Considerations for the Ecotourist

Under the rubric of ecotourism you’ll find the famous Ice Hotel in Quebec, guided jungle tours of the Amazon and leisurely sojourns on organic farms in Tuscany. What all of these activities have in common is an emphasis on nature and, ideally, a commitment on the part of the tour organizer or property owner to sustainable, ecological tourism.

Some considerations for the potential ecotourist:

Where?
There are ecotourism opportunities all over the world. Costa Rica is a popular destination, as is Italy, where it’s likely to be called agriturismo, an acknowledgement of the agricultural focus of many destinations. In France, ecotourism is also called tourisme vert (green tourism).

In general, ecotourism in the Americas is more concerned with outdoor adventuring. Ecotourism in Costa Rica, for example, might involve guided tours or independent hikes in forest preserves and national parks. In Italy and other places in Europe, ecotourism is centered more around a farm or house that functions as a kind of ecology-centered bed and breakfast.

Camping or Luxury?
Would you rather get close to nature the old fashioned way, in a tent in the woods? Or does some time at a farmhouse with a sun-warmed shower sound more your speed? Whatever your inclination, there is a green vacation that will fit the bill. The Ecotourism and Adventure Specialists, for example, offer off-road “extreme” tours to remote Mayan ruins specially tailored for the adventurous. For those looking for a more relaxed vacation, there are ecolodges for every budget. One of the most famous is the Lapa Rios Lodge in Costa Rica, a luxurious group of bungalows between the rain forest and the ocean.

How Green?
Some “ecotourist” destinations focus not on lessening the environmental impact of tourists, but rather on allowing tourists to experience nature up close. Other destinations try to make themselves a model for ecologically conscious tourism. Most destinations seem to focus on both, though the emphasis varies from one to another.

Casa Cubuy in the Puerto Rican rain forest makes nods to ecological living (for example, the rooms contain no air conditioners), but electricity, hot water and disposable plastic are plentiful. There, the lodge’s location in the center of a misty rainforest provides the “eco” portion of ecotourism.

Mas Lluerna, in Catalonia, Spain, is a lodge located on an organic farm where strictly organic and vegetarian meals are cooked on a solar-powered barbeque. Here, the owners try to provide tourists with an example of a lifestyle that does not damage the ecosystem.

Travel Independently or With a Tour Guide?
The decision to travel independently or on a guided tour depends partly on you, partly on the location and partly on how much you would like to learn about the area. If you are first and foremost an independent traveler who reads volumes on a destination before departure and savors the adventure of trekking through unknown forests, you already know that a guided tour is not for you.

In more remote regions, such as the Amazon, however, guided tours can be a smart way to handle logistics and other practicalities (such as which plants not to touch and which animals not to approach). The hiking trails near Mas Lluerna, on the other hand, would not seem to require the aid of an experienced guide.

Local guides can also tell you things about the area that might be hard to learn about in books. You may have read about a medicinal plant, but a guide might be able to tell you how his grandmother used it.

Politics
Ecotourism is often seen primarily as a way to help poorer countries make money without exploiting their rich natural resources. This way, the people who made a living by poaching, for example, could make the same or better money as a part of their country’s ecotourism industry. To involve yourself in the ecotourism is, then, a political act. You are aligning yourself with environmentalists and the tourist industry in opposition to companies (e.g., mining companies) that would like to harvest the natural resources of these countries.

Many ecotourist destinations acknowledge this political component and make efforts to aid the surrounding community. La Laguna del Logarto Lodge in Costa Rica, for example, helps fund water and electricity service in their area, hires local people and sends money to a day care center in San Jose.

Finding the Right Destination
A quick google search for “ecotourism” and “ecolodge” yields a panorama of options. But some web sites, like www.EcoClub.com, offer a smaller range of lodges and destinations that fit their criteria (commitment to the environment, donates money to community projects, etc). Some countries also offer information on ecotourism through their chamber of commerce, such as Costa Rica’s site.