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Discover Gold by Going GreenFebruary 12, 2007 By: Dan Butcher Travel Agent
Agents are profiting from the ecotourism boom
While there are many definitions of ecotourism, one thing is
clear: "Green travel" is booming, and agents who are selling
eco-friendly tours and properties are finding that it is a lucrative niche. The
International Ecotourism Society's (TIES) definition is "responsible
travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the
well-being of local people." Better get on board soon: With scientists
warning of global warming and species extinctions, and the success of Al Gore's
film An Inconvenient Truth, more and more travelers are asking about
eco-friendly options. In fact, in 2004, ecotourism grew worldwide three times
faster than the tourism industry as a whole, and the World Tourism Organization
projects that ecotourism, taken with other subgroups like nature, heritage,
cultural and soft adventure tourism, will be the fastest-growing segment of the
travel industry over the next two decades.
Many Agents Are Booking Green Travel
Rebecca Falkenberry of St. Petersburg, FL-based Hills Travel
Service, is a Virtuoso Vacations Specialist in "Family & Warm
Weather" and "Adventure Travel." For her, the key aspects of
ecotourism are "visiting places, wildlife and native peoples that are fragile,
special and unique, those that are protected and those that are quickly
disappearing, to both experience and appreciate them—but also to put money into
the local economy so that the country has an incentive to protect them."
She also stresses the importance of creating local tourism jobs; visiting
lodges, camps or resorts that operate in a sustainable way; and working to
protect the places you visit once you get home. "I only work with
operators that I know practice these things," she says. "I have developed
a clientele over the years that appreciates these values."
Falkenberry sees ecotourism as a segment of the travel
industry that will continue to grow in importance. "With the new focus on
global climate change and the bad news that habitats are disappearing, glaciers
are melting, polar bears and mega-fauna are going extinct and bird populations
are declining, more people will want to see and experience these places with
the knowledge that it may be now or never." Also, she says, going on a
nature tour doesn't mean missing out on luxury—and the high commission that comes
with it. "You can stay high end and still be eco-friendly," she says.
In 1974, Ange Wallace and her husband started the Travel
Agency in Amelia Island, FL. Over the 30-plus years she's been in the industry,
she's witnessed many changes. "We started hearing about ecotourism in the
'80s, but it wasn't a big thing for us until we got involved in the Virtuoso
Navigators program in '97," she says. The program brings agents interested
in active ecotourism together with eco-friendly adventure suppliers; Wallace's
group included Backroads, Butterfield & Robinson, O.A.R.S. and Lindblad Expeditions. She says
the Virtuoso program helped eco-friendly suppliers, properties and agents
understand each other better. "It gave us a chance to get to know each
other, for us to learn their concerns and the specialties of their products,
and for them to understand our relationships with clients and our ability to
educate clients and sell their product," she says. "You're seeing
many people, especially baby boomers, looking for these types of wilderness
You can't expect potential eco-tourists to always come to
you; you have to sell them on it, advises Wallace, and it's all about asking
the right questions. "Many people don't even realize that's what they're
looking for until you present it to them." As an example, she cites a
couple in their mid-60s who had been booking exclusively
and Radisson. "I had just been through the Navigator training, I asked
them if they've ever been to
eventually booked them on a Mountain Travel Sobek trip there," says
Wallace. "They went crazy about it, told me it was the highlight of their
travel career, and they've been doing Lindblad and other eco-tours ever
In order to pique people's interest in green travel, Wallace
hosts client events several times a year with some of the smaller companies and
brings clients in to see videos, meet tour guides and express why she thinks
responsible travel is an important option to consider. "All of the
companies I recommend don't want you to disrupt the ecosystem," she says.
"They want to minimize the impact [on the environment], and are very
involved in various local organizations."
There are benefits to booking eco-tours for agents, as well.
"Clients are willing to pay a little more for these types of trips, not
just because of their eco-friendly nature, but the smaller sizes of these
tours," says Wallace. She also recommends the Travel Institute's
Destination Specialist certification programs for agents looking to educate
themselves about this rewarding niche. Visit www.thetravelinstitute.com.
