areas to experience the wildlife and cultures that occur there. So its very different form a beach vacation or cruise. There is an educational component where you learn about wildlife and nature issues.”

The Terra Incognita website provides a list that defines an ecologically responsible tour:

Minimize impact,

Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect,

Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts,

Provide direct financial benefits for conservation,

Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people,

Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate,

Support international human rights and labor agreements.

Small Sloth
Have this little fellow join you for breakfast.
(Photo: Terra Incognita Ecotours)

There really is something out there for anyone. A jungle safari might appeal to the more adventurous while a laid back cruise would seem more appealing to someone who just wants to sit back and relax.

The difference between an eco-tour and booking a trip on your own is that an eco-tour allows the traveler to give something back to the country that they visit.

“We made the decision early that that everyone’s involvement [in the local culture and habitat protection] would be a monetary donation,” says Caddick, “On every trip that we offer, there is a component of the tour costs that goes to a local conservation organization. Our logic was that we are targeting the baby boomer generation that has more money than time. People want to do the right thing, but they don’t have the time to do conservation or volunteer work, so they provide funding and get involved in that sense.”

Some examples of where tourist dollars go when traveling through Terra Incognita include: Project Angonoka to protect the most endangered tortoise in the world-the ploughshare,which is found solely in Madagascar (http://www.biaza.org.uk/public/pages/conservation/projects/angonoka.asp),
to the Belize zoo, to the Tropical Education Center and to the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) where veterinarians have the risky job of roaming through the jungles and treating injured gorillas. The MGVP project can be proud of having increased the Mountain Gorilla population by 17% in the past 20 years. (http://mgvp.32ad.com/)

A lot of thought is put into where Terra Incognita donates this money. “We like to find local conservation organizations,” continues Caddick, “We never give a whole lot of money, meaning it is not in the millions, so we want to make sure that what we give is wisely spent.”

Terra Incognita’s most popular and unique tour is the trip to visit the incredible Gorilla in Rwanda: “Sitting face to face with a mountain gorilla is a life changing experience,” says Caddick emotionally, “everyone we’ve taken to see these gorillas has been moved by the whole experience. I’ve seen grown men weep. Imagine coming face to face with something three times your size and marveling at how incredibly gentle and compassionate these creatures are. The Mountain Gorilla tour involves waking up at 5am where the lodge owner knocks on your door with tea or coffee at hand. Breakfast starts at 5:30am and the group heads out to start the trek through the jungle at 6am. There are seven Gorilla families in the area, and each visitor is assigned a group. It takes 1-3 hours to reach the gorillas and one hour is spent with them when they are found. They only have human interaction 1 hour a day. After the experience, you go back to the lodge and relax till the cocktail hour starts at 6pm and dinner at 7pm.”

A major concern for travelers is their budget. As with anything, careful research will provide a travel solution for everyone.

Italian Shore Village
Smart growth cluster-homes, ala Italia.
(Photo: A Closer Look Travel)

Kara Black, the owner and manager of A Closer Look Travel (http://www.acloserlook.travel/), recently became focused on sustainable travel. Black decided to specialize in social change travel and runs one of the few travel agencies that specialize in eco-tourism. Black explains how varied eco-tours can be: “The prices of eco-tours are diverse; you can find luxury deluxe ecotourism or you could do a home-stay which is extremely in expensive.”

St. John Island Vacations (http://www.caneelbay.com) is an example of a luxury vacation. As with anything, you get what you pay for, and being pampered, fed, massaged and entertained at the one of the most beautiful island escapes in the world does not come cheap.

Ecotourism does not mean that your trip involves backpacking through rugged terrain or working in a rural village to earn your keep. These are options, but not what defines eco-tourism.

A Closer Look Travel offers other types of tours to individuals wishing to make a direct impact by staying with local families and working in the area to pay for their stay. Kara Black explains that “you could stay in a ghetto in Brazil or in the Dominican Republic. Of course you would be housed in fairly safe accommodations and get tours of the living conditions of the people that live there so it is not a white washed tour. You would have the opportunity to purchase a well for a family that provides much needed water, or work in a health clinic or in a school to help educate local children. An example of a typical day on one these adventures include staying on the outskirts of the poor area in a sort of Bed and Breakfast, where you take a group transport to a clinic and work on a variety of tasks like talking with parents, observing the situation and assisting in ways where you don’t need medical expertise. You listen to people who work there, learn what their issues are and end up being donors to these programs. After a morning working at a clinic you would have lunch off site and then take a group bus to say, local archeological caves. Afterwards everyone enjoys time shopping at the beach district and receives a nicer meal for dinner. These types of tours are offered all over the world such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, the Dominican Republic, South and Central America and Honduras.”

Penguins in Patagonia
Penguins in Patagonia.
(Photo: A Closer Look Travel)

There are also opportunities to work with local habitats by planting trees or monitoring wildlife. Black continues to describe a tour that would appeal to travelers who want to completely immerse themselves in nature: “In the Earth Watch expedition up the Amazon, travelers stay in huts owned by the local tribes. You get to these huts by a dug out canoe boat. When you stay in your hut you hope you can sleep in because at night you stay up late studying cicadas via black light. During the day you go on wildlife excursions, and then you come back and enjoy dinner made from food grown locally. Afterwards you will stay up for several more hours and attract insects with the black light to count them.”

Tropical forests or third world countries are not the only popular travel destinations offered through Black’s travel agency: “You can stay at a ranch in Hawaii on the side of a volcano while reforesting native trees, another one of our trips includes a stay on a hilltop castle in Tuscany where guests learn how to do all the organic farming and learn how to sustainably harvest everything. You learn a lot about the history of the area and how locals live their lives.”

