A notch above: a TourIndia Kerala tree house
A notch above: a TourIndia Kerala tree house

The Green Awards

Four travel outfitters that are doing it right

A notch above: a TourIndia Kerala tree house

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For those who want to mix pleasure with principled travel, here are a few expedition guides that get a gold star for treading lightly and forging ahead with sustainable tourism.

A notch above: a TourIndia Kerala tree house A notch above: a TourIndia Kerala tree house

In 1999, to celebrate its 75th anniversary, Tauck World Discovery, which travels to all seven continents and offers more than 100 upscale trips, sent a handful of its 450 staff members on a monthlong volunteer stint in Mesa Verde National Park. This move inspired an avalanche of good deeds: Tauck has since donated more than $1 million in grants to various national park projects and now offers regularly scheduled volunteer opportunities for both its staff and guests. Projects have included building new fences around George Washington’s headquarters in Valley Forge and mucking out the rangers’ horse stables behind Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Next year, travelers who sign up for Tauck tours can volunteer for cleanups at Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Zion national parks. For more details, call Tauck World Discovery at 800-788-7885, or visit its Web site at www.tauck.com.

Since 1958, this ship-based tour operator has taken clients to the loneliest points on the planet, from Antarctica to Norway’s Svalbard Islands. Acutely aware of the impact tourism has on these fragile ecosystems, the company set up an environmental management system in 2000 to reduce consumption and waste on its vessels. Clients can also help preserve the landscapes they’re visiting: Since 1997, Lindblad guests have donated $1.5 million to the company’s Galápagos Conservation Fund. Call Lindblad at 800-397-3348 for more information, or visit its Web site at www.lindblad.com.

This innovative outfitter, operating in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, has, over the last quarter-century, become India’s model for small-scale sustainable tourism. One of its first projects was retrofitting kettuvallams, or rice boats, into low-impact houseboats to show visitors Kerala’s scenic backwaters. That was followed by village tours via open bullock carts, and by the construction of an eco-lodge near Vythiri, in North Kerala, where guests stay in private tree houses 86 feet off the ground. But the company’s greatest success so far is the development, in 2001, of the 22-mile Periyar Tiger Trail, which protects rare tigers and other species by partnering with the Kerala Forest Authority to patrol and monitor all activity within the 300-square-mile Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. It employs former poachers as forest rangers and trekking guides. For more details, call TourIndia Kerala at 011-91-471-233-0437, or visit its Web site at www.tourindiakerala.com.

This Malaysia-based outfitter set up the Sukau Ecotourism Research and Development Centre in 2000 to funnel some of the profits from its Sukau Rainforest Lodge into conserving a portion of the million-acre Lower Kinabatangan River Basin, where the Asian elephant population was being forced out by logging. In addition, the center has adopted 64 acres of the degraded riverine land and invites every guest to plant a tree. The goal? To put 5,000 seedlings in the ground this year. For details, call Borneo Eco Tours at 011-60-88-234009, or check out its Web site at www.borneoecotours.com.

A Blueprint That Breathes

The world’s leading eco-architect on how to build green

MOST OF US IMAGINE that a stay at an eco-lodge means eyeballing howler monkeys from the deck of a tree house with a cup of shade-grown espresso. But beyond a remote location and a few solar panels, what makes a lodge “eco”? We asked internationally renowned eco-architect and planner HITESH MEHTA to walk us through the creation of a sustainable retreat that mixes the eco, the exotic, and the luxe.

Drawing up plans for the proposed LOBOLO ECOLODGE, on the western edge of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, Mehta began where all good design should: with the neighbors. “The local people are seldom included in the initial planning or in the assessment of a lodge’s potential impacts,” says Mehta, a Kenyan-born Indian working for the Florida landscape architecture firm EDSA. “Yet they are the ones who know the resources and whose culture needs to be respected.”

The pastoral Turkana tribe, whose cattle still graze the arid moonscape surrounding the lake, hold two things sacred: water and grass. So Mehta incorporated, for example, a path for cows, and gutterless buildings that speed rain back to the soil.

Although construction has been on hold due to regional strife, Kenya’s political situation has cleared, and Mehta’s client, the Kenyan outfitter Jade Sea Safaris, is already using the site as a tent camp for birders, cultural tourists, and fossil-seekers headed across the lake to the Koobi Foora archaeological sites made famous by the Leakeys. When completed, Lobolo Ecolodge will be luxurious—$300 a night for bush convenience—but its footprint will be decidedly low-key: Eco-architecture often means reining in grand plans—forget the gold-plated faucets if the metal was mined by exploited workers—in favor of local supplies. Mehta’s team studied native plants, searched out sustainably harvested timber, and found the best outdoor lighting that still allows for power stargazing. Will Lobolo’s guests appreciate Mehta’s hard work? Yes, if it’s done right. “The lodge will feel timeless,” he says. “Its main feature is the natural world. If we cannot create an almost spiritual connection to nature, we have failed.”

