Discover Gold by Going Green

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 and Bill Falkenberry in the Cascades Mountains, WA

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 experiences."

Dining area of a stilted treehouse suite at CC Africa's Lake Manyara Tree Lodge

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 HollandAmerica and Radisson. "I had just been through the Navigator training, I asked them if they've ever been to Antarctica, and 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 since."

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 Botswana's Okavango Delta are joint 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.

Travelers on a Mountain Travel Sobek tour rest next to the Mekong Gorge in China; the tour operator is working with The Nature Conservancy

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 China 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 Chiapas, Mexico, "We donate $100 per visitor to the Institute of Natural History, which manages the area," he says. 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 Bering Sea cruise we raised about $60,000 for the 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 Kenya, 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."

Eco-Resorts works with Masai tribespeople, who initiate teenagers in warrior training

In Kenya, "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 New York recently to discuss his company's partnership with Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces, and Travel Agent took the opportunity to ask him about eco-friendly travel.

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 India. These lodges, the first of which opened in BandhavgarhNational Park 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 usa@ccafrica.com 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 Papua New Guinea emphasizing flora, fauna and culture, as well as nature-heavy itineraries in Costa Rica, Alaska and GlacierNational Park in Montana. Armstrong says that ecotourism is popular with families; Tauck caters to them with its Bridges Program. "Bridges trips to Australia 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 Africa." 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)