Why Ecotourism Is Booming

Ecotourism is on the rise. Here's why it matters – and how to plan an eco-friendly trip.

U.S. News & World Report

Why Ecotourism Is Booming

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If visiting with giant tortoises in their natural habitat in the Galápagos Islands sounds like fun, ecotourism could be right for you.(Getty Images)

A mother sea lion nurses her pup on the beaches of the Galápagos. The sun sets over the Scottish highlands. A humpback whale breaches off the coast of Antarctica. These are sights that all travelers revel in, snapping photos furiously and posting them to Facebook and Instagram as soon as Wi-Fi allows. But for a growing body of eco-minded travelers, those photos are only as valuable as they are beneficial to the spectacles they capture.

"I don't just want to see this beautiful planet and its creatures," says Brandy Werner, an eco-conscious tourist from McHenry, Illinois. "I want my adventures to help protect them."

Werner is one of roughly 105.3 million sustainable U.S. travelers prioritizing vacations that are dedicated to giving back to the environment just as much – if not more – than they take, according to Sustainable Travel International. One report from the nonprofit, which works with businesses and governments to help protect natural resources in areas affected by tourism, shows that currently 60 percent of all leisure travelers in the U.S. are sustainable travelers. Among the fastest-growing subsets of sustainable travelers are eco-travelers who, like Werner, travel to remote, environmentally pristine locations to learn about the areas and contribute to their conservation. The United Nations even named 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development to work with member states and partners to promote conservation efforts through tourism.

What's Ecotourism All About?

Ecotourism is difficult to define because, in reality, it's no one type of trip. Instead, it's any form of tourism that focuses on traveling to natural environments with a mission to learn about and, ultimately, help protect those environments. So, while some travelers book stays at eco-friendly resorts, go glamping or straight-up backpack with tents in tow, others take advantage of offerings provided through eco-travel companies and tour operators.

For instance, when Werner set out for the Galápagos Islands, she did so with Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic. The two companies, having worked together since 2004, operate eco-tours throughout remote and natural, resource-rich lands including the Galápagos, Antarctica, Alaska, Scotland, Vietnam and, of course, the Galápagos. On her trip, Werner was able to observe the same endemic plants and animals that led Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution.

Traveling from island to island on the National Geographic Endeavor II ship, Werner learned and saw how each species of finch, not to mention iguana, cactus and bird, evolved to thrive in its unique environment. And onboard the trip was a team of naturalists dedicated to teaching Werner and all of the ship's passengers, which included teaching fellows chosen by Lindblad Expeditions and the National Geographic Society to learn about the ecosystem and report back to their classes and communities, about the islands' fragile ecosystems and their preservation. After all, many of the naturalists – all trained biologists, marine ecologists, chemical agronomists and other experts – are actually locals who have worked for decades on local conservation efforts.

Throughout the 10-day, all-inclusive trip, which costs roughly $11,000, travelers have the opportunity to further those conservation efforts, taking classes focused on local ecology, visiting giant tortoises in their natural habitat and, most importantly, taking the knowledge they've learned home with them.

"We want to help people get out there and explore, develop a better understanding of the earth and its wonder and challenges and engage them in finding solutions," says Sven-Olof Lindblad, chief executive officer and founder of Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad sits on the National Geographic Society's International Council of Advisors and the Board of Advisers for Pristine Seas project, National Geographic's largest environmental preservation initiative. "It's one thing to be in New York City reading about climate change. It's a completely different experience being in the Arctic and seeing the conditions of the ice and the animals there. It gives people an entirely different relationship to the subject matter and can spur change in a way that wouldn't be possible otherwise," Lindblad says.

For instance, since adopting the Galápagos island of Santiago in 1997, Lindblad Expeditions (now Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic) has funded the successful removal of various human-introduced species from the island and grown populations of plants and animals formerly on the brink of extinction. Feral goats and pigs no longer threaten giant tortoises' nests and, currently, scientists are working to eradicate nonnative blackberries from the island.

Why Does It Matter?

According to Sustainable Travel International, travel and tourism are responsible for 5 percent of total carbon emissions throughout the world, contributing significantly to climate change that could erase the world's most pristine sites from the map. Meanwhile, in remote areas, heavy foot traffic from tourists threatens to change the behaviors of indigenous animals and eliminate plant species. Even tiny microorganisms, hitching a ride on the bottom of hiking shoes, have the ability to compromise the integrity of foreign lands once introduced into their ecosystems.

However, with proper measures, which ecotourism companies implement, often with the help of organizations such as the International Ecotourism Society and Sustainable Travel International, travel to these areas can actually help grow endangered species, advance ecological research and restore lands to their pre-human state.

"It's important to think not just about what you're seeing on your trips, but what you are doing to make sure that they are still there for your children and grandchildren to see," says Geoff Bolan, chief executive officer of Sustainable Travel International.

"I didn't understand eco-travel or its importance in conservation until this trip," Werner says, recalling her fall trip with Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic to the Galápagos. "Being part of this trip and National Geographic reinforced that being part of a community that comes together, we can makes changes for the better and improve the negative impacts we have had to the planet and find ways to reverse it. My hope is to continue to do my part, which includes sharing the lessons I learned while in the Galapagos."

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Make Your Next Trip and Eco-Focused One

A quick internet search for "eco-travel" will yield plenty of results, but it's important to do your homework and make sure that the option you choose is legitimately taking measures to protect the environment. After all, with interest in eco-travel climbing, "eco" and "green" have become market-friendly buzzwords.

So, before booking, ask your travel company about what it's doing to preserve the environment it visits, any opportunities for learning and engaging with the community during the trip and even the size of the company's carbon footprint, Bolan says. Any genuine conservation-focused company will be happy to walk you through these finer points, Bolan adds. For a reputable eco-hotel accommodation option, you can also search for destinations, lodging options and tour operators online via the International Ecotourism Society's website.

However, if you're arranging your trip on your own, check your airline's website, as many have carbon offset programs that travelers can use, Bolan says. You can also calculate your carbon footprint and purchase offsets through Sustainable Travel International. And once you arrive to your destination, practice "leave no trace" principles: Dispose of all waste and recycling (including litter) appropriately, do not approach or feed wildlife and leave all rocks, shells and other pieces of nature behind. These steps will all help guarantee that in decades and centuries from now, your favorite destination will be just as beautiful as it is in your camera lens.


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