AERIAL VIEW OF SITE: “The whole landscape around Lobolo Ecolodge is a desert, and the site of the lodge is actually an oasis,” explains Mehta. “We wanted to make sure that we did not overdesign and therefore violate the limits of acceptable change to the site.” Mehta’s team calculated the carrying capacity of the spring-fed oasis, then subtracted the water needed to keep the cattle pasture green and to replenish groundwater sources. The final tally: enough water for only 16 guest units, eight campsites, and 12 units of staff housing—roughly 85 people in all. Structures are set far enough from the lake to make it accessible to cattle, goats, and shorebirds.

LAKE TURKANA is home to huge flocks of flamingos, and serves as a nesting site or flyway for 350 other bird species. It’s also a fine swimming hole (albeit one shared with crocodiles and hippos), so there’s no need for an energy-and water-hogging pool.

STAFF HOUSING: 12 to 15 employees (80 percent of the 20- to 30-person staff will be locals) will live on the grounds with their families.

C. A small GROCERY STORE and medical dispensary for use by locals and guests will be staffed by members of the Turkana tribe.

D. The tribe helped identify the best route for this CATTLE PATH to nearby grass pastures. “We want the Turkana to feel pride in this design,” says Mehta.

DOUM PALMS AND LEAFLESS ACACIAS are indigenous to the area but have been damaged by El Ni-o storms. Reestablishing these will attract native birds and insects.

A Blueprint That Breathes, PT II

SIDE VIEW OF GUEST UNIT: Each of the two-unit guest villas—framed out of local pine—will be built on stilts to protect them from flash floods in the brief monsoon season and to allow the natural flow of surface water into the lake. The Turkana helped identify the best cabin spots for viewing sunrises over the water and for spotting the occasional oryx or gazelle. A. LIGHTS: Outside, movement-sensitive lights will point downward to maximize stargazing and reduce light pollution. Inside, you’ll find only low-wattage bulbs.

B. CONSTRUCTION: No nails will be used, because of their “high energy embodiment”—steel is made by burning fossil fuels, and the folks at Lobolo prefer their fossils in the ground. Tongue-and-groove construction will hold timber flooring and ceiling boards in place, and sisal ropes and palm strings will be used to secure the rafters to the roof frame.

C. GARDEN: Recycled gray water will irrigate the grounds and the organic vegetable garden. The lodge will eventually have two “constructed wetlands” to purify septic waste naturally. The camping area will use water-free composting toilets.

D. PORCH AWNINGS will be woven by the Turkana out of reeds from nearby wetlands and fast-growing bamboo.

E. BATHROOMS: Low-flush toilets will use only 1.6 gallons per flush, instead of the standard commercial 3.5. Even better, the shower heads will use a half-gallon per minute at high pressure, compared with the normal 2.5. Only biodegradable, non-phosphate shampoo and soap may be used.

F. ROOFS will be fashioned out of sisal-fiber-reinforced cement tiles, which will be made on-site. Energy will be supplied by photovoltaic panels.

INTERIOR: Floors will be made of local slate from the town of Loiyangalani, and furniture, floor mats, and recycling baskets will be locally constructed from palm fronds. Mosquito nets will keep the odd bug away, and ceiling fans and roof vents will serve as air-conditioning. You might sweat a little when summer temps reach 104 degrees, but just think: No noise to drown out the songs of the African skimmers, wagtails, and stints.

On The Beaten Track

We came, we saw…and every so often we left entire landscapes worse for the wear. Outside grades the good and the bad of five classic destinations.

Yearbook pictures were never this good: inhabitants of the Galapagos ham for the camera and their A- outlook
Yearbook pictures were never this good: inhabitants of the Galapagos ham for the camera and their A- outlook (Weststock)

Conservation Efforts C
Community Involvement B-
Outlook C+

Since Nepal opened its doors to outsiders in the 1950s, Western trekkers have flocked to the Annapurna region by the tens of thousands—bringing with them a demand for firewood and cheap labor. By the mid-1980s, large swaths of pine forest had been cut, ill-equipped porters working for $2 a day were dying of exposure, and enough ramen wrappers littered the ground to earn the area a reputation as one of the highest trash heaps on earth. The nonprofit Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), charged with managing the area since 1986, teaches locals about alternative fuels, waste disposal, and fair labor conditions; groups like the Boulder, Colorado-based Himalayan Explorers Connection (www.hec.org) assist porters by collecting clothing donations and lobbying for better wages and working conditions. But without enforced government mandates, outfitters have no incentive to jump on the bandwagon, and both workers and the environment continue to suffer. Meanwhile, the recent Maoist uprisings have brought tourism here to a near-standstill. This may help the ecosystem, but it hurts the economy.

