Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ecotourism: A Personal Evolution

I've always dreamed of visiting someplace tropical, of experiencing all the vibrant plant and animal life unique to this warm almost season-less belt around Earth's equator. A wealth of colourful high-definition nature documentaries available, where you can almost touch exotic plants and creatures, along with easy access to information online fueled my passion, but the closest I've come to being in the tropics had been visits to conservatories and zoos here in Canada, until I finally decided to plan my bucket-list trip.

I searched online to figure out where to go to satisfy my dream and Costa Rica, considered by many tour operators to be the go-to destination for seekers of tropical nature like myself, was the obvious choice. I found an excellent tour operator that offered a tour of four ecolodges located in four different unique ecosystems. I was hesitant, not knowing what an ecolodge was. Would I be stuck in a grass-roofed hut, sleeping on a mat on the floor and eating whatever the local villagers wrestled out of the forest that day? In other words, I wasn't sure I was ready for few familiar comforts in an unfamiliar place very far from home. An ecolodge tour seemed like the kind of vacation for 20-somethings, Bohemians, intrepid backwoods hikers and granola hippies but not for me, and how the heck was I going to sell this wacky idea to my husband?  I envisioned awkward conversations around communal dinner tables where guests swap advice about saving the coffee from their used K-cups to grind into plant tea or making bird feeders out of used Ziploc bags. Like the majority of people in my Alberta town, we recycle, compost and practice as green as possible gardening at home but we are by no means the "green revolution."

What is Ecotourism?

A simple website search of the four ecolodges answered my questions and quelled my fears. They were beautiful and unique. Each lodge had stellar Trip Advisor reviews, which I hungrily read over so that I could get a sense of what it might be like there. I couldn't wait to experience these places for myself. Adding in volcano, jungle and cloud forest hikes, a zip-line tour, ocean kayaking and snorkeling, and a special evening at the Ecothermales natural hot springs made the case for going a very easy sell, and fantasy was made reality. This turned out to be a bucket-list trip for both of us, one that we will never forget!
I can now say that I am an ecotourist, but what made that trip different; what defines ecotourism? After returning home, soul fed, skin tanned and imagination sparked, I was curious about this kind of tourism. Where did it come from, how is it evolving and what is it's impact?

According to most online sources, the concept of ecotourism arose sometime between the 1960's and 1980's when negative environmental impacts of mass tourism were beginning to emerge, and some tourism companies began to embrace conservation efforts, an initiative that quickly caught on with tourists. Perhaps the first "ecotourists" were biologists who travelled into remote natural habitats to capture footage of and publish papers and articles on rare and endangered animals, fostering a passion for nature across a widening audience, including myself.

There are a few characteristics that set ecotourism apart from other types of tourism, and I've come up with the following list by combining Wikipedia's entry with the International Ecotourism Society's site and Wikipedia's closely related sustainable tourism site:

1: Tourism operators provide access to relatively undeveloped natural areas undisturbed by human activities. Tourists have opportunities to witness and experience often rare and endangered species as well as natural geographical wonders of the area that may not be available to them otherwise.

2: Small ? scale.  Tourist accommodation and activities attempt to minimize environmental impact by limiting the number of tourists in an area at any one time. An attempt is made to reduce the impact of tourists walking, driving and otherwise impacting sensitive wildlife and flora, as well as reducing garbage left behind and resource use such as fresh water and polluting fuels.

3: Cooperation between the tourist operator and the local community. Often, operators make arrangements with local providers of items, food, and activities, which enhance the tourist's awareness of and interaction with local people. Operators often also give back to their community through donations, providing employment opportunities and encouraging local entrepreneurism.

4: Education. Tourism operators encourage and develop ecological awareness in both tourists as well as surrounding local people. Some operators offer seminars and tours of their operation, proudly showing off their efforts toward water conservation, their use of locally grown organic food, recycling programs and off-the-grid power generation, while others comply to a set of ecological guidelines in a way so subtle that a tourist may be hard-pressed to find any evidence that it is in fact an ecolodge and not simply a boutique hotel or resort. All ecolodges attempt to answer guest's questions about their ecological practices.

