Get Friendly With the Natives
When she needed a break from her job as a Washington-based Web developer, Barbara McCuen flew to Nepal, trekked five days in its Katmandu Valley, imbibed a thick beer called Chang at a farmer's home, and steered a cattle-driven plow as Nepalis looked on, laughing. "All around us were these nice straight lines, and we're plowing these crazy lines," McCuen says. "It gives you an appreciation for how hard people work, how hard people's lives are."
McCuen's vacation getaway lacked sand and surf, but it provided something else: "a lifelong connection to a place," as she puts it. Prizing authenticity over relaxation, a growing cohort of travelers are practicing sustainable tourism--an extension of the socially conscious trend that began with ecotourism in the 1980s. Then, the idea was to trudge to rugged locales, "enjoy the flora and fauna, and leave without killing it," says Cathy Keefe of the Travel Industry Association of America. Now it has evolved to a more sophisticated approach that benefits the environment and the regional economy while allowing travelers to experience the local life.
Go local. Tour operators are responding. McCuen enlisted with REI Adventures, which organizes trips that avoid big chain hotels and restaurants that send profits back to corporate headquarters. "Visitors can select tour operators who contribute to conservation, who employ local guides, and who have an educational dimension to what programs they offer," says Andy Drumm of the Nature Conservancy. McCuen's guide introduced the group to friends and acquaintances, selected local lodging, and insisted on filtered water, not bottled, to reduce waste.
A number of destinations are picking up on the trend. West Virginia and Wisconsin have developed programs to promote sustainable tourism and boost local businesses. Costa Rica, a pioneer in ecotourism, is now facing competition from Ecuador and others around the world. Sustainable tourism works best when tourists pay a fair entrance fee, which is cycled back into preserving natural beauty. The Galápagos Islands tend to get the best reviews, with all entrance fees going directly back into the park.
How to get started? The International Ecotourism Society lists industry operators who meet its code of conduct, and a growing number of guidebooks--Lonely Planet, Footprint, and New Key--emphasize sustainable travel options along with the cheapest. The bottom line: Like politics, all good tourism is local.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.