It wasn’t long ago that the concept of ecotourism was limited to flower children and conservationists. Only over the last two decades, as humans’ impact on the planet’s climate and natural resources has become more apparent, has the notion of a sustainable vacation gained traction.
While the exact definition of “ecotourism” varies across the organizations that promote it, the principle behind it remains the same: traveling to natural areas in a way that preserves the local environment and culture while generating income and sustaining employment for the local population.
The Independent Eco-Traveler
The United States offers some of the most stunning and vast wilderness in the world, and for many people, travel is all about setting off for an adventure in this kind of environment. This could mean enjoying the land itself – rock climbing, camping or kayaking, for instance – or it could mean seeking out the local wildlife. Often, it means some combination of the two, and it’s this kind of travel that can put stress on a region’s ecology if care is not taken. The old saying “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” is a great place to start for a sustainable vacation, but you can do even more with a commitment to:
- A reusable water bottle (and a water purifier if necessary) instead of bottled water
- Support local businesses instead of large chains
- Stay in a green hotel if possible
- Bring a bicycle for local travel once you arrive at your destination
- Respect and avoid any seasonal or conservational land closures
- Avoid souvenirs made from protected or endangered plants or animals, including their food
- Read up on any local environmental and social issues before you arrive at your destination
- Neutralize your gas-powered travel with a carbon offset provider
Choosing an Ecotourism Company
For some of us, the ideal vacation involves letting someone else do the planning, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be eco-friendly. With the growing popularity of the green movement in recent years, ecotourism has become one of the world’s fastest-growing industries. But beware: there are plenty of travel companies that use the “eco” label without justification. A good ecotourism company should have:
- Small group sizes
As a traveler, you’ll be rewarded with better chances to experience wildlife and a feeling of solitude in nature than you would with a larger, louder group. You’ll also be responsible for less erosion and carbon emissions if motorized transportation is part of your trip.
- Friendly, helpful guides that know their trips
Weather conditions can change quickly, and having a guide who’s seen it all and knows what destinations are best suited for the conditions can easily be the difference between a disappointing trip and a spectacular one. Look for ecotourism agencies that have continuing education programs for their trip leaders to be assured of a quality, committed travel partner.
- Arrangements for food, lodging and shopping with local businesses instead of chains
When income from tourism stays in the local economy, it supports local jobs and gets reinvested into preserving the natural tourist attractions that sustain those jobs. Your patronage to these smaller-scale businesses will often be rewarded with helpful tips and suggestions for getting the most out of your trip, and with a feeling of satisfaction that your travels have been beneficial to others as well.
- A commitment to renewable energy and waste reduction
Many good ecotourism agencies walk the walk when it comes to these hallmarks of a green business. While it may not be feasible for every destination on an ecotour to practice these habits, chances are at least some of the company’s facilities can, and whether or not they do is a good indication of their desire to provide a truly sustainable vacation.
For nature-driven travelers, Natural Habitat Adventures offers 12 unique American wildlife expeditions led by world-class expedition leaders. Natural Habitat is the world’s first carbon-neutral travel company and is the exclusive travel partner of the World Wildlife Fund, operating all of its trips in addition to their own. This partnership means Natural Habitat donates a portion of WWF members’ trip fees to the Fund, and that its expedition leaders are up to date on the WWF’s research and conservation efforts in the areas they travel to.
The ecotourism industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years and it’s made sustainable travel more accessible than ever. Like in any budding market, there are plenty of impostors that have jumped on the bandwagon, but with a bit of research and planning, your travels can be more rewarding than ever before!