The United Nations designated 2002 as the Year of Ecotourism, acknowledging ecotrourism's rapidly increasing impact on world habitats and economies. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Tourism Organization (WTO) jointly published an ecotourism guide for governments and providers to help them help develop this industry. Just click the link to view this guide online. According to my research, it is the most comprehensive guide available, designed to be useful to both operators (tourism companies) and consumers (us tourists), by attempting to define and quantify the concept and principles of ecotourism, and I found that reading it gave me a good sense of what ecotourism is and where it stands worldwide among other kinds of tourism.

Problems With Defining Ecotourism

According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism can be strictly defined as being distinct from another word popular in the tourism industry - sustainable tourism. Ecotourism promotes socio-economic development of local populations whereas sustainable tourism is more strictly involved with preserving the environment rather than socio-economic effects. I found that many websites use this distinction, but it does not seem to be apparent according to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which seems very interested in involving local cultures.

Although ecotourism, at first glance and first experience, appears to be a perfect situation in which tourists enjoy unique and special access to nature in often exotic locations, while local people benefit from the economic stimulus and the environment is left pristine and unharmed - it is not, as yet, the whole story.

As hinted at above, a pervasive haziness of ecotourism definitions and industry buzzwords like nature travel, ecolodge, ecoresort, green travel, ethical tourism, sustainable travel, jungle tourism and ecotourism itself warns us that this relatively new, rapidly expanding and potentially lucrative business has not yet settled into a well-regulated industry. Some operators see opportunities to green-wash their business so that they appeal to tourists, but little money is spent and effort expended to adopt ecologically sound practices. As well, a lack of clear definitions makes useful and enforceable international guidelines for operators difficult to understand, implement and adhere to, and it makes it difficult for us to compare one eco-vacation with another one when we try to plan a trip. Some advocate organizations are trying to help consumers. One example is RIGHT-tourism, created by a registered charity in the United Kingdom, called Care for the Wild International, and it is designed to help consumers make good choices when they plan their eco-vacation.

Ecotourism can also be defined as a sustainable version of nature tourism (defined as any tourism directly related to natural attractions according to Sustainable Tourism Online, which also includes cultural elements, according to the UNEP/WTO guide, but this definition, too, seems narrow to me after I experienced an ecoresort located in Heredia (suburban San José) that was not situated on virgin land, a nature preserve or a park, but instead operated an organic coffee farm with extensive tours and education about its practices. This lodge, called Finca Rosa Blanca, is one of only four ecolodges with a perfect 5-leaf eco-rating given by the Costa Rica Tourism Board.

We also stayed at El Silencio (a small collection of luxury eco-cabins located in a cloud forest), Finca Luna Nueva (a working organic turmeric and ginger farm which also has a beautiful edible garden) and Playa Nicuesa Rain Forest Lodge (right on the beach of Golfo Dulce with snorkeling, fishing, kayaking and hiking), each one beautiful, sustainable, wonderfully operated, unique and I highly recommend them. After all, these are the places that fulfilled my dream of experiencing tropical nature, and sparked my passion for ecotourism.

What is Ecotourism's Appeal?

Over the past few decades in particular, we've all become much more sensitive to our natural environment, thanks to education and the media. We've all heard horror stories on the news about ecological disasters, and we've seen many of the effects of pollution, overuse and the destruction of our dwindling natural resources. Here in Alberta, we are caught up in a battle between the environment and oil, mining and gas industries, one that has caught the world's media attention. Many of us now recycle and compost much of our waste. The town I live encourages both practices, while offering free mulch and garden compost to households. We have become increasingly aware of how our lifestyles impact our environment.

We are learning that the biodiversity of life on our planet is declining at a rate that many experts believe qualifies as a global extinction event. Our food supply is threatened by dwindling fish stocks while global climate change, soil depletion and the collapse of pollinators such as bees threaten farms, orchards and plantations around the world. We see and feel the loss of natural habitats around us as suburban sprawl and commercial and industrial development encroach on native wetlands, forest and grasslands. It is no wonder to me that more and more of us seek to recharge our batteries in places where we can see, hear and smell abundant nature all around us. Even better, we may be able to soak in a culture that offers a set of values and wisdom different from our own, where life is much simpler and remains attuned to nature. If we are lucky, we may be able to reconnect with what is lost and reacquaint ourselves with what it is to simply be a human being.

