Imagine vacationing on a remote island off the coast of Baja, Mexico. One day you’re checking out the warrens of the black-vented shearwater, a native bird known for burrowing into the ground. The next, you’re stroking a gray whale and her newborn as they, and hundreds of other gray whales, swim past your skiff in the San Ignacio Lagoon.
This was the experience of 12 lucky travelers on a recent trip to Isla Natividad. The excursion was sponsored by Seacology, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect the ecosystem and cultures of islands throughout world — in large part, by exposing responsible vacationers to their beauty.
“After you’ve been to your 50th five-star resort, there’s something more people want,” says Duane Silverstein, Seacology's executive director. “They want to get behind the scenes (and) see how cultures differ and make a positive impact with the trips they’re taking.”
Ecotourism, or the notion of environmentally friendly and sustainable travel, has come a long way since its entrance into the lexicon more than a decade ago.
“It’s evolved by leaps and bounds,” says Irene Lane, founder and president of Greenloons, a Virginia-based ecotourism information and booking service. “In the beginning, there were a lot of terms thrown out there: ecotourism versus green tourism versus sustainable tourism versus responsible tourism. What hurt the industry initially is that there was confusion in the market about what it all meant. That’s gotten better.”
One of the organizations responsible for quelling the confusion is the International Ecotourism Society, a nonprofit clearinghouse for everything ecotourism, which defines the practice as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."
The second part of this definition is key to the future of ecotourism, says Lane, noting that it’s critical that local communities be involved and that they benefit economically and socially.
“In many developing countries around the world, tourism constitutes one of the top three sources of revenue,” she explains.
Some ecotourism nonprofits are taking community involvement a step further by leaving a lasting mark. Seacology, for example, built two environmentally friendly cabins on Isla Natividad in exchange for protection of the northern end of the island. The organization gets guaranteed conservation, while the island gets a new, permanent source of sustainable tourism revenue.
Seacology’s Silverstein says this approach represents one end of the ecotourism spectrum today. “There are absolutely different levels,” he explains. “Starting at the lowest level, almost every hotel you check into now, if you put a card on the bed, they won’t wash the sheets.”
Lane calls these varying degrees ecotourism’s “many shades of green,” which she says is positive, as long as it’s clear to the individual what they’re getting.
“At the end of the day, vacations are supposed to be fun, not work,” she says. “There are options out there whether you want to go rustic or travel luxuriously. Find out what’s important to you and ask the right questions.”
The best way to be sure the shade of green you choose is legitimately eco-friendly? Look for the label. Ecotourism has become a lot like grocery shopping in that way. There are labels for everything. The chief watchdog is the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. A tour sporting a “GSTC” label is a good way to know you can trust what’s being offered, says Lane. Beyond that, she advises asking questions.
If the trip operators are truly eco-friendly, they will be delighted to give you as many details and as much supporting information as you desire.
“One day we won’t need to ask these questions,” predicts Lane, “because everything will be sustainable. It will be what tourism has evolved to.”