The adventure outfitter KarmaQuest (650-560-0101, www.karmaquests.com) emphasizes interaction with local villagers and donates up to 5 percent of its take to ACAP. The company’s Annapurna Circuit trips are on hold until the region stabilizes; in the meantime, try its 12-day trek through the calmer Langtang Valley.

Conservation Efforts A
Community Involvement B
Outlook A-

Even Darwin would likely appreciate how tourism benefits this arid archipelago, home to the mockingbirds and finches that inspired his evolutionary theory. The logic is economic: By providing island residents with alternative job opportunities, the travel sector discourages them from turning to the region’s most destructive industry, illegal fishing. Annual visits by some 60,000 natural-history buffs have helped create jobs for more than 1,000 locals, and the Galápagos, a protected area since 1959, has the controls in place to limit their impact: Tourists must stick to 60 designated sites and travel with park-certified guides, and strict laws cover everything from trash disposal to shoe-washing (required to prevent the introduction of foreign species). But with only two boats on hand to patrol 23,000 square miles of ocean, illegal tuna, shark, and sea-cucumber fishing continues to be a problem. Unless the Galápagos National Park Service finds funding for additional surveillance boats and increases fines for fishing violations, the islands’ stellar eco-record may be tarnished within this decade.

Untamed Path (800-349-1050, www.untamedpath.com) employs local naturalist guides and charters eight- to 16-passenger boats (quieter and less obtrusive than the standard 90-man yachts), so you’ll have access to quiet nooks—and giant tortoises, dolphins, and sea lions—that the mega-yachts can only long for from a distance.

Conservation Efforts C+
Community Involvement C+
Outlook C

In the low season, it’s a sight more common than the Big Five: Land Rovers zooming across the plains to encircle a lone, wigged-out cheetah. Safari guides, under pressure to secure the perfect photo op for paying customers, too often let environmental concerns fall by the wayside. The standards—or lack thereof—were set in the 1960s, when Kenya’s post-independence government recognized safari tourism as a potential cash cow and encouraged foreign development but neglected to protect the land and wildlife. While the standards have been raised since the 583-square-mile Masai Mara was turned into a national reserve in 1974, little has been done to encourage lodges to properly handle garbage and wastewater, reduce firewood consumption at the region’s 25 camps and lodges, or compensate the original Masai inhabitants booted off their land. Despite a few recent positive steps—the Kenya Professional Guides Association is testing guides on game-park ethics, and the Ecotourism Society of Kenya has developed a very basic lodge certification program—little passes eco-muster in the world’s most popular wildlife-watching destination.

Dream Camp (011-254-2-57-74-90, www.dreamtravel.co.ke), on the banks of the Talek River, is a progressive anomaly for Kenya. Spend your nights in one of 15 thatch-roofed tents with solar power and hot showers. By day, follow expert Masai guides on foot to spot lions, cheetahs, and wildebeests without disturbing their habitats.

Conservation Efforts C+
Community Involvement B
Outlook C

As recently as the 1970s, Peru’s 30-mile path from the Urubamba River to the ancient city of Machu Picchu, at 7,710 feet, appeared untouched. A decade later, travelers joked that you didn’t need a guide to get up there—you could just follow the toilet paper. Despite the international cleanup efforts that began in the mid-1980s, repairing the damage done by as many as 900 hikers a day proved to be, well, an uphill battle. Promising change came in 2000: The area was declared a national park, and new laws required that visitors be accompanied by an officially licensed guide. A porter strike in 2001 led to a maximum weight limit of 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) per bag and a minimum wage of $8 per day. And starting this year, a daily limit of 450 hikers will be imposed, cutting high-season traffic in half. “The Inca Trail is better than it’s been,” says Kurt Kutay, longtime guide and owner of Seattle-based Wildland Adventures. “But if you’re looking for a wilderness experience, go somewhere else.”

