Ecotourism: Green Travel With a Purpose - My Family Travels

Educational, fun vacations can be responsible, too, when you learn what makes a good eco-destination and how to be a green traveler.

Traveling is one of life’s great pleasures; seeing natural wonders, meeting people from different cultures, experiencing things only imagined. Becoming an ecotraveler means looking at travel from a different perspective, seeing it as not just pleasurable, but purposeful, too, which is so important for the next generation. Ecotravel allows families to broaden horizons and help sustain the environment, cultures and economies of the earth.

Two thousand and two, not a banner year for worldwide tourism, was the International Year of Ecotourism. Although travelers didn’t especially endorse ecotourism with their wallets, many governments and NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) did. One of the movement’s biggest political achievements was the introduction of the “Quebec Declaration” on sustainable development at the World Earth Summit in Johannesburg, putting tourism on the agenda 10 years after the Rio Earth Summit made “The Environment” a household concern.

In February 2003 in Geneva, the Second Global Summit on Peace through Tourism urged the travel and tourism industry, which accounts for nearly 10% of the World GNP, to focus on local community tourism, a key element of ecotourism doctines. They hoped to tackle issues of peace and poverty with these efforts. In October 2005, the Third Global Summit took place in Thailand, where one of the goals was to support and endorse sustainable travel to tsunami affected countries in the Pacific.

Ecotourism Moves Beyond the Environment

“There are three major and overriding challenges we face in this Century. The first relates to peace, the second to the protection of the environment and the third to poverty,” noted the World Tourism Organization’s speaker Dr. Dawid de Villiers at the Second Global Summit. “Tourism is uniquely linked to all these global challenges and it has the strength and momentum to help us respond to them.” The work of current economists such as Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of “The End of Poverty,” and activists such as pop star Bono, have since brought poverty issues to the fore.

While sophisticated, highly regulated ecotourism destinations such as Costa Rica, Galapagos and The Maldives thrive at the intersection of environmental and poverty alleviation movements, other countries with a rich natural heritage are increasingly challenged. Their need for hard currency is often at odds with what’s best for their own environment: waste management problems plague Mt. Everest and many Pacific islands; logging spoils the panda habitat in China’s Sichuan Mountains; agricultural run-off is killing the Great Lakes biosystems; poaching destroys Kenyan wildlife, among many other issues.

Family Travelers Can Make A Difference

The affluent and educated parent understands how local, in-depth culture and lifestyle programs can enrich their children’s lives as well as the host country. We believe families interested in educational and adventure travel are ready to give something back to their hosts, and new programs are being implemented to encourage this.

Ecotourism offerings such as Italy’s rural Agriturismo projects, Mexico’s government-supported farmstays in Oaxaca, or the Mayan homestays in southern Belize may attract as many families as the Four Seasons in Costa Rica, and give back so much more. “In the developed world, ecotourism can be the best tool for environmental education,” adds Dr. de Villiers, “for increasing the general public’s awareness of the need to protect fragile ecosystems, and the remedy to stop the abandonment of rural areas and traditional villages.”

Choosing A Reliable Ecotour

Families can help preserve the environment and support local culture by choosing destinations that are not overcrowded or overdeveloped. Start by selecting responsible tour operators and guides who are aware of environmental concerns and who contribute financially to conservation and preservation efforts. Educate yourself about your host country’s customs before traveling; check local conventions and dress appropriately. (In many countries, modest dress is important.)

Once you’re on the road, listen to your guides and encourage your children to pay attention as well. Follow all advisories, rules and regulations regarding protected areas, water sources or wildlife habitats. Never touch, chase or harass animals or marine life. In addition, be sensitive to when and where you take photos of the local people, and always ask first.

Today, many responsible ecotour operators are working around the globe to create well-planned, interactive learning experiences that introduce small groups of travelers to new environments and cultures, while minimizing impact and supporting conservation efforts. Local and regional tourist offices in countries that have made a commitment to ecotourism are sources of reliable information. One example is Ecotourism Kenya, an association which has developed an eco-rating system for hotels and lodges in Kenya, which was recently voted the “Best Destination for Ecotourism” at the 2010 World Travel Fair.

What Is Sustainable? Be Sure to Support Destinations With:

  • Plenty of protected landscapes and recreational areas, such as bike paths or beach areas, shared by locals and visitors alike.
  • Thriving, locally-owned lodges, hotels, restaurants and businesses that provide genuine hospitality and motivated, friendly staff.
  • Local festivals and events that demonstrate people’s ongoing sense of pride in their environmental and cultural heritage.

As the term “eco” becomes more and more fashionable, be aware that many things marketed as “eco” or “green” may be simply conventional tourism with a few small changes. It’s important to look behind the terms and make sure that the travel options you select are responsible. To help travelers check out possible options, there are various websites available that offer eco-indexes.

The membership of the non-profit The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) supports environmental conservation and tourism that sustains local peoples worldwide, but the organization does not certify its members. For a full listing of TIES’ member tour operators and lodges, visit the Ecotourism Explorer, TIES’ interactive online directory.

The Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit environmental group that monitors business production and practices to assure consumers that they are making ecologically-correct choices. According to their mission statement, the Rainforest Alliance “certifies that the companies, cooperatives and landowners that participate in our programs meet rigorous standards that conserve biodiversity and provide sustainable livelihoods.” In early 2006, in conjunction with the International Ecotourism Society, they began a Sustainable Tourism Certification program in which “certified” travel companies and tour operators will be able to join an online eco-index, at available to the public.

Another excellent resource is the “eco-directory” on the website of Sustainable Travel International, a non-profit group based in Colorado whose mission is to educate tour operators and travel businesses on the economic and practical aspects of ecotourism, as well as educate consumers about ways to support these responsible businesses.

Spreading the Word

After years of recognizing the social, geographic, scientific and economic importance of the environment to the tourism industry worldwide, few policies and protocols have been established to sustain it. Now, the National Geographic Society has decided to do something by taking the issue to the traveling public.

Their Sustainable Tourism Initiative has published a workbook style pamphlet, downloadable for free online, entitled “The Untold Travel Story” to instill an eco-tourism conscience in travel writers and through them, in the reading public. Over several years, National Geographic has examined what elements of hotel operations and civic infrastructures, such as activities, staff and guest policies, local transportation, actual practices in recycling, waste removal, staff training and hiring and more, make up a ‘sustainable’ or environmentally-correct destination. In order to get writers to educate the public, they have compiled a list of items travel writers should look for when doing their site inspections so that in their reviews, they can mention whatever a destination has or has not accomplished. In this way, publications can assist in helping tourists understand the value of sustainable tourism practices.

We thank National Geographic for calling the attention of all travel journalists to these important issues and pledge Family Travel Forum’s support for this program by asking all of our writers to follow the STI guidelines.

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