Ecotourism, in its best sense, offers us this rich hands-on immersion in the flora, fauna, and culture of a region of the world that cannot be accessed through larger resorts, cruises or big-city hotels. In the latter case, I have personally felt set apart from the reality of my destination and that my experience was a "canned" one. I am tired of blind consumption and being herded in big crowds toward revenue-generating tourist traps. Ecotourism provided me with a refreshing alternative that not only provided a sense of peace but also a sense that I was not just a number (or a dollar sign). I felt tremendous satisfaction in knowing that I was minimizing my negative impact, and thanks in large part to this experience, I have never been more aware of what my impact is.

I can say, without undue drama, that my ecotourist experience was life-changing. There are people and places that I now have a personal connection with and a stake in, and I realize that my vacation buck has the power not only to enrich my own life but to enrich that of others as well. I imagine a future grandchild or great grandchild traveling to the same places I did and experiencing them in the same pristine condition.

Ecotourism: Practical Challenges

I think it is commendable for each of us to nurture our own "save Mother Earth" philosophy, but I can feel how seductively easy it is to fall into a lifestyle that makes me feel good about myself while neglecting the work of cool-headed examination. Does ecotourism work?

Can anyone call them self an ecolodge or resort? In most countries, the answer is yes. Some operators are accredited and regularly audited by independent, objective, non-profit non-government or national or international environmental organizations, of which there are many. Others are accredited by for-profit organizations in which they pay a fee to display that organization's eco-label. Standards may be opaque or non-existent and auditing may be done by either the organization itself (implying a conflict of interest) or not at all. Some operators, with a genuine interest in establishing ecologically sound practices, are establishing their own set of standards, setting themselves up as an example to others, while other operators are simply green-washing themselves. There are no eco-police. My previous four-point definition of ecotourism, and more importantly the UNEP's guidelines, is a set of principles rather than a set of strict standards, and that is the current state of international ecotourism.

An example is Green Globe, based in California. It is a for-profit non-government environmental organization that conducts regular audits of its members through a third party company. Ecotourism companies pay a fee and sign up on a voluntary basis, and in return display that organization's accreditation. Their label is one of many tourism ecolabels found around the world. A site called Ecolabel Index, for example, lists 47 tourism ecolables, with links. Some organizations appear to be more transparent than others. Green Globe, for example, does not allow access to its standard criteria online. On the other hand, Blue Flag, a non-profit organization that offers its ecolabel certification to compliant beaches and marinas around the world, provides easily accessible detailed criteria online such as this criteria for beaches, as well as a even more detailed version in downloadable pdf format. Blue Flag is part of an umbrella non-profit non-government organization called FEE (Foundation For Environmental Education) and it has a monitoring company in each country in which it operates where members are subject to regular monitoring and both announced and unannounced visits by FEE International.

As an ecotourism consumer, it can be frustratingly difficult to find and compare ecoresorts/ecolodges around the world based on their eco accreditation. However, if a resort has accreditation with a particular eco-organization, its website will almost always show that off. For example, Kingfisher Bay Resort, an award-winning large-scale ecotourism resort in Queensland, Australia, proudly shows off its Green Travel Leader Badge, a certification it has held for over ten years, and most of its rangers hold Eco Guide Certification from Ecotourism Australia. Ecotourism Australia, which offers the badge and guide certification, is a non-profit industry organization. It has clear criteria, which are viewable online, as well as regular audits.

In contrast, Misool Eco Resort in Indonesia, one of the top-rated ecoresorts in the world, is not accredited by any particular ecolabel. It is a dive resort and conservation centre located in an archipelago of uninhabited islands rich with sensitive marine life and brimming with reef biodiversity. It maintains a 1220 sq km no-take zone patrolled by ten rangers who have established a punitive system for offenders, and it has established working relationships with several non-profit local and international charities and environmental groups such as Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the Coral Reef Alliance, but it does not hold any specific national or international ecolodge accreditation.

Some ecolodges in Indonesia do hold accreditation. One example is Ecolodges Indonesia, a privately owned eco-certified group of six lodges located in different regions in the Indonesian archipelago. It is strongly devoted to both sustainability and education, allowing visitors to observe endangered wildlife up close in conservation areas, as well as committing revenue to developing and supporting conservation projects, outlined here. Each of its lodges holds accreditation with Green Globe, and it is working to achieve its own "six pillar" system of international certification in cooperation with Green Globe 21.

Proper guidelines, accreditation and monitoring for ecolodges around the world is beginning to take shape as operators recognize that ecological soundness is extremely attractive to increasingly savvy tourists who want to minimize their ecological impact and protect the areas they visit.

