Ecotourism Revisited

Photo: istockphoto/markjmaclean
How to create a low-impact travel experience and see the world in a whole new way.

For anyone who is tired of the traditional “fly and flop” holiday, enter Clean Breaks: 500 New Ways to See the World, a book showing how eco-travel has moved beyond its roots in responsible nature-based tourism. Authors Richard Hammond (known for his work as The Guardian’s eco-travel correspondent) and Jeremy Smith (a former editor at The Ecologist magazine) argue that the concept of ecotourism can be applied to all forms of travel—from city breaks and winter holidays to adventure travel and volunteer vacations. By focusing on having less “touristy” experiences in favour of connecting with local communities, travellers can instead support local economies, conservation efforts and cultural heritage; and most importantly, they can keep their environmental impact to a minimum. Can you imagine staying in ecolodges in Ecuador? Witnessing the zebra migration in Botswana? Camping with the Bedouin in the Middle East or horse riding with cowboys in Venezuela? Read Green Living’s interview with the globetrotting authors to find out how you too can see the world without leaving behind a big footprint.

GL: How did you select each “break”?


Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith: We based our choices on the experiences we have gained from our travels and through our contacts. We also studied the green claims made by many hundreds of operations worldwide before selecting those that we felt both offered the best experiences combined with genuine environmental and social commitments.

GL: When researching a trip, how does one distinguish adventure travel from sustainable tourism? 


RH & JS: The key thing to look for is whether the organisers of the trip genuinely try to limit the impact on the environment—both in terms of how you travel during the trip and the nature of the experience itself. Adventure travel often involves travelling to areas of wilderness, so in these instances it’s particularly important that the operators run a ‘leave no trace’ policy. Going on a Clean Break also has a social dimension: Find out if your trip benefits local economies by staying in locally run hotels and using local guides.

GL: Some people equate eco-travel to roughing it. Is there anything you have to give up to experience the kind of travel you are describing? 

RH & JS: Going on a Clean Break doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on notions of comfort or adventure: the trips we have selected are (hopefully) ones you will love to do anyway—the difference is that you can feel confident that your presence in some way benefits the locality. Many of the properties we review are as stylish and innovative as they are environmentally and socially aware, from beautifully crafted treehouses in the South of France and luxury yurts in Andalucia to eco-chic hotels in Thailand.

GL: The adventures you profile range in cost but overall would you say that sustainable travel is easier on the wallet?


RH & JS: We have profiled some breaks that are both kind to your wallet, such as mountain huts that are free to stay in and homestays that cost just a few dollars a nights, but equally we have profiled experiences at the luxury end of the market that can cost many hundreds of dollars. But in general, the experiences we profile are neither more nor less easier on the wallet. However, in many cases we think you get more for your money by choosing a more responsible holiday: For instance, the most inspiring person to take you on safari is likely to be a local guide whose ancestors have lived on the land for thousands of years; your dinner tends to be better when the cook has grown and harvested the ingredients; and, the most suitable person to take you to meet remote tribes is someone who understands their culture, speaks their language and is committed to their welfare.

For many journeys, taking it a bit slower on the train or bus instead of by air can end up a similar price when you’ve factored in all the extra costs such as getting to and from the airport. But one thing we are sure of: “slow travel” may not be as cheap, or as quick, but it’s many, many times more pleasurable. Travelling this way, your holiday starts when you begin your journey. Travel by plane and it doesn’t start until you’ve finally arrived at your end destination.

GL: Where have you personally enjoyed travelling the most? 

RH: I love visiting the French Pyrenées—the Alps may be the mountain capital of Europe, but the Pyrenées are no less dramatic and have something for everyone—including some wonderful hiking trails and some of the best river sports in Europe. In 1993, I visited the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues and saw how well managed tourism can help conserve biodiversity. During the course of researching Clean Breaks, I visited the Greek island of Zakynthos and was appalled at what I saw. The island’s marine park is home to nesting sites of loggerhead turtles, but much of it is being over-run by mass tourism.

JS: Having worked for years in the environmental sector, I have been aware of travel’s damage for a long time. I set out to research and write this book in order to find out where travel’s benefits can be, looking to find ways to continue doing what I love without harming the planet. I had so many amazing experiences for the book that it is hard to pick a favourite, but perhaps it would be the many countries I went through while travelling by train from London to Vietnam over a period of weeks.

Richard is founder of greentraveller.co.uk, an online guide to low-impact holidays; when not helping Richard with Green Traveller as a co-editor, Jeremy is developing a new social network called www.ivili.org, designed to help people discover and share simple, sustainable solutions and innovations from around the world. For more photos from the book, click here.