How to Plan an Eco Getaway

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An ecovolunteer on a daily patrol with a Mkhaya Game Reserve ranger in Swaziland. Daily patrols are made to ensure each endangered black rhino is accounted for. Photo: Lori Brown, Earth911.com

Vacations. We daydream about them. We work hard for them. We aspire to be on them. Few can argue that relaxing poolside or hiking your favorite trails don’t occupy our wishful thinking to-do lists.

But for some, the beachfront cabana and fruity cocktails just aren’t enough to make that list. These “vacationers” are seeking a different type of experience. They are looking for an eco vacation.

Defined by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people,” ecoutourism is a growing mode of travel for millions of people each year.

According to the WorldWatch Institute, ecotourism began growing annually at a rate of 20-34 percent beginning in the 1990s.

In 2004, the World Tourism Organization estimated that ecotourism and nature tourism was growing globally three times faster than the tourism industry as a whole.

In other words, what was once a foreign concept is now one estimated by Travel Weekly to represent a $473.6 billion industry in just a few short years.

So if you’re sold on the idea or considering it for your next vacation, here are some organizations specializing in this type of travel, some featured destinations, important reminders when researching trips and the financial commitments involved with this type of travel.

Ecovolunteer

Ecovolunteer considers itself a travel agent of sort, arranging trips that are definitely miles from a typical vacation. This agency organizes nature travel with local organizations actively engaged in conservation projects, allowing you to participate hands-on as a member of the project team.

Though you do have to pay to participate, prices are determined directly by the conservation project with a substantial amount of the funds directed straight to the project.

From exotic animal rescue here in the U.S. to jaguar conservation in Brazil, programs assisting dozens of species-based conservation projects are open to ecovolunteers across the U.S., Canada, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

“As an ecovolunteer, I was able to learn about local wildlife and culture in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” said Martine Wagstaff, a British pHD student who served as an ecovolunteer in Swaziland in 2000.

“From surveying rhino populations to rebuilding reserve roads, we were always on the move providing assistance to the black rhino conservation team.”

The program rates range depending on location and program, from $295 a week for the U.S.-based exotic animal rescue, to $1,789 for five full weeks in Swaziland’s rhino conservation project (shorter terms are of course available). Some of the projects even allow children of a minimum age to join for a lower fee.

Planeterra

Canadian-based Planeterra offers “voluntourism” packages for sustainable community development. A nonprofit organization, Planeterra supports local communities with over 30 projects worldwide, from an environmental education school in Ecuador to a women’s weaving cooperative in Peru.

The organization considers voluntourism a bit different than a standard volunteer vacation as they balance the itinerary with relaxing tourism and hands-on volunteer work.

In other words, join Project Tanzania and you’ll spend a few days volunteering on the island of Zanzibar with marine and beach conservation projects and school and community projects, then spend a few days on safari visiting Serengeti National Park, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro crater.

For about the same price, and often cheaper, than a regular vacation would be to these destinations, Planeterra voluntourism packages give the traveler the ability to contribute hands-on to a sustainable community project while having the revenue from their funds directed to the projects.

For $999, the 13-day Project El Salvador includes visits to the Mayan pyramids and archaeological sites, then volunteer on a sustainable highland coffee farm.

Or for $1,199, spend 15 days in Zambia, you can spend time on safari, then volunteer on a community farm with the Livingstone Volunteer Project.

A volunteer works with a student in a South American school. Photo: Planeterra

Ecotourism: Tread Lightly

Tourism is a principle “export” (foreign exchange earner) for 83 percent of developing countries and the leading “export” for one-third of the world’s poorest countries.

Travel to developing nations continues to increase, providing an economic lifeline to many nations worldwide.

But as tourists flock to snorkel the crystal clear waters and photograph archaeological ruins, it can not only be damaging to local environments if not done properly, but can often provide only minimal economic benefit to local communities with foreign agencies being the majority beneficiary.

“Eco” is a fashionable label used today in the tourism industry. Though it sounds appealing, much of what is marketed as “eco” is simply conventional tourism with subtle changes. Make sure to check into these environmental claims as green-washing is an unfortunate reality in many industries these days.

Resources like TIES’s Ecoutourism Explorer offer tools to help you avoid green-washing when planning your travel. Sustainable Travel International is another great organization offering traveler’s an eco-directory of sustainable travel and tourism providers.

Various certification programs are offered within the travel and tourism industry for distinguishing responsible companies and services from those merely using “eco” or “sustainable” as an attractive marketing claim.

In addition, the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC), a coalition of 25 organizations working to foster the increased understanding of sustainable tourism practices, was formed in 2008 to unite the tourism industry in recognition of sustainable standards.

The program was initiated by the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Foundation and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

While on vacation, whether than be an ecotourism vacation or a regular vacation closer to home, remember to stick to certain practices that will lessen your negative environmental impact on the environment.

  • Book responsibly: When choosing your hotel, tour operator and other service providers, select ones with good sustainability practices. Best Green Hotels is a great resource to use for searching environmentally hotels. The site rates hotels based on their environmental practices including recycling, water conservation strategies, alternative energy usage and more.
  • Travel light: By packing light and only bringing the necessities, you can reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with increased weight. It may seem like a small gesture, but if we all adhered to this practice, it would make a big difference.
  • Before you leave: Make sure to turn off lights, adjust or turn off the heat or air conditioning and unplug household appliances to avoid “vampire power” while you are gone.
  • Animal products: Never buy local crafts or products made from protected or endangered species.
  • Get around greener: When traveling, public transportation is often a viable option. Riding buses and trains versus individual taxis are great examples of ways to reduce your impact while traveling. It is also a great way to experience the local ways of where you are visiting.

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