The natural beauty of emerging nations

January 02, 1994|By Randy Lee Loftis | Randy Lee Loftis,Dallas Morning News

The political walls that have surrounded many countries for the past 45 years didn't just suppress dissent and keep out foreigners. They also turned riches of nature into state secrets.

As the walls tumble, whole worlds of wildlife and nature are being rediscovered or opened for the first time in memory.

Travelers, in turn, are providing hard currencies that newly emerging societies need. And they're helping to encourage conservation.

One surprising example of a new nature travel opportunity is in Vietnam. It's still a communist country, but Vietnam is becoming more accessible to Americans.

Trade and travel barriers are coming down.

Tour operators and environmentalists say Vietnam offers a wide range of wildlife despite decades of bombing, strafing and burning. With 744 species of birds, Vietnam has the most diverse bird life in Southeast Asia.

In December's Audubon magazine, Susan Brownmiller describes work by George Archibald, director of the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation, to set up a sanctuary for Vietnam's sarus cranes. The war had nearly destroyed them. The sanctuary has reversed their decline and helped several other species as well.

Earthwatch has put together trips taking volunteers to work in the crane sanctuary and in nearby communities of the Mekong Delta. The not-for-profit organization, based in Watertown, Mass., charges volunteers for a share of each research project's costs; in other words, volunteers contribute their money and their work.

Check with Earthwatch, (617) 926-8200, for details on future trips to the crane sanctuary.

Birdquest, a British group, also has bird-watching tours of Vietnam. One trip lasts 19 days and offers the possibility of sighting 300 species. It is described in "Ecotours and Nature Getaways" by Alice M. Geffen and Carole Berglie (Potter; $15).

Birdquest's eminently appropriate address is Two Jays, Kemple End, Birdy Brow; Stonyhurst, Lancashire BB6 9QY, United Kingdom.

Eastern Europe and the eastern Asian reaches of Russia offer many other examples of newly opened nature areas. Ms. Geffen and Ms. Berglie note that tales of Eastern Europe's horrific pollution overshadow the region's natural values. But they assert that parts of Poland "are as rugged and wild as Alaska."

That's a pretty tall claim, but even so, the former Iron Curtain countries have lots of unexplored opportunities for nature travel.

Several tour operators take people to Russia's Siberia. The vast area has received more attention than other parts of the former Soviet Union, largely because so much of Siberia is remote enough to qualify as true wilderness.

Wilderness Inquiry (WI), a not-for-profit tour operator in Minneapolis -- (800) 728-0719, voice or TDD -- plans a trip this summer to Lake Baikal in southeastern Siberia.

WI says the region around the 400-mile-long lake shelters more than 1,500 species of wildlife, including the Baikal seal.

WI's 19-day trip to Lake Baikal starts with three days in Moscow and moves on to 10 days of paddling on the lake. It includes stays in the homes of Russian people. The cost is $3,495, not counting air fare.

All Wilderness Inquiry trips are open to people with disabilities.

More remote than Baikal is the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia's far-eastern frontier. It was closed to foreign visitors for security reasons until 1990.

Kamchatka is a geological wonderland -- a place the size of California that has 29 active volcanoes. International tourists are discovering its secret riches.

A good description of nature trips to the peninsula can be found in Stephen Foehr's "Ecojourneys" (Noble; $14.95). Mr. Foehr says REI Adventures in Seattle, (800) 622-2236, and Innerasia Expeditions in San Francisco, (800) 777-8183, have experience in Kamchatka.

The Geffen-Berglie book also says Russian Nature Tours sends people to Kamchatka and other points in the former Soviet Union. The British-based company's address is 57 Fore St., Kingsbridge, South Devon, TQ7 1PG, United Kingdom.

Around the world, responsible nature travel is providing more than a look at new places. It's also offering emerging democracies an economic, scientific and cultural hand.

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