Ode’s annual special report explores new trends for socially responsible tourists who still just want to have fun – and shows them how to check in to an exotic eco-lodge, kick back and join the “slow travel” movement or get their hands dirty at a cozy agritourism destination.
Ode Editors | March 2008 issue
Trips that keep on giving
New trends in ecotourism help protect the environ-ment and support local communities.
Ecotourism comes in many guises—green travel, sustainable travel, responsible travel, pro-poor tourism. At its essence, though, it’s about giving more than taking. Martha Honey, a longtime leader in the field, cites several trends working in ecotourism’s favour. “People are finally looking at how global warming impacts travel,” says Honey, co-director of the Center on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, a joint program of Stanford University in California and the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. “The increased use of carbon offsets isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s raised a whole discussion that is very important.”
Beyond purchasing carbon offsets, tourism companies and travellers are giving their time and money to the communities and destinations they visit. “We’re seeing a growing trend among tourists and companies to donate funds and personal assistance to communities and countries where tourism takes place,” Honey says. “Travellers’ philanthropy is an important new source of assistance.”
Perhaps most telling is the nascent greening of the entire travel industry, from hotel chains to golf courses to ski resorts. “All of this is extremely important,” Honey notes. “We want sustainable businesses in mainstream tourism. What I’m seeing is really hopeful, and I put that down to the successes around ecotourism.”
Here are some ecotourism initiatives that offer reasons to be hopeful:
Australians Geoff Manchester and Darrell Wade have been doing philanthropic travel since they started Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel in 1989. From the beginning, they contributed money to communities they took groups of tourists to visit. In Tanzania, for instance, they support work for orphans and street children at the Amani Children’s Home at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. As the company grew, so did the support from its customers. Intrepid now assists community-based projects in more than 16 countries, covering such issues as wildlife, poverty, education, women and children, the environment and health.
In 2002, it established the Intrepid Travel Foundation, through which it matches travellers’ donations dollar for dollar. In the last fiscal year (2006-2007), the foundation disbursed $187,000 to 35 projects worldwide. For travellers wanting to combine adventure and giving, there are Intrepid Challenges, physically demanding trips that double as fundraisers for a charity selected by Intrepid.
One of ecotourism’s upsides is that it benefits host communities. At the Cree Village Ecolodge in Ontario, Canada, locals even own the place. The Cree MoCreebec Council designed the ecolodge to reflect the Cree Nation’s history and values. The centerpiece is the A-frame reception area, a large cedar-and-pine great hall overlooking the Moose River, decorated with hickory-and-bark furniture. Natural products—such as organic mattresses, wool blankets and organic toiletries—fill the 20 guest rooms, a few of which have composting toilets. The menu at the 66-seat restaurant, visited by tourists and locals, often includes Aboriginal specialties such as maple peppercorn smoked trout and buffalo ragout, as well as the more standard fare favoured by residents—burgers and fries.
Reaching the lodge on Moose Factory Island in subarctic Canada isn’t easy. In the summer, you arrive by water taxi; in the winter, over a temporary ice road. The travelling pays off when you slip into a canoe or snowshoes, join a sunset boat tour, watch the northern lights or spend time with a Cree elder.
Costa Rica is synonymous with ecotourism, and indeed the country does many things right. But not everything is perfect. Under its trademark “Reality Tour” program, San Francisco-based activist organization Global Exchange takes travellers behind the green scene to examine the successes and failures of ecotourism development in this tourism-based economy.
Through meetings with local activists, Global Exchange gives travellers the opportunity to witness how the development of natural areas for tourism has affected ecosystems and displaced local people, and how foreign investors have promoted unrestrained development of beach resorts and real estate. But it’s not all doom and gloom. During the 10-day trips, led by Costa Ricans, visitors are treated to the country’s sunnier sides too. Canopy tours, beach time, rainforest hikes, kayaking and dolphin-watching are all on the agenda.
Of course, the mere act of flying to a pristine environment makes the environment less pristine. Some major airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, are offering passengers the chance to buy carbon offsets to help mitigate part of the damage done. Costa Rican airline Nature Air has taken things one leg further.
Granted, the airline, with about 75 flights a day from its fleet of 20-passenger propeller planes, isn’t a major player. But it has managed to become the first carbon-neutral airline in the world by paying farmers to grow and protect enough trees to compensate for the emissions of its entire fleet. NatureAir reports that since 2004, it has compensated for roughly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide through the protection of more than 200 hectares (495 acres) of tropical forest on the Osa Pensinsula. And that makes the carbon footprint of NatureAir passengers a little bit lighter.
Find out more:
- Center on Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: ecotourismcesd.org
- Intrepid Travel: intrepidtravel.com
- The Intrepid Foundation: theintrepidfoundation.org
- Intrepid Challenges: intrepidchallenges.com
- Cree Village Ecolodge: creevillage.com
- Global Exchange: globalexchange.org
- NatureAir: natureair.com
Diane Daniel, travel correspondent for The Boston Globe, writes about journeys that preserve communities and land.