Eco-friendly Tour Operators
Abercrombie & Kent and The Nature Conservancy,
a leading conservation organization, recently announced a partnership to create
eco-friendly adventures guided by conservationists. One goal of the partnership
is to increase people's awareness of the last great places on earth through
travel, education and outreach. "We believe that experiencing these places
is the most effective way to demonstrate the interrelationship between the
flora, fauna, land and water, and human communities and why protection for these
natural places is important," says M.A. Sanjayan, lead scientist for The
Nature Conservancy. A portion of the proceeds from each trip benefits The
Nature Conservancy programs in that region.
A&K's Sanctuary Lodges in
ventures with the local community designed to preserve it for future
generations. Staff is hired and trained from the local community, which
receives a portion of total revenues as a resource royalty. To book A&K,
call 800-554-7060 or visit www.abercrombiekent.com. For information about The Nature
Conservancy, visit www.nature.org.
Mountain Travel Sobek, a green small-group adventure
travel specialist, is also collaborating with The Nature Conservancy in support
of the Great Rivers Partnership. In 2005, Mountain Travel Sobek led a rafting
tour down the Yangtze Gorge, and in 2006, down the Mekong Gorge, in the first
commercial descents of these rivers. The partnership will promote ecotourism as
a way to prevent the proposed dams in those rivers and the Conservancy will
work with the government of
to create an assessment of conservation priorities for the entire country. To
book Mountain Travel Sobek, call 888-687-6235 or visit www.mtsobek.com.
Long before the term "ecotourism" had even been
coined, Victor Emanuel blazed the trail for his profitable niche in the
industry. He started Austin, TX-based Victor Emanuel Nature Tours due to
his love and knowledge of birds; he started bird watching at age eight and was
mentored by the painter and birding legend Roger Tory Peterson, who Emanuel calls
"a second father." "We were one of the pioneers," he says.
"We conceived of the idea of bird tours." Emanuel established the
company based on three core principles: to give local tour leaders a better
life through fair pay and benefits, to provide clients with first-class service
and to support conservation efforts, not necessarily in that order. His
company, which leads worldwide eco-tours and cruises, has prospered
financially; it celebrated its 30th anniversary this past year.
On trips to the 6,000-foot-high El Triumfo cloud forest in
"We donate $100 per visitor to the
Emanuel's company has created summer youth nature camps, which Emanuel calls
"payback for my wonderful mentors; we're helping to develop future
conservationists and scientists." In addition to serving on the boards of
various conservation organizations, he donates and raises money for many more.
One of his most effective fundraising endeavors has been his nature art
cruises, where artists paint pictures during the cruise that are auctioned off
at the end of the trip. "There have been bidding wars; on one
International Crane Foundation," he says.
"The highest form of ecotourism is when the locals are
well paid, money is put back into the community and properties are protecting a
significant portion of the land—1,000 acres or more. We see it happening in so
many places," he continues. "Costa Rica is still number one, with
lots of mom-and-pop places, Ecuador is far beyond anything I could have
thought, and ministers of tourism for Guyana and Surinam say that attracting
bird tourists is their number one priority. They realize that [nature tourists]
will fill up lodges and bring a significant amount of income into their
economy." Call 800-328-VENT (8368) or visit www.ventbird.com.
Melinda Rees, a principal and founding director of Eco-Resorts,
spends the majority of her time in East Africa, leading eco-friendly safaris in
Kenya and Tanzania (Rwanda will soon be added). A former hotel manager who
spent her teenage years in
she started the company with a Kenyan partner seven years ago. Over that time
the number of hits on the company's web site, www.eco-resorts.com, has
increased dramatically—as has the company's revenue.
She employs local people and buys local food, and gives her
clients the opportunity to interact with the local communities and lend their
services to them. According to Rees, 90 percent of Eco-Resorts' trips are
private, usually consisting of a couple, a family or a small group; a typical
tour lasts two weeks.
