Every day, more people introduce another element of eco-awareness into their daily lives – recycling instead of discarding, opting for reusable grocery bags in lieu of paper or plastic ones, and choosing eco-friendly vehicles over gas guzzlers. As you plan your next getaway, consider the latest trend for reducing your footprint on the planet – ecotourism.
According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), “Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Put simply, it’s an opportunity to experience areas around the world in their natural form without putting an environmental strain on them.
Converting your vacation into an eco-friendly travel experience will likely inspire more sustainable efforts in your everyday life. “Not only do you have a feeling of satisfaction that you haven’t contributed to global warming, but you feel inspired and motivated to bring something back with you besides memories, pictures and videos,” says John Clifford, president of luxury travel consultancy InternationalTravelManagement.com based in San Diego. “That’s the magic of travel – it’s very rewarding to people.”
What’s more, with eco-friendly travel, parents can expose their children to far more than they could through typical ski trips, beach excursions or European tours. It’s a great opportunity to discover and adopt new habits that promote a more eco-friendly lifestyle at home.
“These practices, many of which are fairly simple, can inspire visitors to take them home and apply them to their own lives,” Clifford says. “Whether it’s inspiring a family to grow their own vegetables in their yard, sponsor a nearby beach cleanup or park reforestation, or something similar – as long as the family comes back home with the impetus to ‘do something’ – then ecotourism and sustainable travel has made an impact on the family.”
While it’s possible to turn a trip to any destination into an eco-friendly vacation, several locations across the globe have made it a priority to promote ecotourism. Consider any of these three spots that offer a one-of-a-kind luxurious experience, all while safeguarding the environment.
According to TIES, Costa Rica is on track to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021 – meaning it aims to balance the amount of carbon dioxide it releases through burning fossil fuels with the amount it captures by planting trees, for instance. In fact, it claims more trees per capita and per square kilometer than any other country in the world. For these reasons and others, Clifford considers Costa Rica to be “the world model for ecotourism.” Overall, the country has a strong cultural awareness and high level of respect for its unique environment, which is believed to host 5% of the world’s biodiversity of plant and animal species.
The country also offers a rating system to help visitors accurately and objectively determine the sustainability of local businesses. Its Costa Rican Tourism Board offers a Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) that rates tourism businesses on a “five-leaf” scale. Businesses are rated on the degree to which “they comply with a sustainable model of natural, cultural and social resource management.”
ACCOMMODATIONS: A host of eco-friendly hotels and resorts are included within the CST rating system, which can be viewed at: www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr/en.
Of those, Clifford recommends Hotel Punta Islita, a beachfront property along Costa Rica’s Guanacaste coastline. The resort opened in 1994 in an area where the tropical dry forest had been stripped as a result of unsustainable cattle ranching, hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture. Giving priority to reforestation and wildlife protection through environmental awareness programs and infrastructure improvements, Punta Islita boasts a four-leaf CST rating and is located within a now healthy tropical dry forest. The resort also makes a strong effort to support the local community: Half of every American dollar spent at Punta Islita stays in the local community as salaries, taxes, contributions, social benefits and local purchases.
Clifford also suggests the Lapos Rios Ecolodge, which resides on the Osa Peninsula along the Southwest Pacific Coast. With a five-leaf CST rating, the Ecolodge is set within a 1,000-acre nature reserve near the Corcovado National Park, one of the largest and most bio-diverse areas in the world.
ACTIVITIES: Costa Rica offers a variety of eco-friendly activities in its paradise-like environment. Hotel Punta Islita, for example, is well equipped with dozens of activities for family members of all ages. It features such “eco-adventures” as canopy zip lining and monkey safaris, ideally suited for teenagers. In addition, it offers sea turtle watching and river kayaking, recommended for the whole family.
The country also is home to a number of national parks and reserves such as the Manuel Antonio Park, which features mangrove swamps, lagoons, more than 109 mammal species and 184 bird species. Clifford recommends Tortuguero National Park, which offers jungle canal boat tours and visits to key nesting sites for endangered species such as sea turtles. These natural environments enable families to learn together – something they don’t always get the chance for at home, he says.
China’s Yunnan Province
Most travelers immediately consider the bustling cities of Beijing or Hong Kong for their China vacation destinations of choice. But for those seeking an eco-focused experience, the Yunnan Province in Southwestern China is a lesser-known alternative.
Ecotourism has taken off in this region of China. Travelers can experience the region’s many natural wonders, says Mei Zhang, founder of WildChina, a sustainable travel company based in Beijing. One such wonder is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site of the Three Parallel Rivers (Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers).
In addition, over the last 10 years, Zhang says, there has been a surge in tourism facility construction projects – most pledging to have minimal impact on the environment.
