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eco tourism

Sparkles? I wondered sleepily as I opened my eyes. It was pitch black save for the heavy-duty dusting of glittering gold around me. Stars? I thought next, slowly gathering my wits about me. I rubbed my eyes, and suddenly my ears were flooded with noise.

Howling monkeys, chirping frogs, hooting owls, buzzing insects, and other miscellaneous fauna I didn’t even try to identify.

In the distance, waves crashing.

Then I remembered where I was: in a bed, at Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge on Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast.

My mom slept beside me; my sister, on the opposite side of bungalow No. 9, one of 15 situated amid impossibly tall trees on 4,000 acres of preserved forest land. Nature was upon us in all its noisy nighttime glory.

Fireflies, I realized. Not manmade sequins or celestial bodies but phosphorescent Lampyridae held at bay, like the other creatures, by thin walls of mosquito netting.

I watched the fireflies, their bodies flashing as though they were communicating in code. I couldn’t interpret the message, and my eyelids grew slack. The fireflies’ unique lights converged into one subtle explosion as I drifted back to sleep with the vague feeling I was experiencing something very special.

Ecotourism Explosion

“Special” is one way to describe the ecotourism experience. “Booming” is another.

The concept — getaways designed to conserve the environment and improve the welfare of the local community — emerged in the late 1970s, an era marked by growing interest in ecological and cultural preservation. As the global environmental movement grew, so did this niche sector of tourism. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) was launched as a nonprofit in 1990 to promote ecotourism as a tool for conservation and sustainable development.

TIES and other like-minded travel groups inspired and supported the rising consumer demand for ethical-travel opportunities that has made ecotourism one of the fastest-growing sectors of the travel industry.

Protected natural areas worldwide host an estimated 8 billion visitors annually, according to a 2015 study published in the journal PLOS Biology. The most visits per area occur in North America — with 2.5 billion in the United States — and the fewest in Africa. The total in direct spending worldwide was $600 billion.

“Our $600 billion figure for the annual value of protected-area tourism is likely to be an underestimate,” notes study author Robin Naidoo, PhD, of the World Wildlife Fund. “Yet it dwarfs the less than $10 billion spent annually on safeguarding and managing these areas.”

Consumer demand is reflected in traveler surveys, as well. A 2011 Condé Nast Traveler poll found that 93 percent of readers think travel companies should protect the environment, with 58 percent saying their travel decisions are influenced by the support a hotel gives its local community. A 2013 survey of 1,300 U.S. travelers indicated that nearly two-thirds “often” or “always” consider the environment when choosing hotels, transportation, and meals.

Wild Nicaragua

While these numbers reveal a growing interest in sustainability and ecological preservation among vacationers, I’m embarrassed to admit I became an ecotourist during last summer’s trip to Nicaragua by accident — and out of laziness.

I’d been invited to a friend’s wedding and simply didn’t have the energy to plan the trip with my signature level of persnicketiness. I booked flights for myself, my mom, and my sister; reserved a weeklong stay at the wedding site; and figured we’d wing the rest. “There’ll be volcanoes for you to climb and jungles to run through, and you can learn to surf,” my friend promised when he invited me to his ancestral home — as though I needed more incentive than the wedding celebration.

Morgan’s Rock is a hideaway nestled into the cliffside jungles facing a milelong, white-sand beach near San Juan del Sur, a sleepy surf town about two hours south of Nicaragua’s capital, Managua.

Nearly half the property is a private reserve with forests that are home to spider, howler, and capuchin monkeys, as well as white-tipped deer, sloths, anteaters, and a variety of native and migrant birds and reptiles. The beach serves as a sanctuary for two species of endangered sea turtles. I spotted monkeys playing in the trees while drinking my morning coffee on our private patio and later watched lizards stalking insects by the lights of the bar. Red and blue crabs beautifully, if nervously, skittered about the grounds.

Morgan’s Rock is also home to a low-impact agricultural project, a working farm called El Aguacate. Thanks to the cows, chickens, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and a sustainable shrimp farm, the ecolodge sources about 60 percent of its food from the premises. And it supports the local fishing industry, as well as vendors, farmers, and tradespeople; its pottery collection comprises handcrafted pieces by artisans in nearby San Juan de Oriente.

The resort staff — nearly all of whom are local Nicas and speak fluent English — welcomed every opportunity to tell me about “wild Nicaragua” and encouraged us to explore the site by hiking, climbing, kayaking, and paddleboarding.

The goal is to create awareness of the natural world and the local communities that support it, they explained. With awareness comes respect, and with respect, a sense of shared humanity that they hope will lead to additional protection, preservation, and sustainability efforts.

This attitude isn’t unique to Morgan’s Rock. Ecolodges in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil, such as the Caiman Ecological Refuge, and eco-friendly hotel chains, like Six Senses in Thailand, Vietnam, the Maldives, and Oman, feature environmentally sustainable lodging, renewable energy, innovative waste management and reduction, as well as recycling and composting. They maintain on-site organic and biodynamic farms and gardens, support local growers and tradespeople, employ local workers, and protect native animals and vegetation.