Even Trip Advisor, that on-line user-based vacation-rating behemoth, has quietly taken strides into the eco-tourism foray by recently launching its GreenLeaders green certification program. Ecolodges or ecoresorts apply by filling out a survey guide with specific mandatory questions on energy use, material recycling, water use and recycling, food purchasing and acquisition practices, use of biodegradable products, recycled content of furnishings and building materials, waste treatment/composting/recycling, site and grounds management, as well as which ecological organizations they work with. This certification is currently available only to U.S. ecotourism businesses and it does not deal with cultural impact or economic impact on the community, but it is a comprehensive list of requirements that is fairly easy for the consumer to read so that he or she can understand how the business earned their GreenLeader badge displayed on Trip Advisor. It's free to businesses, transparent for travellers, and has massive potential reach, as mentioned in the Responsible Travel Blog, which provides a thoughtful review of this initiative.

One challenge in creating a single objective easy-to-use international eco-accreditation program available to consumers is that it is difficult to come up with fair evaluation criteria, considering vast differences in geology, climate, natural resources, available infrastructure, economic resources and education which exist in different countries. Many prime ecotourism resorts are located in developing and relatively poor countries where economic resources, infrastructure and ecological knowledge is limited and corruption may be a problem, making it incumbent on the operator to develop ecologically sound practices from scratch as best as he or she can, while often dealing with competing interests for land use. An article called Ecotourism: Suicide or Development? published recently by the United Nations Non-governmental Liaison Service outlines in quite horrifying detail what can and has gone wrong with so-called ecotourism in Africa. I urge a read-through.

A roadblock to successful ecotourism mentioned earlier is "green-washing" where tourist companies claim to be ecologically sound but are not following and enforcing any specific ecological practices, such as composting, recycling, and minimizing the consumption of resources. This practice threatens the legitimacy of ecotourism in general and it gives operators permission to destroy environmentally sensitive areas for profit. Several tourism operators based in Great Britain have recently come under fire for green-washing, according to a 2008 article in the Guardian.

The rising popularity of ecotourism, though good in that operators want to fill their resorts with guests, could also unravel what ecolodges and ecoresorts set to do in the first place, by overstressing the delicate environments they offer. Ecotourism, by its nature, should therefore ideally remain a specialty of tourism, consisting of smaller locally owned and managed businesses that do not grow too quickly. This way, unforeseen environmental and socio-economic impacts, which can be subtle and take time to develop, can be spotted and corrected before damage is irreversible.

Working with governments to help countries see the potential value of their natural tourist resources and to set up environmentally protected areas, while being sensitive to the needs of the local population (are you endangering their mining, forestry industry, or water supply, for example?) seems essential to the long-term success of international ecotourism, but I think this work will be a tough haul. In the meantime, the value of an ecoresort within any protected area depends on how well its eco-practices are implemented, monitored and enforced. If practices aren't carried out properly or monitored regularly, what is promoted as an ecoresort may in reality be an operation that is very damaging to an already threatened ecosystem. Ecotourism, as an international industry, ultimately requires a single set of agreed upon certification by a single independent body, based on scientifically sound initial site assessment and regular monitoring methods that need to be kept up to date, something that the UNEB stressed in its 2002 guide, and although progress has been made since then, this kind of international certification has not yet come together.

Costa Rica As a Model for Ecotourism

Some countries, in particular, Costa Rica, take ecotourism and the environment very seriously. The government has created a national Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program with the goal to turn the concept of ecolodge/ecoresort sustainability into a practice that can be monitored, measured, and preserved. The Costa Rican University and the Central America Business Administration Institute provide educational support while the National Tourism Chamber integrates the private sector into the initiative. It also cooperates with the Environment and Energy Ministry as well as the Biodiversity National Institute. Costa Rica, formerly an underdeveloped country subsisting mainly on coffee and fruit export, and devastated by banana diseases and competition with cheaper Asian coffee production, now has a rapidly growing very well educated middle class. It abolished its military decades ago and now siphons that money into free and accessible education for all of its citizens. It is one of the top 5 countries in the world in terms of its Environmental Performance Index, an internationally developed index that ranks the environmental practices of a state's policies.

