Eco-Travel Tales From Central America
If you’ve been shopping for a vacation destination lately, you have probably come across the term "eco-tourism". Brochures – made from recycled paper of course - entice guests with panoramic views from private lounge chairs on teak-decked terraces. Zip lines traverse deep gorges over the rainforest canopy while Howler monkeys frolick in their natural habitat. These venues boast of private reserves, diverse ecosystems and an opportunity to experience nature in unprecedented fashion. Reef or rainforest, mountain or jungle - tourist locales around the world attempt to leverage travelers’ desires to be environmentally friendly. After a recent trip to Central America – well-known for its pioneering efforts in eco-tourism – here’s what you need to know before you book an eco-trip.
Wannabe eco-travelers quickly discover that the tourism industry, like many large industries, uses greenwashing to sell itself. Eco-tourism is used in so many different ways lately that it has become virtually meaningless. Is it reaching a summit via helicopter and getting out to take photographs or is it trekking to a volcanic hot spring using native guides and consuming locally prepared food? Are activities such as camping or snorkeling eco-tourism, whether or not much thought is given to the ecological impact or sustainability of the activities?
According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to more commercial tourism, its purpose is to educate the traveler, to provide funds for ecological conservation, or to directly benefit the economic development of local communities.
Scuba tanks, Belize - photo credit Jane Schonberger
Being an eco-tourist, however, is somewhat of a contradiction. When traveling, I am hyperconscious of trying to protect the environment while constantly reminded that my very existence is disrupting it. Unregulated, eco-tourism extends only marginal benefits to local communities while incurring serious environmental and social consequences. As more travelers opt for comfort over conservation, the negative impact on the environment may be irreparable.
There was a time when remote nature destinations, such as the Galapagos, Mt. Everest and the Costa Rican cloud forest, were visited by only the most rugged of travelers (and when younger I counted myself among those adventurers). With improved access, however, these destinations are marketed to the masses and not surprisingly, companies promote themselves as "eco" simply to sell more trips.
I spent three weeks over the summer in Central America, beginning with Belize, which is fast becoming one of the biggest boom areas of the Caribbean. Despite its small size, over 40% of Belize is protected territory known as a green zone. The country offers some of the most spectacular ecological environments including the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere (if you're a diver the Blue Hole is a must). Ancient Mayan ruins, vast cave systems, beaches and other natural attractions serve as a magnet for tourists from all over the world.
When booking tours (in Central America and elsewhere) try to avoid those that do little to educate the traveler and do nothing for conservation or local economic development. Most dive operators in Belize, for example, are well trained in reef protection and will probably deliver a lecture about protecting the reef before you even hit the water. (I'm looking at you Everett). This is essential at sites like Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley where filled-to-capacity boats ring the reef daily.
Other attractions, like the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Belize (another highlight of my trip), allow only guided tours for the protection of both habitat and visitors. If you opt to forgo the packaged tours and explore independently, be sure to hire a licensed guide - both to learn more about the region’s heritage as well as to support the local economy. ATM not only offers a memorable caving adventure, but is an ancient Mayan burial site rich with history. Think Indiana Jones (sans boulder) and you get an idea of what the experience is like.
With the rise in eco-tourism comes the emergence of new hotels and resorts that promote socially responsible ideals. But here is where it gets a bit tricky. I found a lot of establishments throw the word "eco" into their name or marketing materials in an effort to be relevant. Sometimes, however, an eco-lodge or eco-adventure is just a fancy way of saying rustic, natural or no frills.
If you want air conditioning in Central America, you probably won't find it at a true eco-lodge - the energy necessary to artificially cool a room is neither natural nor energy efficient. Want lots of hot water and good water pressure? Chances are your accommodation is wasting precious resources providing it. Not crazy about bugs? Thatched roofs can’t really keep them out. A large luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere takes far more resources to build and maintain than a local inn. So, if you have some romantic notion of an unadulterated adventure, make sure you know what you're getting yourself into - especially if traveling in a third world country where there are few regulations and fewer standards.