Adventures in eco-tourism


April 04, 1993|By Elizabeth Large

Being a tourist in the '90s involves a whole new set of responsibilities and concerns. According to a study by the U.S. Travel Data Center, for instance, Egypt is having to close some tombs in Luxor because perspiration from the visitors is affecting ancient wall paintings. You can bet your parents didn't worry about the impact they had on their vacation destinations.

Eco-tourism is the buzzword, and it's affecting just about every part of the travel industry to some degree.

It's not a new concept. The term surfaced several years ago, and interest in the subject has been around for much longer. But now just about everyone is jumping on the bandwagon.

"Our readers are getting increasingly concerned about the environment," says Barbara Peck, editor of the "Worth Saving" column in Travel and Leisure magazine. These readers are fairly upscale, not particularly outdoor-oriented men and women who are moving away from pure relaxation vacations. They have plenty of travel dollars to spend, and many of them are more interested in a trip to a rain-forest park in Costa Rica than a week at Club Med.

We're not talking about a tiny segment of the population. In a survey commissioned by the Travel Industry Association of America, 8 million adults said they had taken at least one eco-tourism trip. The eco-tourism market could consist of as many as 43 million American adults during the next three years, according to the survey.

Of course, the concept isn't a cut-and-dried one. In the narrowest sense, eco-tourism has to do with responsible travel in natural areas. But the term has been expanded to include concern for local people and cultures, and interest in and preservation of historical destinations like those tombs in Luxor.

As Renee Karlin of the Adventure Travel Society says, "More 'green-consciousness' is never going to detract from Disney World," but people are wanting "more of a cross-cultural mix in their vacations and to do different activities." Travel to Costa Rica's national parks, for instance, has exploded in the last three years -- expanding by 100 percent each year, according to Megan EplerWood, executive director of the Eco-Tourism Society, a non-profit organization founded because of concern over the impact of tourism on the environment.

Eco-tourism is one of those concepts that at least seems to benefit everyone. In some poorer countries, tourism now pays better than development. Why cut down a rain forest if well-heeled travelers are willing to spend lots of money to visit it? And there are examples where endangered species have benefited from being tourist attractions -- the gorillas in Zaire, for instance. Dollars pouring into the local economy suddenly made tourism more profitable than farming, so land was returned to the national park where the gorillas live, and poaching decreased dramatically.

Hand-in-hand with eco-tourism goes adventure travel, one of the fastest-growing components of the travel industry. It includes the treks, rafting, horseback trips and such that became so popular in the '80s. Yet another facet is the increased interest in "volunteer vacations," like those sponsored by EarthWatch. You might take a week off to help survey sea turtles, for instance.

But you don't have to visit a remote corner of the earth or be in great physical shape or work your whole vacation to be an eco-tourist. Lisa Tabb, publisher of Just Go!, an eco-travel magazine, has a much broader definition. "We try to tell our readers how to have a wonderful vacation," she says, "but, by the way, be ecologically and socially responsible."

You might stay in a holistic health spa. Or you could avoid a golf course built on wetlands. Or visit Maho Bay Camps, an eco-resort on St. John in the Virgin Islands, where you can have plenty of fun in the sun but great care is taken to preserve the local environment.

Maho Bay was built without bulldozing the forest site. Guests stay in canvas tents on wooden platforms, and there's no running water except for the community bathrooms, which have cold showers. Wood walkways are built around existing rocks and trees so as not to disturb the forest. Items sold in the camp store are ecologically correct and water is recycled.

Guests live very close to nature. They go to sleep to the singing of tree frogs (the windows of the tents are just screens), and enjoy sitting on their wooden decks feeding tiny sugar birds. Peacocks wander around on the walkways.

There are drawbacks: An eco-resort is not for everyone. Maho Bay has a sand fly and mosquito problem, for instance, but no spraying is done. And some people will find the guest accommodations Spartan. But manager Bob Carmody makes an interesting point. While Caribbean tourism has been hurt by the economy in the past few years, Maho Bay is doing very well, he says. Obviously a lot of people find being an eco-tourist no hardship.

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