Going Native

Ecotourism doesn't have to be a case of gullible travels.

Leda Muñoz is a biologist who has spent the past nine years working as a tour guide for Wildland Adventures, an American ecotravel company in her native Costa Rica. Muñoz, like many who work in the burgeoning ecotourism industry, says her clients are distinguished from "average" tourists because of their deep interest in conservation, wildlife, and native cultures.

There was that day, though, when Muñoz caught a member of the tour group stuffing seashells into her backpack during a visit to one of Costa Rica's prized biological reserves. "They're very pretty and I want to take them for my grandchildren," the pillaging granny justified, thus augmenting a primary credo of ecotourism: Take only memories, leave only footprints...unless, of course, you see something that would make a nice gift.

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Then there was the trip during which a photographer kept rearranging the indigenous people into "more natural" positions. "He was making them pose so he could take the perfect picture," Muñoz recalls.

Fact is, even goody-two-shoes tourists can have a negative impact on almost anything they touch. But this hasn't slowed the growth of "socially responsible" travel, or ecotourism, the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry: Close to 8 million U.S. travelers have taken at least one ecotourism trip, and 35 million more will likely take one within the next three years, according to the Vermont-based Ecotourism Society. That's a lot of footprints.

Yet both the ecotourism industry and conservation groups argue that tourists can positively affect the environment and people, especially in Third World countries -- with their money. In theory, tourism can replace an industry that threatens the environment, such as logging or commercial agriculture, and provide local people with a better way of life. The key is to make sure the tourism dollars are going to the right place.

That's where choosing a good tour operator comes in. Needless to say, many of these outfits were Joe's Travel, until they found out people would spend money on anything with "eco" in it, and then they became Joe's Ecotravel.

The Ecotourism Society has guidelines to help find a truly eco-friendly operator. For example, a company should be able to show that funds from a trip go directly to the local community -- this includes employing locals and using lodging and food from the area. The society also recommends asking tour operators about what they do for local conservation. Find out if they donate money to local organizations that concentrate on environmental concerns, or if the operators have established local conservation projects.

Most experts recommend ecotourists begin their regional education before jumping on a burro in Copper Canyon, giving a big ol' Texas hello to the Quechua Indians at Lake Titicaca, or getting friendly with the fauna of Irian Jaya. After all, even the most environmentally conscious souls can become high-impact clods once the fanny pack is strapped on.

One tourism group says those considering ecotravel should "begin from the undeniable assumption that your very presence in a place is going to have an impact, both environmental and cultural. Then, take steps to ensure the impact is going to be positive. Begin by reading articles and books, speaking with people who have traveled there, and choosing a travel company that shares your concerns." Muñoz, after years of experience working with socially responsible tourists, imparts some simple advice: "Be humble."