Go with the slow
Vacations should be more than a rush of flights, sights and fast food. All aboard for the “slow travel” movement!
Barbara Haddrill was thrilled to hear of her best friend’s engagement, and happily accepted the offer to be a bridesmaid. But because of her growing concern about the effect of flying on the environment, Haddrill decided not to take a plane to the wedding. The only problem was that she lived in rural Wales and her friend was getting married in Brisbane, Australia. But with a little pluck and a lot of planning, she made it to the ceremony on time, thanks to bikes, buses, trains, boats, the Trans-Siberian Railway, her own two feet and a six-day voyage aboard M.V. Theodor Storm, a Russian freighter carrying cargo between Singapore and Perth, Australia.
The trip took 40 days, and was filled with wonders like watching the sun rise over Siberia’s legendary Lake Baikal and discovering new foods and friends everywhere along the way. “It has changed my life in many ways,” she wrote on her blog (babs2brisbane.blogspot.com), “not just in terms of the amazing things I have seen or the people I have met but more about what I have discovered about the generosity and kindness of complete strangers.”
Haddrill is at the extreme forefront of an emerging trend called “slow travel,” a modern impulse to follow the old wisdom that getting there is half the fun. Inspired by the “slow food” movement, growing ranks of people want to remember their vacations as something more than a blur of cramped plane rides, rushed sightseeing tours, gobbled fast food and long lines at the rental car counter. They’re motivated by an indefatigable sense of adventure as well as a taste for authentic experience.
“Slow travel doesn’t mean reigning in your curiosity about seeing the world,” notes Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides travel book series. “I would say just the opposite. It gives you a better chance to experience the world. On many holidays today, you feel like you are just being dropped off somewhere, like a package.”
And flying less often, Ellingham believes, doesn’t have to involve sacrifice in either comfort or fun: “If you live in London, you’d have to be partly insane to want to fly to Paris today. It’s not faster than the Eurostar train and it’s much more hassle.”
Of course no holiday can ever be zero-impact on the environment, but that plane ride from London to Paris pumps 244 kilograms (540 pounds) of carbon into the atmosphere, more than 10 times the amount of the Eurostar train at 22 kilograms per passenger, according to a 2006 article in the UK’s Observer newspaper.
Slow travel advocates like Ellingham recognize that trains, boats or bikes don’t work for every journey we want to take. That’s why he and Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet travel guides, developed a travel campaign with the motto, “fly less, stay longer.” Treat yourself to an adventure, in other words, by spending a leisurely amount of time at just one faraway destination.
“Slow travel, like the slow food movement, is based around the idea of savouring what a local area has to offer,” points out Justin Francis, co-founder of the UK travel directory ResponsibleTravel.com. “The slow traveller visits fewer places but really gets to know each of them. It leaves you with a greater understanding of local people and places.”
Those places can even be close to home. “Part of the idea of slow travel is, at least part of the time, to visit places closer to home,” says Ellingham. “I think there’s growing interest in this. At Rough Guides, we started with foreign places like Greece and Spain and were surprised, when we finally got around to publishing books about our own backyard in England, how well they sold.”
Adds Brett Olson, “It can be as easy as pretending to be from someplace else and dropping in on a nearby town or neighbourhood in your own city.” Olson is the co-founder of Greenroutes.org, an innovative website that highlights little-known destinations in the countryside of Minnesota and North Dakota, ranging from ancient Indian rock paintings to rushing canoe streams to small-town diners with out-of-this-world pies.
“By slow travel, I am not suggesting people pull out their knitting needles, pour a cup of weak herbal tea and retire to the gazebo,” Olson says. “Slow is not the same thing as dull. It means that when you come back from a trip, you know you’ve experienced that place in a way that could not be reproduced in any other place—the taste, the smells, the feel. We think this can be done anywhere.”
Olson’s idea to highlight interesting spots hidden away in the rural Midwest, hardly a tourist mecca, was inspired by a slow travel experience in one of the world’s most frequently traveled destinations, Greece. “I was in a mountain town in Crete, far away from most other tourists. After a couple of days I began to feel the tempo of the place, hanging out in a café that was tucked away from the main road, discovering how the locals spent time, what their drink of choice is. (Ah, raki!) I came back with memories and stories I would never have had if I stayed with the crowds on the coast or just hurried through town.”
Find out more:
An online community founded by Pauline Kenny, who helped popularize the phrase
Ed Gillespie’s blog about traveling around the world without flying
Everything you need to know about train travel around the world
Fun on the farm
Agritourism is a growth industry, from Italy to Sri Lanka.