The government's awareness of how to best use its fantastic and varied natural beauty as well as its unparalleled biodiversity has turned Costa Rica into a world leader in ecotourism. But even here, large-scale foreign owned resort companies as well as a rapidly growing influx of foreigners seeking vacation and retirement homes compete for prime land alongside smaller ecoresorts with often limited funds.  Even so, this country provides a blueprint for other countries to adopt a top-down ecotourism sector.

How To Find and Choose a Great Ecolodge

As consumers, we can put pressure on providers to come up with certification standards that are accessible to us and easy to use so that we can compare and evaluate their products. In the meantime, we can choose our providers and accommodations carefully. The internet is a powerful asset in this regard. Even the smallest most remote privately owned and operated ecoresort or ecolodge has its own website and I've noticed that many of these websites are chock full of detailed eco-information about the habitat in which they are located and the environmentally friendly practices they have adopted and are working on. You can find these gems by researching which area in the world or country or even island you are most interested in and then looking up ecoresorts or ecolodges in that region. This kind of search not only arms you as a consumer with information but it also prepares you before you go on your vacation. Your experience will be greatly enhanced by knowing a little about the places and people you will be visiting. Even better, many small operators welcome your questions before you arrive, so you can plan with them tours and activities you would like and even what kind of foods you prefer or allergies or conditions you might have so that they can help accommodate you. A personal dialogue with either the owner or a manager is always a good sign of a legitimate eco-lodge. This kind of web search is absolutely fascinating and it can be a big part of the fun involved in anticipating your special trip.

Finally, it helps to think about your personal environmental impacts while on vacation. Where will your food come from? Are vegetables, fruits, herbs, chickens, or even freshwater fish, grown on site? Are other food staples brought in from local producers or are they imported? This is your opportunity to try local specialties, a good ecological practice that enhances your experience. Where does your fresh water come from and where does your wastewater go? How is your hot shower water heated? Where does your waste go? Do they compost it? Almost every operator advertises low-energy lighting as their nod to ecofriendly practice, which is good but it is only a foot in the door. Does your destination use solar lighting and/or solar heating? Good places will offer to show you around their eco-practices and it can be a lot of fun to explore the sometimes brilliant, sometimes wacky, solutions to various eco-problems. Being a guest at a flourishing ecolodge in tune with its natural surroundings, with its own garden and animals, and where grey water is recycled and electricity comes from the Sun is a deeply harmonious experience that fills you with hope. The best places do not make you feel inadequate or guilty or pressure you into making do with less or adopting practices you feel uncomfortable with. They want to show you what is possible in terms of comfort and experience, while minimizing your environmental impact.

Ecotourism is a Balancing Act

When choosing an ecotourism vacation, our impact on the global ecosystem can't be ignored. Air, sea and road travel add carbon dioxide as well as various other air-borne pollutants into the world's atmosphere. Tourists often have no choice but to fly to their remote destination, making air travel a significant issue for those of us trying to be environmentally responsible. It is very difficult to quantify exactly how much total pollution a particular flight costs because the size of the jet, how full it is, cruising altitude, length of flight and how many stops are made all affect the figure. Try to limit your stopovers when you fly. A great deal more jet fuel is consumed when a jet is taking off and gaining altitude than when it is cruising.

According to Offsetters.ca, a general carbon footprint for a typical long distance flight is around 114 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometre per passenger equivalent. That means that a one-way trip for one person from Edmonton to Jan José, Costa Rica, adds about 700 kg CO2 into the atmosphere. That is close to 1/10th of my entire annual average Canadian footprint of 9 tonnes. While in Costa Rica, we took an approximately one hour (each way) Twin Otter flight through Nature Air, but I can in better conscience leave this footprint off the list because this airline is carbon-neutral. It offsets its carbon footprint through donations to tropical forest conservation efforts as well as contributions to the NatureKids Foundation and the use of biodiesel in all of its ground fleet vehicles. We were weighed, along with our luggage, in order to calculate the flight's footprint, and a strict weight limit is imposed.

Ultimately we have to ask ourselves if the pollution from a long flight and the inevitable impact we make - no matter how much minimized upon an exotic sensitive habitat - unravels the positive impact we hope to make on the local economy, toward environmental efforts, as well as our own enjoyment of our eco-vacation, and the increased environmental awareness and sensitivity we take home with us.