ACCOMMODATIONS: For sustainable lodging, Zhang recommends the Linden Centre near Dali City. The estate – built by a local warlord in the years before the Communist Revolution – has been renovated with modern amenities yet maintains much of the original architecture of a traditional courtyard mansion. The hotel is meant to be a model of “architectural renovation, cultural conservation and a primary partner in the sustainable development of the local economy.”
While it provides certain contemporary services, such as Wi-Fi, the hotel purposefully doesn’t include televisions in the rooms. Instead, guests are encouraged to interact with one another, hotel staff and villagers in such activities as accompanying one of the hotel chefs on a vegetable market visit.
For those who wish to gain the full experience of a Tibetan monastery, Zhang recommends the Songstam Hotel in Shangri-La. A true treasure of the community, the hotel was built by local craftsmen from local wood and stone, Zhang says. It features Tibetan rugs and antiques, and an almost completely Tibetan staff. The hotel also offers energy-efficient, wood-burning stoves in every room.
ACTIVITIES: Pudacuo National Park in Shangri-La provides the perfect opportunity to hike through a biologically sensitive area with a rich plant kingdom and many endangered species of animals, offering firsthand learning opportunities for younger children.
Shangri-La also is home to Songzanlin Monastery, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. Monks live a frugal, rural lifestyle, eating meals together and choosing to walk or ride bikes rather than burn automobile gasoline. “You can visit the praying halls or join villagers for their local celebrations,” says Zhang, who says visitors’ behaviors naturally change when they’re in this eco-friendly area. “Visitors here walk into everyday life. When you get to these sacred places and everything’s so natural and beautiful, and you see the monks practicing, people are so inspired by their surroundings that they keep quiet and stay out of the way to respect the cultural heritage.”
Peru’s Cusco and Machu Picchu
The ancient Incan site of Machu Picchu, on the eastern slope of the Andes, is one of Peru’s archaeological treasures. UNESCO, which includes Machu Picchu as one of its World Heritage sites, praises how “its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments.” The sacred observance of this natural setting extends to nearby cities such as Cusco, the Incan empire’s capital about 50 miles southeast of Machu Picchu.
“One of the things that most impresses visitors to Peru and Machu Picchu is the local people and their connection to their natural environment and history,” says Karen Ward, consultant with travel agency Into Latin America based in Cheltenham, England. A trip to this region offers a unique chance not only to enjoy the “rich diversity of flora and fauna” but also interact with locals to gain a better understanding and respect for the communities.
ACCOMMODATIONS: In Cusco, Ward suggests staying at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Hotel, which considers itself a “pioneer in sustainable tourism.” Inkaterra supports multiple conservation programs, such as a rescue center for endangered Spectacled or Andean bears and a research program on the Amazon tropical rainforest’s bio-diversity. Through its efforts, the hotel helps protect more than 17,000 hectares of original forest. It is helping to directly reduce more than 3 million tons of carbon and ensures every guest has a 100% carbon-neutral stay.
For families with children, Inkaterra offers six connected two-room cottages that provide space for children to play and parents to relax. The hotel also provides its young guests with explorer kits that include a flashlight, cap and colored pencils. These kits can be used on a variety of child-friendly excursions such as Inkaterra’s Nature Walk or Orchid Trail.
Ward also recommends Aranwa Hotels in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, the area that visitors pass through on the way to Machu Picchu. Aranwa employs a variety of eco-friendly practices, including using solar energy for outdoor Jacuzzis and swimming pools, using recycled paper for gift shop bags, filling all manmade lakes on hotel property with rainwater, and fulfilling much of its restaurant needs with an organic fruit and vegetable garden.
ACTIVITIES: One of the most popular activities in the region is hiking the Inca Trail in the Andes Mountains to the Machu Picchu site. “The scenery is extremely varied, going from lush cloud forest to very high mountains, with the highest pass at 13,000 feet,” Ward says. “Along the way are various Inca ruins and spectacular views of snow-capped peaks and green valleys.” Ward says the Inca Trail hike has certain eco-friendly requirements, such as forbidding the use of pack animals to preserve stone pathways. Instead, visitors are required to hire porters through local operators. Additionally, to prevent overwhelming foot traffic on the site, only a certain amount of people are allowed on the trail per day.
For visitors staying in the Sacred Valley, Ward suggests such eco-friendly activities as kayaking in Lake Piuray or white-water rafting on the Urubamba River. For experienced rafters, there is white-water rafting on the faster Apurimac River. There also is a significant range of mountain biking opportunities, from fast downhill races for experts to fairly flat trails for beginners.
The Chichubama Agrotourism Project, not far from the Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel, enables visitors to enter local homes and learn regional skills. It’s great hands-on education for the whole family, Ward says. Families can visit a guinea pig farm, meet a beekeeper family and tour a home where the cider-like local drink chicha is made.