Leave Only Footprints

BY Sandra Chambers

Just what is ecotourism?

Ecotourism also known as responsible tourism low-impact travel or sustainable tourism is 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.”

According to Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) — a market segment focused on health and fitness the environment personal development sustainable living and social justice — ecotourism is one of the fastest growing travel trends in the United States a $77-billion market that has been growing globally three times faster than the tourism industry as a whole.

This focus on ecotourism came to the forefront when the United Nations General Assembly declared 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) and mandated the World Tourism Organization to develop a series of programs to get governments tourists and the tourism industry to follow practices that would lead to a balance among the ecological the economic and the social effects of tourism.

The bottom line of ecotourism can be defined by its code of conduct and guiding principles:

(1) Minimize impact

(2) Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect

(3) Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts

(4) Provide direct benefits for conservation

(5) Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people

(6) Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political environmental and social climate

Putting principles into practice

Applying the principles of ecotourism can take many forms. “We look at ecotourism in varying degrees ” says Brian T. Mullis public relations specialist for Sustainable Travel International (STI) a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible tourism in the North American marketplace. “What’s defined as green is somewhat in the eye of the beholder ” Mullis admits. “But if you have a hotel or tour operator that contributes to environmental conservation as part of their operation in the services they provide they would be considered an eco-friendly provider.”

For Ginger Brown Vanderveer owner of Northside Valley a mini-eco resort located on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands this takes the form of capturing rainwater using a compost bin using native materials in building using efficient gas stoves and the use of native shade trees to keep the villas cool. “It’s my passion to see our guests learn how to live simply and then go back and put some of the practices into their own homes ” Brown says.

Adventure Life Journeys a tour company based in Montana believes that money generated by tourism should stay in the community so it takes a grassroots approach to travel that utilizes local guides family run hotels and the local transportation infrastructure.

For other resorts hotels or lodges such as Alaska’s Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge it may mean planting a tree for each and every guest in order to offset the carbon emissions that are the result of travel.

Even well-known giants in the vacation business are getting aboard. The Sandals Hotel Group has introduced an environmental management system to meet Green Globe 21 sustainable tourism certification standards. Vail Resorts one of the leading ski resorts announced in 2006 that it would offset 100 percent of its carbon-based electric energy use by buying wind power elsewhere. In fact there are now 19 ski areas in the U.S.A. offsetting 100 percent of their electricity use with green power.

Erasing “carbon footprints” caused during flight or by cruise ships is another option for concerned travelers. Individuals can buy “carbon offsets” to make up for the emissions spewed by their plane flying them to their vacation destination. “Most people are astonished to learn that more than 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are related to travel ” says AdventureSmith Explorations’ Carbon Free Cruising founder Todd Smith. His organization seeks to neutralize cruise ship gas emissions by getting cruise lines to donate to Sustainable Travel International’s myclimate™ Carbon Offset program at no extra cost to cruise guests.

Becoming a responsible traveler

According to a 2003 study reported in National Geographic Traveler 58.2 million Americans would pay more to use a travel company that strives to protect and preserve the environment. And more than three-quarters of U.S. travelers also feel it is important their visits not damage the environment.

Becoming an educated consumer is the first step. A plethora of information and links can be found on the Web about various national and international ecotourism organizations. Links on their Web sites will point you to responsible tour groups hotels resorts etc. and even help you plan your trip.

In addition five states now have their own ecotourism societies which provide information for specific options within their individual states. They are: Alaska Arizona Hawaii West Virginia and Virginia.

When selecting travel providers and hotels look for certifications awards and affiliations with reputable organizations. There are about 80 certification bodies worldwide so standards do vary.

Adopt a mindset that says: “I will leave smaller footprints wherever I travel.”

Most importantly wherever you travel remember that you will enrich your own travel experiences when you help contribute to the well-being of the people and places that you’re visiting and help conserve the planet on which we live.

Ten ways to have an eco-friendly vacation:

1) Ask hotels or tour agencies if they have an environmental policy or belong to organizations that support responsible tourism.

2) Consult guidebooks to learn about your destination’s environment social and political issues and local customs.

3) Immerse yourself in the culture in a way that conserves the environment and supports the livelihood of the local people.

4) Learn a few words of the local language.

5) Use local transportation hotels and restaurants.

6) Attend local festivals and events.

7) Respect local customs of dress and behavior.

8) Be sensitive to where and when you take photos.

9) Respect the natural environment by staying on designated trails and picking up trash.

10) Don’t purchase crafts or products made from endangered animals.


Some of the most luxurious retreats can also be eco-friendly without skimping on lavishness or comfort. The Jungle Bay Resort & Spa in Dominica the largest of the Windward Islands in the Eastern Caribbean is one such destination. Located on a seaside cliff the resort has a spa two yoga facilities a volcanic stone-finished swimming pool beach bar sun deck and a restaurant which serves locally grown organic foods.

Of course if you’re one who likes rustic Alaska’s Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge located in Kachemak Bay State Park might just be your cup of tea. Selected by Forbes Traveler as one of the 10 best green hotels in America the lodge is run completely on an alternative energy system of wind and hydropower. It has hand-crafted cabins crystal-clear mountain spring water and an Alaskan-sized fire pit.

And for the extreme nature adventurer who wants to see nature and wildlife close up Natural Habitat Adventures offers expeditions with 160 distinct itineraries in 30 different countries.

And if you so desire you can become a traveling philanthropist and volunteer to protect the rainforest or engage in other earth-friendly projects as part of your vacation. With such a wide variety of choices almost every traveler can have his or her dream vacation and at the same time help to protect the planet on which we live.

Want to know more? Check out these sites…

World Tourism Organism

The International Ecotourism Society

Sustainable Travel International

Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability

Tours / Hotels / Other Links:

Environmentally Friendly Hotels

Eco-tour directory

Adventure Life Journeys

Natural Habitat Adventures