Hike the Inca Trail, with Wildland Adventures (800-345-4453, www.wildland.com), which runs small-group trips with four to ten people to minimize impact and limit trail crowding, and is staffed entirely by locals. Wildland has also run trash-removal trips to pick up all that toilet paper that littered the trail.

Conservation Efforts A
Community Involvement A
Outlook A

In 1954, three decades before Costa Rica became the world’s first packaged-ecotourism destination, a group of conscientious-objector American Quakers bought a chunk of orchid-and-fern-dotted forest in the 5,000-foot Tilarán Mountains, resolving to protect it from the devastation of slash-and-burn agriculture. When the San José-based nonprofit Tropical Science Center took over in 1972, it upheld that commitment to preservation. Home to endangered jaguars, three-toed sloths, and more than 400 bird species, the 25,950-acre Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve today sees upwards of 55,000 visitors a year and remains an international model for tourism-centered conservation. Only 150 people can visit at a time, and tourists must keep to a few marked trails that cover only 2 percent of the reserve. Tourism has created a thriving market for the local weaving-and-handicrafts co-op, and key decisions, like the one to limit the number of visitors, are made with input from local residents.

“Responsible” doesn’t have to mean basic. Four miles from the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, The Monteverde Lodge (011-506-257-0766, www.costaricaexpeditions.com) has solar-powered Jacuzzis, a cozy bar where all glass and paper are recycled, and a fern-and-bromeliad garden that draws cloudforest wildlife to your doorstep.

Emerging Eco-Markets

The rising stars of sustainable development

After the revolution? An eco-renaissance: Venezuela's Angel Falls
After the revolution? An eco-renaissance: Venezuela's Angel Falls (Dan Morrison)

GUYANA In 1989, the government set out to prove that a rainforest can yield social and economic profits without being systematically destroyed, and turned the 916,800-acre Iwokrama Forest into a development-free zone. The Trip Iwokrama Rainforest Adventures ($425 per person; 011-592-225-1504, www.iwokrama.com) offers a four-day canoeing excursion on the Essequibo River, where you can fish for piranha, paddle rapids, and spot black caimans.

PANAMA Forget about Noriega, the canal, and that little invasion we spearheaded in 1989. Panama is angling to be the next Costa Rica, with nearly 6,000 square miles of public lands and a wildlife population (jaguars, tapirs, giant sea turtles, sloths) that’ll make any tropical nation green with envy. The Trip From your treetop-level bed at the Canopy Tower eco-lodge (a five-story former radar tower) in Soberan’a National Park (doubles from $200; 011-507-264-5720, www.canopytower.com), you’ll wake up eye to eye with purple-throated fruitcrows.

THE GAMBIA Its large beach resorts have drawn sun-worshiping Brits for decades. But lately tourists are aflutter over this tiny English-speaking West African nation’s avian activity: It’s possible to see up to 300 bird species in a two-week trip. This popularity is largely due to companies like Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, which has joined forces with Clive Barlow, one of The Gambia’s best-known ornithologists, to provide bird-watchers with ample sightings. The Trip Take a 16-day birding excursion with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours ($4,295; 800-328-8368, www.ventbird.com) to Abuko and Tanji forest reserves and Kiang National Park.

VENEZUELA Once the current political crisis has been resolved, Venezuela is equipped for an eco-renaissance: In 2002, Angel-Eco Tours, a Caracas-based outfitter, formed ecotourism advocacy group EcoAlianza to better market the country’s 43 national parks. The Trip Bravely carrying on through this winter’s unrest (besides, the Caracas airport is 20 miles from downtown), Angel-Eco Tours ($1,499; 888-475-0873, www.angel-ecotours.com) offers an eight-day excursion to 3,212-foot Angel Falls led by local Pem-n Indian guides. Guests live with the Indians in their camps and visit other sacred waterfalls.

The virtual vanguard of intelligent ecotourism

www.planeta.com A comprehensive site that provides information on travel books, eco-forums, special reports, and other musings on the green scene. www.sustainabletravel.org Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel, a spin-off of The World Travel & Tourism Council, was developed in 2000 to promote sustainable business practices in the travel and tourism industries. www.ecotourism.org The official Web site of the International Ecotourism Society gives a glimpse into the industry. For a $75 annual fee, join and gain access to its global network of 1,600 members. www.tourismconcern.org.uk This UK-based Concern campaigns for ethical tourism. The current cause is convincing trek operators to commit to guidelines that protect porters. www.manaca.com This Washington, D.C.-based travel retailer sends employees around the world to evaluate a resort’s worthiness. If the property is up to Manaca’s “Eco-Assessment” standards, it gets a juicy online write-up.

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