Unfortunately, even ecotourism can have negative impacts if not managed properly. The psychology behind travel has changed tremendously over the years. In the past, people did not give a second though about trampling through jungles or riding jeeps across the Sahara. As traveling became easier and the world smaller, many people decided to take advantage of the situation and sought adventure in pristine jungles, deserts and oceans. Over time, these areas degraded and the environmentally conscious noted changes in the land, an increase in pollution and changes to the local society as a whole. Hotels along beaches, garbage at camp sites, eroded paths in jungles, the overuse of water at golf resorts and the displacement of locals are all negative impacts of the non-environmentally conscious tourist.

To read detailed accounts of the negative impacts of tourism visit UNEP at http://www.uneptie.org/pc/tourism/sust-tourism/env-3main.htm or Tourism Concern at http://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/index.php?page=home.

Bearing in mind that the tourism industry has grown substantially in the past 20 years, the answer to the predicaments mentioned above are to change the way we travel, rather than to eliminate tourism to certain destinations completely. In fact, 10.8 billion dollars were spent by international tourists traveling to the U.S in the month of September 2007. This huge sum is proof of what a large market tourism is.

Highlands of Peru
The breathtaking highlands of Peru
(Photo: Eco Tours Online)

Egyptian born Kareem Hagar tried escaping the overpopulation and pollution caused by the tourism industry by visiting sites that tourists did not know about. In an effort to preserve the few areas in Egypt that were still intact he and his friend, Anthony Chamy, were inspired to create EcotoursOnline after moving to Canada. http://ecotoursonline.ca/.

“We never really considered this product to be a business at first,” says Anthony. “Kareem and I were raised in Egypt and a lot of the places we went to as kids are ruined now. Kareem went out on his own trying to find deserted beaches and oasis in the desert in an attempt to escape mass tourism in the area- the areas just lost their charm. I started tagging a long with him and soon year after year the group got bigger as more people joined who were interested in visiting areas unknown to tourists. When the groups got to be as large as 10-15 people, we saw potential for a product.”

Hopeful that they could protect the areas that remained, the duo started up a company with the purpose of educating the public about the importance of preserving the variety of archaeological wonders and cultures in Egypt.

“We found local people with the same passion for their country,” continues Anthony, “and we used their contacts and experience to create a unique itinerary. Visitors will have the chance to spend time with family and kids. Of course we are going to see the sights-the pyramids-but that’s just a side, where seeing what the country and it’s people are really like is the main issue. Our groups have been invited to weddings and dinners. A lot of our activities will also be participative tourism. Half a day might be spent with a fisherman where we help him built a boat He gets paid for his time and can sell the boat we helped make later on. We help you find hidden treasures and by traveling with us you’re no longer a tourist, you become a friend.”

Madagascar Thread Store
Colorful threads from Madagascar -
wear these to work on Monday!
(Photo: Eco Tours Online)

Chamy and Hagar knew that preventing tourism completely was not the answer to preserving an area: “We have a big responsibility with this business. People are going to travel anyway. If we don’t take them they will end up going on their own. We show them a different side of the country and educate them so they learn to travel with respect for the future. People are spending thousands of dollars when they travel and this money is usually taken OUT of the country where the money is spent. These tourists completely ignore local culture where the only contact they have are with local housekeepers or servers…A lot of people do not know how bad things are for the country. In Cancun, for example, you don’t know what you’re doing wrong when you spend 600 dollars and are sunning yourself on a major hotel’s beach resort. We want to make it obvious.”

Another argument against ecotourism is that it is just the first step in the slippery slope to mass tourism. By sending people to pristine areas, they gain popularity and more people end up visiting the area. However, by creating an industry from a rain forest by providing trails or a bird watching tower, it is in the local’s interest to preserve the area rather than to destroy it in favor of a golf course or logging.

Caddick expresses a similar opinion: “There probably is some truth to [ecotourism evolving into mass tourism]. The more popular gorilla trekking is, the more people go there, the more lodges are built and the more of an impact there is. But I think the best way to engage and empower people to be concerned and be advocates for the environment is to educate them and have them enjoy these places. We can’t just lock them away. If people aren’t inspired and touched by it they can’t protect it. [Why would they want to?] You don’t want to love a place to death, but how does one set that level? You are going to have an impact whether it is just one person or thousands, but you don’t want to see places get locked away where only scientists have access to certain areas. If no one experiences it, then no one is going to want to protect it. It is a double edged sword.”

EcoWorld’s 2006 EcoTour survey “A Vast & Beautiful Planet,” describing some of the ecotours available on the planet. Since then, ecotourism has become even more popular. This is good news, but with an increase in popularity, potential travelers need to be careful when researching their options to ensure that ecotourism is not just a name in the company but the real thing.

Another thing to remember is that even though ecotourism is not the traditional tour or what many of us are used to, it is a great and affordable option to see parts of a country we would never find on our own. Many tours also offer travelers the opportunity to change the itinerary to enjoy areas you are specifically interested in. Kara Black has the following the advice: “People should not be scared of sustainable travel options. It’s a lot like normal travel and people can have the same kind of comfort and meet a lot of the same goals but they can actually add some richness to the experience as well. You can have a luxurious experience or a rustic one. You do run into a lot of bugs in the tropics&but it can be just as comfortable as your other travel arrangements if you plan ahead. [Plus, it wouldn't be the tropics without all the cool insects]”

For a detailed list of Eco-tours visit the Ecotourism Directory at:

http://www.ecotourdirectory.com/.

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