Want to be an ecotourist?

Here's how to find genuine destinations

By Charles Lockwood
Special to the Tribune

January 12, 2003

With more and more people becoming concerned about the environment, as well as looking for distinctive vacation experiences, ecotourism is the fastest growing segment within the travel industry. The UN even declared 2002 the "International Year of Ecotourism."

An ecotourist has a strong environmental conscience and a philosophy of environmental protection. An ecotourist destination is a property, which often includes an on-site hotel or resort, with a primarily unspoiled or reclaimed environment of native flora and fauna. This destination also educates tourists, often on a sophisticated level, about the local environment, and minimizes the impact of visitors on the environment with various measures, such as welcoming only a small number of guests. Finally, the ecotourist site is usually protected by a local or national government.

Ecotourist destinations vary from wildlife parks and nature preserves like the Lodge at Chaa Creek Adventure Centre, Rainforest Reserve and Spa in Belize, to jungle hideaways like Chiminos Island Lodge in Guatemala, guest (dude) ranches such as Hidden Creek Ranch near Harrison, Idaho, beachfront properties like Cabanos Copal Hotel Tulum in Mexico, and hotels that celebrate the local culture like the Tohum Living Earth Center in Turkey. Rates can range from $5.60 to $10.80 per person per night at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Laos to $400 per person per night at the Araca River Camp in Brazil.

Sounds great. But the mounting popularity of ecotourism has led some less-than-scrupulous hotel, resort and tour operators to make sham claims about their "green" offerings to lure inexperienced ecotourists and their wallets.

How can the environmentally concerned traveler find a true ecotourism destination? Ask questions, lots of them. The more you know about a destination, the more you are able to determine if it really meets your environmental requirements.