Some shudder at being called a “tourist.” That is, someone who travels strictly for personal pleasure, without regard for the local culture. Relax—the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) says tourism is actually a key driver for socio-economic progress. What’s more, the tourism industry equals, or even surpasses, that of oil exports, food products or automobiles.
Over the years, the tourism family tree has grown many branches: adventure, cultural, experiential, geo-, heritage, nature-based, responsible and sustainable, to name just a few. One of the most exciting offshoots is ecotourism, which is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people,” according to The International Ecotourism Society, or TIES.
For those who want an authentic, atypical and hands-on experience, ecotourism may be the right choice, says Ayako Ezaki, director of communications for TIES. “Many people are realizing there are things they can do, when they travel, to make a difference.”
In fact, UNWTO reports nearly 900 million international tourism arrivals in 2007. And since the 1990s, says TIES, ecotourism has grown 20 to 30 percent annually, while traditional “sun-and-sand” resort tourism has now “matured as a market.” For example, tourism in Costa Rica is now mostly ecotourism, and it generates $1,000 per visitor. By way of contrast, standard tourism in France racks up just $400 per visitor.
But ecotourism is a self-regulated industry; there are no international standards or certifications, which can occasionally lead to misleading claims and promises.
“Sadly, not everyone who claims to be green or responsible is really taking it seriously,” says Justin Frances, co-founder of ResponsibleTravel.com in Brighton, U.K. On his web site, Frances and other registered users handpick holidays in 23 categories from 270 tour operators. They take great effort to steer visitors clear of so-called greenwashing—that’s conventional tourism fluffed up with an “eco-“ prefix.
With careful planning and research, responsible ecotourism is possible in just about every corner of the world. For nature-lovers, there are three great options: Alaska Wildland Adventures contributes a minimum of 10 percent of pre-tax earnings to conservation organizations and causes. Their Kenai Wilderness Sampler is a five- or six-day trip that runs May to early September, and costs $1,850 to $2,150, with meals and activities. On the other end of the globe, Antarctica oozes eco-friendliness. Natural Habitat Adventures has three trips to The Last Frontier. Its Classic Antarctica Adventure is 11- to 15-days and starts at $4,495.
And finally, right in the middle, the 19 Galapagos Islands are a longtime eco-favorite. Conscientious tour operators such as Ecoventura take special care to travel in a sustainable manner; their eight-day trips start at $2,550.
Ecotourism isn’t the exclusive realm of adventure travelers. Beach-lovers are bound to enjoy the tent cottages and apartments at the Maho Bay Camps on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Rates are $135 per person, double occupancy. Further afield, there’s Kosrae in Micronesia, once occupied by the Japanese during World War II. (Bunkers can still be found on the beach.) Spending time here means solitary reef dives and jungle walks, with reasonable accommodations from $59 to $159 per night, including breakfast.
Even wilderness lovers can get in the game. In Ardèche, France, Responsible Travel offers low-impact, luxury “yurt” holidays, starting at $1,200 per week. At the end of each season, the yurts (portable tent-like structures used by Central Asian nomads) are broken down, and the site is left to the elements and wild boar. For tastes that run further afield, World Expeditions organizes a Road to Timbuktu trip along Trans-Saharan trade routes in Mali; they’re dedicated to responsible tourism, and will soon be a completely carbon-neutral company. Prices start at approximately $2,300 for 14 days, starting in October.
But what if you want to do more? If you’re active, not passive, a volunteer vacation is just the eco-ticket. Doug Cutchins, co-author of "Volunteer Vacations" (Chicago Review Press, 2002), likes quality-controlled Cross-Cultural Solutions. Their senior manager of communications, Brandon Wick, recommends the five-week Insight Abroad programs, starting at $1,695. Global Volunteers also gets Cutchins’ vote, thanks to their strong domestic presence and family-friendly programs. He also likes Earthwatch, because their expeditions are not tours, not ecotourism, not adventure travel—they’re short-term volunteer opportunities directly assisting scientists in their field research. Trips typically run between $2,000 and $3,000.
The important part to planning an eco-trip is knowing what you want. And, says, Cutchins, have real expectations. “In a week, you’re not going to save the world, but you may change someone’s life.”
One added bonus? Part, or all of your contribution, may be tax-deductible.