ECO-TRAVEL, FAR OR NEAR

Tip of the Month – November 2012

By Cynthia Ruzzi, President, Sustainable Danville Area

Often the telltale sign of a person’s recent vacation is the burnish on their face from the suntan they acquired during their travels.  Last week, renewing my car insurance with local Danville Area Sustainable Business, William White Allstate, I couldn’t help but notice owners Bill and Teresa had a glow that went beyond the color on their face.  Teresa explained to me that their family had just returned from an eco-tour to Borneo, Malaysia.

The family chose to spend their vacation visiting the tropical rainforest as Teresa shared, “As a family we have a balanced perspective on environmental protection – we’re definitely not tree-huggers – but we wanted to visit Borneo because rainforests offer so much to people and our planet.  We wanted to learn more about the impact irresponsible development has on endangered species both within the forest and the surrounding ocean”.  The Whites’ avid scuba divers who have long practiced “taking pictures, but leaving only bubbles,” applied the same philosophy to their land-based eco-tour.  This time they “hiked the miles, left no trace – except the smile on their face”.

While rainforests absorb a great deal of carbon dioxide from the air, help make rainfall and are home to more than half of the worlds’ plants and animals, I wondered if this was the cause of Bill and Teresa’s collective glow?  Bill chimed in that their time spent together in Borneo was other-worldly filled with animals, birds and plants that they had never imagined.  Bill shined, “it was really meeting and talking with local people and learning some of their customs that was most humbling and heart-warming”.

With the holiday season just around the corner, and my husband and I eschewing ‘things for the sake of things’, I had to ask – what is eco-tourism?  Eco-tourism, along with eco-travel, responsible tourism, sustainable tourism and a bunch of other expressions commonly used, defines travel that is environmentally, socially, culturally and economically aware, that strives to appreciate, to nurture and enhance – not exploit – the visited destination.

A search on the Internet brings up numerous examples of ‘green-washing’ within the travel industry, with every other hotel chain touting a green veneer to market their weak sustainability efforts to gain sales. Organic shampoo and body wash, but offered in mini-plastic bottles?  Honestly?  Due diligence is necessary to research the tour operations before committing to your trip. Write or call to ask direct questions about the tour company’s ecological practices, lodging, activities, transportation and how they involve local communities and economies.

While eco-tourism doesn’t necessarily mean roughing-it, it is important to understand how water, heating, food and transportation are supplied for visitors’ convenience.  What measures do your accommodations take to reduce waste and conserve local resources?  How do they heat water and provide electricity?  The Rainforest Lodge in Borneo, where the Whites’ stayed, is an ‘off-the-grid’ lodge hosting a maximum of 60 guests.  Solar panels connected to batteries provide most of the electricity and full-house nighttime demands are met by various staff members hopping on bicycles (guest participation is optional) rigged to generate additional power.   Teresa assured me that this unique system was reliable and that we have more electrical blips locally then experienced at the lodge.

When visiting local sights, does the tour company use low-impact forms of transportation?  Often the best way to experience someplace new is to take the bus or the train and meet the people. Respect the customs and try the food. However beware that endangered species may be on the menu without your knowledge, so in preparation check with local conservation organizations to know what to avoid.  Bill and his family believe to gain the best experience from an eco-tour one must also be a good eco-tourist.  Responsibility begins when you start to plan your trip.  Consider travel to World Heritage sites where conservation, nature and culture are the key attraction. Visit UNESCO World Heritage at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list and Protected Planet at www.protectedplanet.net to gather ideas before researching specific tours.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature has a useful top-ten list for eco-tourists at www.iucn.org/?uNewsID=7253.

For more ideas and tips on eco-tourism Sustainable Danville Area invites you to our Thursday, November 8th forum, 6:00pm at San Ramon Valley High School Career Center, lower level of the administration building.  Our evening speakers, Judith Scott, Travel Consultant from Alamo World Travel and Tours & Alma Megeath, President Eco-Adventures along with hosts William White Allstate will have lots to share – including fun snacks and beverages.  For more information about Sustainable Danville Area and upcoming events, visit us at www.sustainabledanville.com and on Facebook.

Reprinted with permission from Danville Today News

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