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Want to be an ecotourist?

Here's how to find genuine destinations

By Charles Lockwood
Special to the Tribune www.chicagotribune.com
January 12, 2003

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With more and more people becoming concerned about the environment, as well as looking for distinctive vacation experiences, ecotourism is the fastest growing segment within the travel industry. The UN even declared 2002 the "International Year of Ecotourism."

An ecotourist has a strong environmental conscience and a philosophy of environmental protection. An ecotourist destination is a property, which often includes an on-site hotel or resort, with a primarily unspoiled or reclaimed environment of native flora and fauna. This destination also educates tourists, often on a sophisticated level, about the local environment, and minimizes the impact of visitors on the environment with various measures, such as welcoming only a small number of guests. Finally, the ecotourist site is usually protected by a local or national government.

Ecotourist destinations vary from wildlife parks and nature preserves like the Lodge at Chaa Creek Adventure Centre, Rainforest Reserve and Spa in Belize, to jungle hideaways like Chiminos Island Lodge in Guatemala, guest (dude) ranches such as Hidden Creek Ranch near Harrison, Idaho, beachfront properties like Cabanos Copal Hotel Tulum in Mexico, and hotels that celebrate the local culture like the Tohum Living Earth Center in Turkey. Rates can range from $5.60 to $10.80 per person per night at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Laos to $400 per person per night at the Araca River Camp in Brazil.

Sounds great. But the mounting popularity of ecotourism has led some less-than-scrupulous hotel, resort and tour operators to make sham claims about their "green" offerings to lure inexperienced ecotourists and their wallets.

How can the environmentally concerned traveler find a true ecotourism destination? Ask questions, lots of them. The more you know about a destination, the more you are able to determine if it really meets your environmental requirements.

  • First, the property must limit the number of visitors it receives each year. No matter how much ecotourists care about the environment, too many of them in one location can only harm that which they seek to protect and enjoy. Chiminos Island Lodge in Peten, Guatemala, is a jungle preserve and Mayan archeological site with five bungalows that together can accommodate up to 25 people. The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha province of Laos limits its tour groups to just six guests to lessen their impact on the villages and hill tribes they visit.

  • Second, look for a property that provides environmental protection, reclamation and other enhancement, including repatriation or introduction of native plants and animals on site. The Black Sheep Inn of Cotopaxi, Ecuador, built on a steeply sloped and deforested site in the high Andes, employs terracing and swales with native trees to control erosion and reforest the site. The Banyan Tree Seychelles along Intendance Bay on Mahe, the largest of the 115 Seychelles islands, preserves and protects Pointe du Reduit--classified as a "Remarkable Natural Landscape" and a "Protected Zone"--and two wetlands, as well as the nesting grounds of the endangered hawksbill turtle.

  • Third, the destination should have a property usage plan that sets up a hierarchy of spaces, such as areas that prohibit tourists, wilderness zones that allow only pedestrian activity, moderate tourist use locations and areas for appropriate development. The Lodge at Chaa Creek Adventure Centre, Rainforest Reserve and Spa outside San Ignacio, Belize, is a 330-acre private nature reserve with a natural history center, the Blue Morpho Butterfly Farm (a breeding facility), miles of trails for walking, bird watching, mountain biking or horseback riding, as well as a conference center and palm-thatched guest cottages.

  • Fourth, make sure that the buildings, walkways, other tourism-related facilities and humans cause no more than minimal disturbance to the environment. The owners of 100-plus-acre Birch Pond Lodge outside Willow, Alaska, for example, hand-dug the foundations for the guest cabins to avoid undue site disturbance. The buildings on Hidden Creek Ranch near Harrison, Idaho, were constructed from dead and fallen trees.

    In contention for the most jaw-dropping ecotourism destination on the planet is the 500-acre Green Magic Nature Resort in a tropical rainforest outside Kerala, India. Guest rooms were constructed as tree houses 86 feet above ground level.

  • Fifth, ask about the destination's water and energy conservation strategies. Many ecotourist resorts, for example, have solar-heated hot water in their bathrooms. The Lodge at Chaa Creek's rural telephone and radio systems are solar powered. India's Green Magic Nature Resort gets its power and light from a combination of solar energy, gas from cow dung and kerosene lamps. No diesel generators, which create air and noise pollution.

  • Finally, local communities must be involved in, educated about, and particularly benefit from the ecotourist destination's conservation of indigenous natural and cultural resources. An ecotourist destination that uses locally produced foods, for example, supports the native population and increases guest awareness of the surrounding culture. Environmentally educated people from local villages generally staff a destination's ecologically oriented activities like bird watching, river rafting, rock climbing, guided nature hikes and scuba diving, as well as archeological, historical and cultural tours.
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    Santiago, Chile-based Explora recently purchased and renovated the Puritama River Hot Springs, a series of six naturally heated pools near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Explora provides the Indian Atacamenos free admission to the hot springs and gives the local Atacameno Indian Council all of its earnings.

