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A Brief Chat About Ecotourism

Green travel and ecotourism have taken the travel world by storm



Ecotourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel market.

Ciaran Griffin

'Ecotourism' sounds like I'll be sleeping in a sod hut.

You can find primitive lodgings if you want to, but most green travelers are staying in resorts that are comfortable, if not downright luxurious. Many eco-lodges are spacious, air-conditioned dwellings where spa treatments, swimming pools and cocktail waiters are the norm. The days of sharing a dirt floor with backpacking hippies are over (unless, of course, you happen to be a backpacking hippie).

Hmmm ... I'm skeptical. It sounds like a lot of greenwashing.

Sadly, there are travel destinations that resort to greenwashing in order to pump up their environmental cred. For example, most hotels trumpet their commitment to the environment by urging guests to reuse towels, but these same resorts spray tons of chemicals on their golf courses. The good news is that as people become smarter about green living, more companies are responding by offering genuine sustainable travel destinations and experiences. If you're still concerned about greenwashing, ask the staff and management what exactly makes them "green."

Wouldn't it be greener to just stay home? All that smoggy air travel...

Strictly speaking, it would be super-green to stay home and never travel -- but the most important part of green living is living, and even ardent environmentalists agree that the benefits of green travel and ecotourism far outweigh the environmental impact.

Benefits? Who really benefits from ecotourism?

Ecotourism benefits the host country, the regional environment and the indigenous people living in the area, while it also enriches the lives of the travelers themselves. According to the International Ecotourism Society (IES), tourism overall is the second biggest source of foreign commerce (after oil) for the 40 poorest countries in the world. In places like Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nepal, Kenya and Madagascar, ecotourism is an important part of their economic stability.

The locals -- human, plant and animal -- benefit as well. Earthwatch Institute, for example, organizes trips to Greece to help scientists understand the threats to local dolphins, to Kenya to promote the Samburu people's sustainable economy, and to Costa Rica to monitor nesting populations of the endangered leatherback sea turtle.

Aren't those ecotours expensive?

You can spend as much or as little as you want to. Staying closer to home is one affordable option, and there are many ecotourism companies that offer adventures here in the United States. Sierra Club Outings is one of many groups that sponsor trips to regional parks; they even offer inner-city outings for urban youth groups.

Who’s going on ecotours?

These days, ecotourism appeals to a wide range of travelers, from wealthy retirees to the aforementioned backpacking hippies. The IES found that in 2004, ecotourism was growing three times faster than the tourism industry as a whole. Overall, the ecotourist demographic tends to skew toward more affluent, college-educated, seasoned travelers over the age of 30.

But what if I hate hiking?

Relax -- you’re on vacation. If all you want to do is sit by the pool and suck down fruity umbrella drinks, you can certainly do that. But ecotourism takes travelers on one-of-a-kind adventures to some of the world's most exotic locales, so why not live a little and take a walk on the wild side? Who knows, you might leave something good behind, and take something home something better than a tan. Besides, that fruity umbrella drink will still be there when you come back.

OK, I'm convinced - ecotourism sounds great! But where can I go?

If you're looking for inspiration or ideas, start with this quick photo-tour of the Top 10 Ecotourism Destinations.
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