A growing number of people worldwide are interested in getting to know—and trust—their food and the people who grow it. As a result, the burgeoning organic movement has spun off another benefit: agritourism. Over the past few years, I’ve stayed on organic farms in Italy and Brazil and found the experience invigorating. With the growth of the movement, tourists can now lodge at bed and breakfasts located on farms across the globe. These B and B’s allow visitors to soak in the beauty of the countryside while sampling an authentic taste of farm life. On some farms, guests can work on the land, while other places offer a more luxurious experience that includes room, board, and the opportunity to watch your dinner ripen.
“Agritourism is a great way for people to connect with the places where food is grown,” says Tom Philpott, who runs Maverick Farms in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, which markets comfortable lodging and delicious homegrown dinners. “And of course many of these farms offer beautiful landscapes and dwellings that provide a unique experience.”
Philpott’s farm produces a full crop of vegetables sold at a farmer’s market and directly to consumers, who buy a share of the farm and then receive a box of produce once a week during the growing season. An increasing portion of farm revenue comes from agritourism. Maverick is nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and the delightful scenery is one of the primary attractions for tourists who book a stay in one of the three guest rooms. Visitors also enjoy the opportunity to watch the workings of an organic farm. After an active day of hiking or picking vegetables, many opt for a nap in the hammock down by the creek. Monthly farm dinners include three courses of all local food and, with luck, live music by the Forget-Me-Nots or another local band.
Agritourism is also gaining popularity in California and Vermont, Philpott says. At the Chanticleer Vineyard in Paso Robles, visitors can wander among the Petit Syrah, Zinfandel and Syrah grape vines, go kayaking at nearby Pacific Ocean beaches, or hear the San Luis Obispo Symphony when it’s in town. In Vermont, check out The Orchards B and B at Pam and Ray Allen’s home on an island in Lake Champlain. “Breakfasting on hot apple pie à la mode in front of the Allens’ picture window, looking out over rows of spiky apple trees with Lake Champlain winking in the middle distance is spectacular,” according to their website.
Philpott’s own inspiration for Maverick Farms came from Italy, where he stayed and, in some cases, worked on a variety of farms. Vineyards there often include quaint inns offering hospitality to visitors who come to enjoy the country’s great wine and food. Over the past decade, the trend has become more established as organic farmers discovered the richness and profitability of agritourism.
My personal favourite is Fattoria San Martino, located on the outskirts of the walled Tuscan city of Montepulciano. It is a typical Italian agritourism operation. Within an hour’s drive of Florence, Siena, Assisi and some of Italy’s finest vineyards, the traditional farmhouse-turned-B and B includes four large rooms, each with a private bathroom. Owners Antonio Giorgini and Karin Lijftogt used all-natural building materials in the renovation of their biodynamic farm and buildings. The 10-acre site includes grapes, vegetables and grains, plus fall-blooming crocuses that yield savory saffron. The swimming pond is surrounded by olive trees and has a natural filtration system that keeps the water pristine. To find other agritourism destinations in Italy, click on agritourismitaly.com or agriturismo.it.
The United Kingdom and Germany also offer agritourism options. The website landtourismus.de connects tourists in Germany with farms across the country. In the UK, Muttonhunters B and B—a sheep farm in Scotland with dramatic views, luxury accommodations and access to a remote fishing loch—might be worth a look. I’m speculating that the local single malts are pretty luxurious too!
The agritourism experience isn’t limited to the U.S. and Europe. In Brazil, I stayed at Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, a beautiful organic coffee plantation that also has mango, banana, papaya and dairy cattle. Visitors can swim in one of its big lakes, hike in virgin rainforest and stay in private cottages nestled in the trees. The hosts offer yoga retreats, craft-making seminars and other organized activities.
Though I’ve never visited, Paradise Farm in Sri Lanka sounds, well, like paradise. The farm grows spices, orchids, nuts, tea and rubber and is designed to teach villagers sustainable agriculture practises. In recent years, Paradise has added agritourism by renting a number of bungalows and guest rooms. If you’re looking for a more hands-on encounter, try World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which links tourists with farms seeking people to work on them. In exchange for labour and a small fee, guests receive accommodation for a specific period.
Agritourism is a remarkable way to connect with the locals, the land and, of course, some amazing organic food. Just thinking about it makes me want to cook some puttanesca spaghetti sauce and open a bottle of Barolo. Ciao!
Find out more:
- Maverick Farms: maverickfarms.org
- Chanticleer Vineyard: chanticleervineyardbb.com
- The Orchards B and B: allenholm.com/OrchardsBB.html
- Fattoria San Martino: fattoriasanmartino.it
- Muttonhunters B and B: muttonhunters.homestead.com/farm-bed-and-breakfast-scotland.html
- Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza: fafbrasil.com
- Paradise Farm: i-escape.com/paradisefarm.php
- World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms: wwoof.org
Jim Slama is the founder of FamilyFarmed.org, which promotes sustainable family farms in the U.S. Midwest.