Eco-tourism - traveling for yourself and future generations

With a little care, you can have your "getting away from it all" vacation contribute to the preservation of the very places you're visiting.

by Julaine Chattaway and Carolyn Chase
special category of travel - tourism- has evolved into a global economic phenomena.
Tourism, or more exactly, eco-tourism, can become a source of sustainable income in support of nature and culture. But tourism in general can also lead to environmental destruction (see article on eco-air travel costs). Many an ecosystem is being destroyed in order to build tourist facilities, hotels and golf courses. Too many tourists have "loved" sites to death and ended up killing coral reefs and caves due to inappropriate management. Tourist facilities can overburden the local infrastructure, exploit local people and resources, and increase pollution. So eco-tourism is not just about going to see nature; it's also about how an area's nature and quality-of-life is sustained and connected with both tourism and the local culture and economy.
The Eco-tourism Society, a nonprofit group based in Vermont, defines eco-tourism as "responsible travel which conserves environments and sustains the well-being of local people." This includes everything from energy-efficient travel to ensuring that money spent by tourists enriches the area in which it was spent instead of flowing to a corporate office in a distant city. Eco-tourism can aid environmental conservation of precious places in many ways, including generating park fees and creating employment for local guides and hoteliers. Such financial benefits carry with them a critical message: Nature is valuable.

Finding nature

In days past, wild nature was all around us: engulfing and predominating, something to take dominion over and control. Today, most of us are city dwellers. According to the recent United Nations estimates, 45 percent of the world's population lives in a city; this figure is expected to surpass 50 percent by the year 2005.
This shift has led to difficulty in "getting away from it all," because "it" is so prevalent. And we take "it" with us! Even those who own property in "the country" are noticing just how many human neighbors they now have. In addition, it has become more difficult to find natural surroundings, unlike zoos, aquariums and such. The story is not much different in many of the developing nations. But, if you hurry, there are still a few places left, and possibly with your carefully spent dollars you can help secure a future for these little patches of nature.

Working vacations

If you are looking for a nature experience, consider joining trips with conservation organizations. Trips organized by groups such as The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and the San Diego Zoo, are designed with conservation in mind. The Sierra Club organizes hundreds of outings and expeditions both locally and internationally.
The most valuable contribution that a motivated eco-tourist can do is to volunteer their services on a conservation project. EARTHWATCH organizes such trips. Closer to home, One World Work Force stages sea turtle conservation and research trips to sites in Baja California (see article on page 18). Pacific Beach resident Nanci Hartland of Lifetracks (274-0776) leads eco-tours and cultural tours to Tanzania in east Africa. Participants plants trees, repair hospitals and build clean water systems.

Taking it easy

But what if you're not interested in doing the nature thing? What if you'd like to be an eco-tourist without actually experiencing too much of the hard-core nature experience? If you just want to relax in the comfort of your hotel room, or prowl city streets and museums, you to can still improve or mitigate the environmental impact of your travel.
There are now national and international "green hotel" organizations. Participating hotels improve their environmental profile by supporting recycling, water and energy efficiency and other appropriate urban actions including booking guests for local conservation trips.
When you are buying souvenirs, look for those from local artists, or those that support environmental education programs or local parks.
Some cruise lines have environmental policies for ship and company operations. An aware traveler can channel their tourist dollars in support of the things that matter - wherever they go.

Tread lightly

Do your best to support eco-friendly tourism and that includes both the vacation you choose and what you do when you get there. When you are looking for a vacation, choose one that will give save some nature for future generations. Look for tours and businesses that are environmentally aware and give back to the community. You'll end up feeling good and doing good. Being an eco-tourist is by far the best deal now - and for your grandkids future.