See the World, Save the Planet

Ecotourism on the rise

Top row: Images from Cheeseman’s Ecology Safaris; Bottom row: Images from Smart Ecotours; Below: Ecotravelers on a KarmaQuest trip enjoy a traditional Laotian lunch prepared by local weavers, who received donated eyeglasses from the American travelers.

Top row: Photographs by doug cheeseman/cheeseman's ecology safaris; bottom row: photographs courtesy ecotourism training center; Below: Photograph by wendy lama/karmaquest ecotourism

Imagine spending the night in the ancestral home of a family in Sikkim, or harvesting fresh tomatoes in Crete, or diving off a remote island in Thailand—all while helping the environment. These are just a few of the options available to those who choose ecotravel over traditional vacations. Ecotravel is quickly gaining ground in the tourism business and offers rewarding alternatives for those who want to experience something more meaningful than lying on a beach sipping mai tais.

A typical vacation’s carbon footprint is large. Airplanes, buses, trains, and cars consume enormous amounts of fuel, and, according to the environment-focused website, “the average hotel will use more than 604,000 gallons of water every year just to wash bed sheets and towels.” Too many visitors can have a negative impact on fragile ecosystems such as forests, deserts, and coastlines. In addition, a popular tourist destination’s culture often deteriorates from exposure to foreign values, money, and expectations. Enter ecotourism, which the International Ecotourism Society defines as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Ecotourists typically choose to visit places with fragile ecosystems, rare animals, and/or endangered cultures.

Former Santa Cruz resident Reid Ridgway started the Ecotourism Training Center (ETC) as a disaster relief program in the wake of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, which devastated the nation’s scuba and marine tourism industries.

“I wanted to help young adults affected by the disaster,” Ridgway says. “We build careers in tourism, restaurant management, and fishing for young people living at the poverty level.” Reid modeled ETC on a California program called Timber Reforestation and Environmental Education (TREE). “This program deeply affected my life. It gave me a valuable set of skills and a career as an arborist. This helped me support my daughter and put me through college.”

With its focus on the ocean and Thailand’s coral reefs, ETC’s students “get the entire community thinking about the reefs as a vital resource to their own livelihoods.” The condition of the world’s coral reefs is “alarming,” says Ridgway, and the best way to address these problems is to involve local people. “It simply does no good to make recommendations if local politics, customs, and businesses continually fail to heed the warnings,” he says.

The Ecotourism Training Center’s sister company, Smart Ecotours, is a commercial adventure tour business that specializes in diving, although the company also offers trekking, bird watching, rock climbing, mountain biking, and sailing tours. Smart Ecotours donates 10 percent of every dollar it receives to ETC. The company takes divers on tours of the Similan and Surin National Parks, the Phuket area, and other areas ranked among the top diving spots in the world.

“The undersea topography is wild and special,” Ridgway says. “Giant granite boulder cities teem with sea life, huge schools of fish bloom everywhere you look, as well as sea turtles, moray eels, painted lobster, octopus, cuttlefish, barracuda, tiny colorful sea slugs, sea horses…all the way to giant manta rays and the occasional whale shark. There is a huge diversity of life here.” When conducted properly, he says, diving is “extremely low impact. You go, you look, you leave.”

Saratoga-based Cheeseman’s Ecology Safaris also leads expeditions to places rich in wildlife, with an emphasis on getting as close as possible to animals in the wild. The family-owned company focuses on maximum time in the field, allowing the best opportunities for photography. Cheeseman’s trips to Africa, Antarctica, and other regions are scheduled during times when wildlife is abundant. Trips are led by local guides who are experts in their region. The company also offers carbon offsets through Carbon Tree, a company working in partnership with Fundación Yuchán in northern Argentina to protect endangered tropical forests. Cheeseman’s provides all of the associated administrative costs for free, so 100 percent of the carbon offsets purchased go directly to saving rainforests.

KarmaQuest Ecotourism, a travel company in Half Moon Bay, specializes in travel to Bhutan, India (including Sikkim, Ladakh, North and South India), Nepal, China, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma/Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos. KarmaQuest offers specialty travel trips with an emphasis on botany or ethno-botany (the study of the relationship between people and plants), wildlife-viewing treks such as snow leopard tracking, photographic journeys, and trips that focus on meditation or religious studies.

Karma Lama, one of KarmaQuest’s owner/operators, says a popular destination right now is India. A country of enormous diversity with dozens of official languages and regional dialects as well as huge cities, vast plains, and the Himalayas to the north, India offers many opportunities for ecotourism. “Travelers have participated in projects that range from a Stanford Graduate School of Business group that studied socially responsible health care, to education projects intended to help local people replant lost forests,” Lama says.

Lama grew up in the tiny country of Sikkim, north of India and high in the Himalayas. “It’s important to me that our trips include some element of education, for both visitors and locals,” he says.

Often, Lama times his trips to coincide with cultural events, such as a Buddhist festival that welcomes the New Year. His company also offers service trips, in which vacationers contribute financially or technologically to a given area, such as a project to help elderly Vietnamese weavers whose failing eyesight made it hard for them to keep working. “We brought them glasses,” Karma says. Another service project brought mosquito nets to families in Burma, where malaria is a significant problem.

Another way to get to know and appreciate a culture is through its food. Based in San Francisco and Crete, Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries (CCS) leads trips to the Greek island of Crete, where visitors learn about the relationship between the region’s culture, nature, and cuisine. Trips include visits to historic sites, organic farms, and rural communities. CCS takes visitors on botany treks around the countryside, teaching them to identify wild plants used in food and medicine. Guests stay in eco-lodges or simple, locally owned accommodations located in organic olive groves.

“Crete’s natural surroundings are an integral part of its food,” says Nikki Rose, CCS’s founder. “There are two major industries on the island: agriculture and tourism. I take visitors to see the traditional ways people make wine, cheese, bread, and honey.” Rose also has personal reasons for wanting to protect this unique environment: Her ancestors are from Crete.

“I am a chef and an advocate for organic food. I make the trips fun and educational, never preachy. People learn what fair trade means when they see it in action. I often have clients ask for information about their local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm when they return.”

Although ecotourism is more considerate of preserving local cultures than traditional tourism, “There is still an impact,” Rose says. “If tourists expect CNN and hamburgers, the local people will adapt to accommodate them. The culture declines when that happens.” 

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