One solution to this dilemma is to purchase carbon offsets, as Nature Air does, for your next trip. For Canadians, go to The Offsetters.ca. It didn't occur to me to do this for our Costa Rica trip, so I followed the easy to use instructions right on the face page. To purchase the Gold Standard Portfolio (the internationally accepted standard for offsets) for that trip I pay $123.00. Where does this money go? To help support the Apiti Wind Farm in New Zealand, the Household Biogas Plant in India, the Luantang Hydro Power Project in China and the Mare Manastir Windfarm in Turkey. Do I feel better about my footprint? Absolutely, and the cost is very affordable considering the total cost of my trip. You can also offset your next car trip. If you are a business, they will help you go carbon neutral by calculating your annual carbon footprint so that you can purchase offsets, which are designed to equal it. I can even offset my entire year (which includes one Costa Rica length trip). That's about 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and it costs only $300.00 for the Gold Standard!

However, all this being said, I am a bit leary as a scientist of how accurate the practice of offsetting is. How are the calculations made, when many seem to be based on guessing how much carbon will be taken out of the atmosphere by a tree that's just planted, for example? Does a wind farm take an equivalent amount of the carbon dioxide from my plane trip back out of the atmosphere? Does the money actually get to the wind farm; who is regulating this industry? These questions deserve more than a passing glance. I came across a thought-provoking article called The Caron Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgence for Your Climate Sins published in 2007 by Carbon Trade Watch Transnational Institute, which questions the validity of offsetting and asks us if this isn't a slick form of green-washing, allowing us to maintain a casual business-as-usual attitude toward our jet-setting lifestyles. I also suggest a look at Wikipedia's evaluation of carbon offsets as you figure out what option sits best with you.

In addition to offsetting, or perhaps instead of it, we can simply travel less often and make each trip count. Spend lots of time dreaming, browsing and researching before your trip. After your trip, dream, remember, enjoy all of your photographs and video and share your tales with friends and family. It takes time to dream up, plan and then absorb a really good vacation, and it is actually this time spent and not the vacation itself that turns your experience into a life-changing one. Ultimately ecotourism is about how we connect with the world around us on a deep personal sense. It asks of us, and offers us, much more than most other kinds of tourism.

Ecotourism in Alberta, Canada

We can reduce our tourism impact by choosing ecolodges and resorts close to home. I think Canada is just beginning to recognize its vast ecotourism potential. Canada Wilderness.com provides excellent information for ecotourists interested in exploring our beautiful country. I've lived my whole life in Alberta, where there are vast plains, wildlife-filled boreal forest, gravity-defying hoodoo-filled badlands, the majestic Rocky Mountains, turquoise glacial lakes and rivers, virgin prairie, fertile parklands, rare and precious fossil beds and delicate jewel-like alpine meadows to explore but I do not yet have a well-developed ecotourism industry to enable me to do so in a way that will not harm these environments.

If you google "ecolodge alberta," you will find just a few operators calling themselves "ecolodge" or "eco-friendly." For example, Rocky Mountain Escape (with the web address www.ecolodge.com), is a small privately owned 3-cabin ecolodge located on a subalpine ecosystem within Jasper National Park. The owners along with others have had their valley designated as a Wildlands Park under the Alberta Special Places 2000 Act. Their eco efforts include highly energy-efficient construction, solar powered electricity and the use of wood stoves for heat. Alberta-style meals are cooked in a central cookhouse over a wood stove, and guests are invited to take part in nature-rich activities such as hiking, canoeing, bird watching (a guide is offered), whitewater rafting, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. I get the sense from their website that this couple cares deeply about their ecosystem and that they appreciate its value. I look forward to visiting to this eco-pioneer.

Falconcrest Lodge (falconcrestlodge.ca/stayGreen) in Canmore, Alberta, also comes up as eco-friendly. This is a condominium-style hotel, which has only three very minor claims to greenness (if you can find them on the site) - recycling bin, energy efficient appliances and digital thermostats in each room. Come on Falconcrest Lodge! You are busted as the worst green-wash offender I found in all my research.

Clearly the ecotourism industry has a long way to go in Alberta. The Alberta Special Places 2000 Act, an act that was intended to set aside portions of each of six distinct geographical locations in Alberta in order to protect the unique and endangered species that live there is considered by several experts to be a failure. This act, which was initiated in 1995, was concluded in 2001. Under the program, 81 new and 13 expanded protected areas were added, which sounds great but it only brought the total protected (land) area of Alberta to 12.5%, a figure that includes five National Parks (totaling about 8% of Alberta's area) and which fall under Federal jurisdiction. The Alberta Wilderness Association, an organization that tracks environmental issues in Alberta and promotes ecological preservation of Alberta's various ecosystems, considers the Alberta Special Places 2000 Act to be incomplete at best, with limited effectiveness in preserving native lands, waters and the large number of threatened species in our province. It proposes larger more connected areas (to allow for more natural migratory movement of several species) surrounded by buffer regions where human development is limited.