    Where does a new ecotourist start when looking for an ecotourist destination? More and more books, including guidebooks, are being published with an ecotourist focus. Amazon.com lists more than 100 books, including "Ecotours and Nature Getaways: A Guide to Environmental Vacations Around the World"; "Eco-Journeys: The World Travel Guide to Ecologically Aware Travel and Adventure"; the Nature Company Guides, such as "World Travel: A Guide to International Ecojourneys"; and the EcoTravel Guides, including "Australia: An Ecotraveler's Guide."

    An Internet search using "ecotourism" will bring up hundreds of sites. Three good ones to start with are Ecotravel.com, EcoClub.com and Ecotourism.org. Ecotravel.com, for example, has an "Ecodirectory" where the ecotourist enters his or her desired region, activities and experiences. Then, the Web site brings up ecotourist destinations that meet those criteria. These Web sites usually have direct links to the properties' Web sites, which give details about their environmental policies.

    Don't fall for "green" language and generalizations on wannabe ecotourist destination Web sites. A property can tout its solar panels, but provide accommodations for 100 or more people, which would severely stress the environment. So, look for information about environmental protection or reclamation, water and energy conservation, the destination's ties to local communities, and other ecotourist-specific criteria.

    IF YOU GO

    To learn more about the ecotourist destinations and Web sites mentioned in this article:

    DESTINATIONS

    Araca River Camp (Brazil). Some ecotourist destinations, like the Araca River Camp, are so small that they prefer to work through an on-line environmentally oriented travel association, rather than enlarge their staff to handle information requests and book reservations. So, for further information about this destination, or to book reservations, go on-line to visit www.ecoclub.com/andetur/lodge.html .

    Banyan Tree Seychelles. Visit www.banyantree.com or call 805-499-9101. To reach the resort directly, call 011-248-383-500.

    Birch Pond Lodge (Alaska). P.O. Box 370, Willow, Alaska 99688; 907-495-3000; www.birchpondlodge.com deadlink.  For further information, visit www.ecotravel.com .

    Black Sheep Inn (Ecuador). P.O. Box 05-01-240, Chugchilan, Cotopaxi, Ecuador, South America; 011-593-3-281-4587; e-mail info@blacksheepin.com. For further information, or to book reservations, visit www.ecoclub.com/BlackSheepInn or www.blacksheepinn.com .

    Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant (Laos). P.O. Box 28, Bankone, Luang Namtha district, Luang Namtha Province, Lao PDR; 011-856-86-312-398; For further information, or to book reservations, visit www.ecoclub.com/theboatlanding/

    Cabanos Copal Hotel Tulum (Mexico). Although this destination is in Mexico, and the contact telephone number is for Mexico, the contact address is in the U.S.: 1 Widmar Court, Clayton, CA 94517; 011-52-987-12481; www.cabanascopal.com . For further information, or to book reservations, visit www.ecotravel.com .

    Chiminos Island Lodge (Guatemala). Punta de Chimino, Petexbatun Lagoon, Peten, Guatemala; 011-502-335-3506; www.chiminosisland.com . For further information, or to book reservations, visit www.ecotravel.com .

    Green Magic Nature Resort (India). TravelsKerala, Karimpatta Road, Opp. Medical Trust Hospital, Pallimukka, Cochin--682016, Kerala, India; 011-91-484-364485; For further information, or to book reservations, visit www.ecoclub.com/tourindia/ .

    Hidden Creek Ranch (Idaho). 7600 E. Blue Lake Road, Harrison, Idaho 83833; 800-446-3833 or 208-689-3209; www.hiddencreek.com (deadlink).

    Lodge at Chaa Creek Adventure Centre, Rainforest Reserve and Spa (Belize). P.O. Box 53, San Ignacio, Cayo District, Belize; 011-501-92-2037; www.chaacreek.com . For further information, or to book reservations, visit www.ecotravel.com .

    Puritama River Hot Springs (Chile). Explora en Atacama, Americo Vespucio Sur 80, Piso 5, Santiago, Chile; 011-562-206-6060. For further information, or to book reservations, visit www.explora.com .

    Tohum Living Earth Center (Turkey). For further information about this ecotourist destination, or to book reservations, visit www.ecoclub.com/tohum/welcome.html .
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    WEB SITES

    ECOCLUB.com. This Internet association of ecotourist destinations has descriptions of and can book reservations for ecotourist lodges around the world. It also has experts who can answer any question you may have about ecotourist travel, a newsletter and a student center. www.ecoclub.com .

    Ecotourism.org. This Web site of the International Ecotourism Society has links to a variety of ecotourist destinations. It also has environmental news, several resources for eco-professionals and students, and a bookstore. P.O. Box 668, Burlington, VT 05402. 802-651-9818; www.ecotourism.org .

    Ecotravel.com. This Internet association of ecotourist destinations has a directory of ecotourist lodges, trip planning assistance, an on-line magazine and resources for travel professionals. www.ecotravel.com .

    Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune

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