Cultural immersion and living in conjunction with wildlife
are hallmarks of her company. "We're different from most safaris in that
we make sure people get out of the vehicle," she says. "We get them
outside into national parks and preserves, they can walk with villagers and
locals and can learn how to track animals."
"We took a group of 14 teenagers to a Masai village way out in the middle
of nowhere, and they actually did a warrior training week, they learned to
track, make bows, arrows and spears, and they participated in initiation
rites," Rees says. "It was an absolutely magical experience."
Rees advises agents to "make sure that [suppliers and
properties] are truly eco-friendly: Do your research, because there are many
companies who claim to be eco-friendly and are not." She also wants
potential clients to understand that ecotourism can be "a very comfortable
holiday." By offering clients the option of staying in lodges, tented
camps, guest houses or luxury hotels, Eco-Resorts lives up to its motto:
"Traveling green doesn't mean roughing it."
Steve Fitzgerald, CEO of Conservation Corporation Africa
(CC Africa), was in
recently to discuss his company's partnership with Taj Hotels, Resorts &
Palaces, and Travel Agent took the opportunity to ask him about eco-friendly
He cited three major elements of ecotourism: "One, it's
presumably about remote places; two, there has to be a degree of interpretation
and activity to the tourism, as opposed to lying on the beach; and three,
ecotourism operates the need to do something more for people in rural areas.
[Suppliers] should mitigate their presence by making a difference where they
operate, no matter how small."
A heavy hitter in the African safari and luxury lodge
industry for more than 35 years, CC Africa is working with Taj to open 22 Taj
Wilderness Lodges in
These lodges, the first of which opened in
this past November, will have between six and 12 luxury suites priced in the
range of $500-$550 per person, per night, and will operate on a sustainable
ecotourism model emphasizing community benefits and the preservation of
wildlife habitat. "It's fundamental to what we do," says Fitzgerald.
"You have to build the relationships with the communities and conservation
bodies, ask them, 'What do you need, how can we help you on your terms?'"
The company has assisted with the relocation of animal populations within parks
and supported the BirdLife International and established the Africa Foundation,
among other projects.
Fitzgerald says that operating responsibly and profitably go
hand in hand. "People return to us and recommend us due to how we
operate," he says. "The guests will increasingly require to know what
you're doing for the environment, and the local communities will require you to
do that. If you don't conserve, it's not gonna be there," he continues.
"You make a hell of a lot more money if you engage in [sustainable
ecotourism] than if you don't. The consciousness of the human race is rising in
relation to tourism. It's a good industry to be in right now. There's a trend
in tourism of learning, interpreting and finding out about the planet we live
on; you can make money and look after [the planet] properly." For
more information, call 888-882-3742, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.ccafrica.com.
Tom Armstrong, Tauck World Discovery's marketing
communications manager, says, "We don't market our itineraries under an ecotourism
banner...but we do offer a number of itineraries that would fit." These
include a new cruise to
emphasizing flora, fauna and culture, as well as nature-heavy itineraries in
Armstrong says that ecotourism is popular with families; Tauck caters to them
with its Bridges Program. "Bridges trips to
and Galapagos are doing quite well," he says, "and last year we
introduced our first ever Bridges Program in Africa—it sold out very
quickly—and our first ever Bridges safari to
Call 800-788-7885 or visit www.tauck.com.
Ecotourism Facts & Figures
• 66% of the U.S.
adult population is interested in environmentally responsible travel
• About 2.4 million Americans are
ecotourists, representing a $77 billion market
• 55.1 million U.S. travelers are
geo-tourists (interested in nature, culture and heritage tourism)
• Ecotourism has been growing 20%-34%
per year since the 1990s
• In 2004, it grew three times faster
than the travel industry as a whole
• It is projected to be the
fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry over the next 20 years
• More than two-thirds of U.S. and
Australian travelers, and 90% of British tourists, consider active protection
of the environment to be part of a hotel's responsibility
Source: The International Ecotourism Society (TIES)