What we have now in Alberta, rather than an ideal single piece of legislation covering all areas under various levels of ecological protection, is a hodge podge of various levels of protection. A report updated but originally published in 1999 through the University of Alberta by lawyer and Conservation Director of the Banff/Calgary chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, David L. Poulton, outlines protected lands in declining order in terms of degree of use restriction (degree of protection in other words). These designations are mandated through the Tourism, Parks and Recreation Ministry. They are listed below:

Wilderness area - no human activity except foot access (highest level of protection); there are only three areas with this designation.

Ecological Reserve - vaguely worded legislation designed to protect habitats of endangered species

Willmore Wilderness Park - a single protected area with its own protection legislation

Wildland Provincial Park - a subcategory of a provincial park, based on the Willmore legislation and intended to protect areas where nature-based recreation can by enjoyed (this is the level of protection that the Rocky Mountain Escape ecolodge established)

Heritage Rangelands - accommodates responsible ranching practices inside protected areas (you will find this designation mostly in grasslands and parklands)

Provincial Park - have very few restrictions and regulations, the activities involved vary greatly from one park to another

Natural Area - this designation too has minimal substance to it. Many Natural Areas have no management plans in place

Recreation Area - no environmental protective legislation at all

According to this report, the Special Places 2000 Act, an act attempting to create a single coherent protective legislative body, is a failure. One of the most significant problems with it is that, while about 60% of land is owned by the Alberta government, many intact ecosystems earmarked for designation already have often several layers of undeveloped dispositions granted upon them, meaning that many of these sites could have new industrial development on them even after their designation as a Special Place under the Act, making the Act essentially useless. The Natural Heritage Act, introduced four years after the Special Places Act in 1999, met with similar problems in terms of dispositions. The provincial government put significant effort into dealing with the dispositions and came up with phase-out program in which industrial activity could be phased out of an area so that it could be fully protected in the future, but it met with intense private and public pressure and any plan to phase out gas or mineral rights was refused by the then energy minister, bringing this legislation to a halt. As of 2013, Alberta's environmental legislation is a collection of individual regulations, none of which provide umbrella protection for all Alberta land, waters, ecosystems and wildlife. They can be viewed on this government website.

On the bright side, I was heartened to come across a small ecotourism company based in Calgary Alberta, called Worldwide Ecolodges. This company is a model for all ecotourism businesses. It focuses on offering custom eco-vacation packages based on ecolodges around the world that are verified by a set of strict criteria which the company has set up in partnership with The Rainforest Alliance and the International Ecotourism Society. They also consult with potential ecolodge and bed and breakfast owners to help them make their business as environmentally friendly as possible. This company minimizes its own environmental footprint by locating in an office built using the best available green house gas reducing designs, obtaining internal power from a solar panel and purchasing other electricity from wind generators for home office computers. Their paper brochures are made as environmentally friendly as possible (outlined in detail on their website), and this company also purchases carbon offsets through The Offsetters.ca to offset all their company travel.

This website has a wealth of eco-vacation ideas and itineraries as well as an extensive of list of ecolodges around the world that adhere to the guidelines set out by The Rainforest Alliance, making the planning of your next eco-vacation (or corporate trip) much easier. I didn't know about Worldwide Ecolodges when I arranged our trip to Costa Rica but I certainly plan to use it in the future.

It is difficult to consider the many growing eco-vacation possibilities that we have around the world without considering our vast natural beauty right here in Canada. I think of a future in which grandchildren can visit not only Costa Rica and other wonderful natural places around the world but nature close to home as well.

Could Alberta someday offer a vibrant network of small ecolodges in protected habitats that represent our diverse ecosystems, where wildlife flourishes under the watchful eyes of biologists and botanists who regularly access and monitor sensitive and endangered habitats, and where I will have access to extraordinary species in their natural homes, knowing that I am preserving this wonder into the distant future? We have so much that a forward thinking government with an appreciation for nature could work with, at least for now.

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