When I booked my Nicaragua trip, I was seeking convenience and a relaxing getaway. But now that I know the world of possibilities available for responsible travelers, I’m a bit anxious about planning the next one. Despite the popularity of ecotourism, it can be difficult (and prohibitively expensive) to plan a vacation that is clean from start to finish — most notably because air travel is one of the leading sources of carbon emissions.

So aim for awareness rather than perfection when seeking sustainable vacation options. Just as you contribute to an eco-friendly culture at home — recycling and composting; opting to walk, bike, or take public transport; planting native trees and wildflowers; supporting local businesses — simply pay attention to your habits and be intentional about your actions. You might just end up in paradise.

Green Travel or Greenwashing?

As ecotourism has grown in popularity, many travel providers and hotels have jumped onto the “green travel” bandwagon while doing little to actually support its sustainable practices and conservation efforts.

“Greenwashing” — claiming to be eco-friendly without making a significant effort to minimize environmental impact — occurs in all industries, and travel is no exception. A hotel chain, for example, might promote itself as green because it allows guests the option of reusing towels or sleeping on the same set of sheets for more than one night. But, according to the University of Oregon’s Greenwashing Index (GWI), this policy “actually does very little to save water and energy where it counts — on its grounds, with its appliances and lighting, in its kitchens, and with its vehicle fleet.”

There is no internationally recognized group that certifies the environmental practices of the travel industry, so it’s mostly up to individual vacationers to make their getaways as green as possible. These suggestions can help you be a savvy eco-minded traveler:

  1. Research companies that market themselves as being green, advises the GWI. Can you easily find more information about the company’s sustainable business practices on its website? Does it have a comprehensive environmental story? Is there credible information to substantiate its green claims? If not, let the buyer beware.
  2. Look for a seal or certification mark from a recognized, independent third-party organization that specializes in verifying green advertising — such as the U.S. Green Building Council or Rainforest Alliance — and check with the certifier to verify the company’s marketing claims.
  3. Ask tour operators and hotels directly about their waste-management operations and conservation policies, as well as the percentage of employees who are local residents and whether they support any projects that benefit the local community or environment.
  4. Avoid trips that involve interacting with wild or captive animals, such as riding an elephant or petting a lion cub.
  5. Support local tradespeople and artisans, but don’t buy products made from endangered plant or animal species or remove natural features, such as wildflowers, rocks, or shells, from the landscape.
  6. Consider purchasing carbon offsets to minimize the environmental impact of vacation flights.

Find more tips at

Green Getaways

These vacation spots value sustainability and earth-friendliness without sacrificing relaxation and discovery.

Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast

Where: Browntown, Wis.
What: This B&B is situated in a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, restored with salvaged materials, sustainably harvested wood, recycled tile, no-VOC paints and sealers.
Why: The site utilizes wind and solar energy, wood heating, organic and natural cotton linens, composting, and eco-cleaners. An extensive organic garden and solar straw-bale greenhouse provide food year-round. Inn Serendipity also offsets carbon emissions from guests’ travel by planting trees through the Trees for Travel program.
Learn more:

Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge

Where: Homer, Alaska
What: Located in Kachemak Bay State Park, this eco-lodge embodies a “leave no trace” philosophy; it’s committed to remaining off-the-grid and completely self-supporting. The cabins, which are handmade with milled local driftwood and can house eight guests, are located on a remote, privately owned beach, accessible only by water taxi, float plane, or helicopter.
Why: The lodge is powered by wind and hydroelectric energy, recycles its trash, and sources its food from an organic vegetable garden. Activities include nature walks to tidal flats and alpine valleys as well as opportunities for hiking, fishing, sea kayaking and wildlife watching. The owners are developing plans to have the area declared a mountain-goat sanctuary.
Learn more:

Forest House Wilderness Lodge

Where: La Ronge, Saskatchewan
What: Forest House is composed of three “eco-cabins” in northern Saskatchewan’s boreal forest and lake country, which is world renowned for its canoeing.
Why: The combination log/wood-frame cabins are made of materials rescued from landfills and selectively harvested trees. The site is powered by solar energy with a backup generator and features woodstoves for heating, composting and recycling, graywater systems, and an organic garden. The owners are also active in protecting the region from logging.
Learn more:

El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa

Where: Taos, N.M.
What: This luxury resort is built in the adobe style using recycled fly ash and designed to blend into the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Why: Powered by solar cells, El Monte Sagrado treats its wastewater with a system called the Living Machine that uses plants, fish, and other organisms to cleanse wastewater and rainwater for reuse. Other features include composting, recycling, rainwater collection, and a pool treated with an eco-friendly chlorine substitute.
Learn more:

For help reducing your carbon footprint while traveling to these and other eco-lodges, check out these resources:

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