ATX Green Living 2012
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Give more than you take: Ecotourism is about the authentic experience

Give more than you take: Ecotourism is about the authentic experience

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Shelley Seale at a festival in India, with kids from the home where she regularly volunteers. Photo by Shelley Seale
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Jean Warneke of JB Journeys in Panama. Courtesy of Jean Warneke
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Keith Hajovsky of Travel Sherpa Keith in Burma (Myanmar) Photo by Keith Hajovsky
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Sunset over the Mekong River. Photo by Keith Hajovsky
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There is an old saying when it comes to travel: “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.”

While many of us subscribe to this philosophy, it isn’t always obvious how to make the right low-impact choices when planning a trip. As more people become concerned with global warming and environmental damage, savvy travelers are increasingly looking for ways to incorporate eco-friendly practices into their vacations.

Ecotourism is travel that respects the environment and gives something back to the indigenous communities rather than merely taking away or, even worse, exploiting. It’s also called sustainable, green and my least favorite, responsible travel.

Ugh. Can we get any less sexy? “Responsible travel” — it sounds like such a burden, doesn’t it? So onerous to have to try so hard to be accountable when you’re just trying to see the world and have a good time.

Well, let’s debunk the un-fun factor inherent in responsible or green travel; while “green guilt” is a popular pastime, traveling responsibly is not just about doing your part to save the planet.

Green Travel is more authentic, and more fun.

Traveling in this manner is not just something you should do because you feel you ought to or because it’s the “in” thing. Rather, traveling green is actually more fun. It creates a far more engaging travel experience that will usually take you far beyond the surface parameters of traditional, consumerist travel — and let you take home much more than photographs and souvenirs.

Travel that immerses you in the local culture creates deeper, more enriching experiences. Itineraries that include home-stays, language lessons, visits to local artisan villages, cooking or surfing classes and volunteering abound.

There is a vast difference between a trip in which you lodge at a chain hotel versus a locally-run inn. In the former, you might follow the tour guide to the “must-see” sites observed through the viewfinder of the camera and watch local life pass by outside the windows of the tour bus. In the later, you're more likely to meet people who actually live there and ask them where to eat or shop, and explore leisurely— perhaps even surrendering to the idea of getting lost.

“The experience should be good for the traveler and the destination,” says Jean Warneke of JB Journeys, a boutique eco-adventure tourism company in Austin.

You can support the local economy, rather than chains or corporate entities.

So often when we travel, we don’t really give much thought to the hotel where we are staying or the tour companies we book through. Many times, those organizations are part of larger corporations that are not even located in that country, meaning very little money stays in the local economy. On the other hand, by choosing small, locally or family owned accommodations, you are supporting the people who are living, working and contributing to the society and culture they are part of.

Warneke recommends staying in these types of accommodations rather than mega-resorts. “Think about it: in a small boutique hotel, you will get to know the staff and owners, and they get to know you. Usually they are from the local area and can offer good advice on places to visit and restaurants to eat. The traveler can see where his money goes. At a mega-resort, who knows who owns it (probably foreign investors) and management is often from the corporate headquarters,” she says.

Most mega-resorts look the same no matter where in the world you are, and the food is often made to appeal to the masses, not necessarily local customs.

“[Large resorts] offer massive buffets and the same tours, regardless of destination. Rarely do they take the environment into consideration when building. Smaller properties of course take up less space, but also are more likely to offer a local menu, which then helps small farms or dairies,” Warneke continues.

Warneke suggests that you ask any potential accommodation, or your travel agent, if they have a sustainability statement. And beware of “greenwashing”: In today’s world, green business practices should be far more than offering the guest the option not to wash their towels every day. True eco-friendly businesses have far more in-depth practices in place that lessen their impact in a real way, and they are also much more committed to hiring, training and promoting local.

There are a number of options today to help you travel greener.

Accommodations are just one major component of travel. What about the big one — flying?

“Airplanes seem to be the necessary evil that gets us where we are going,” says Warneke, who has suffered from wanderlust since childhood. “Airlines are working towards better jet fuel, but until that happens, consider donating to off-set your carbon footprint.” JB Journeys supports several initiatives that work to save the environment in the countries they represent.

Travel consultant and tour guide Keith Hajovsky goes a step further; while he agrees that to really see the world, flying is unavoidable, he also suggests that there are plenty of opportunities to forego flying in favor of other methods that might be a lot more fun and give you a slower, better glimpse into the place where you’re traveling.

"Taking trains and/or buses whenever possible is drastically less harmful to the environment compared to taking planes,” Hajovsky says. “The difference is even bigger for shorter distances. Plus, taking trains and buses gives you a much higher chance of meeting locals and having more genuine cultural experiences."

He would know; he once took a two-day boat ride up the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos that became a highlight in a lifetime of globetrotting. Hajovsky also counts numerous lengthy train trips as well as hiking, biking and even riding in ox carts among his modes of travel.

You should avoid “consumerist” tourism where you only take, and don’t exchange or give.

Some people might argue that travel, by its very nature, is consumerist. But there is a very big difference between total consumerist travel and travel that places an emphasis on cultural exchange and sustainability. The traditional consumerist view of travel means that the tourist is going out into the world to see what he or she can get out of it. It’s all about the tourist and not about the location.

And while this is clearly not very beneficial to the locals, I don’t think it’s very beneficial to the traveler either. Isn’t the point of traveling to really experience ways of life that differ vastly from your own? Foods, cultures, traditions, histories, viewpoints and people? When it comes to sightseeing, locals who are part of their community can give you much more of an insider’s view than a pre-packaged tour company that will take you the same places as everyone else.

Some of the most meaningful, memorable experiences I have ever had while traveling occurred when I was in a real cultural exchange — truly interacting with locals on their own terms, in their own way. And you know what? It was authentic. It wasn’t a “show” put on for tourists. There was genuine give-and-take between myself and the people who live in the places I was visiting. That is when travel matters.

Green travel leaves you with the best memories.

I have written before here at CultureMap about the fact that experiences, not stuff, are what make us happier. Study after study on happiness has been done, and each points to the fact that possessions do not make people happy in the same manner as experiences. And travel is definitely one big experience. However deep and authentic that experience is, is entirely up to the traveler.

I have very few fond travel memories that I return to that consist of sitting on a tour bus or leaving a giant hotel with a big group of people to see the “sights.” My best memories consist of having a drink of locally-made hooch in a remote village, learning how to make dumplings in someone’s kitchen, making new friends on a train, or holding children in my arms at a home in India where volunteer surrogates are the only parents.

As Henry Miller wrote, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”