ECO-Tours only purchases trees and dirt to plant them in...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Are Ecotours?

I have been an ecotourist since before the term was coined. The clearest vision of what this term means to me is that the ECO part is first and the tour part is second. First off, ECO-Tours require an adaptability that can be found in nature. Not only do travelers adapt their own behaviors to become more integrated in the environment, but they take the time to realize the inevitable impacts that they may be bringing to the areas that they visit and actively work to offset them, thus preserving the integrity or enhancing the natural cohesion amongst the communities and niches that they find there. Eco-tours can be trans-formative, especially in this age. Not only for the planet and the ecology of an area, but for the individual who begins to see themselves as part of the larger whole than many of us could have imagined before the tour is taken.
A brief review of information on what is called Leave No Trace Camping allows us to understand more fully the possible mistakes that we could make when going intro the field. Leave No Trace gets serious about some of the principles that underlie the foundations of ECO-Tours. There are also several good resources regarding the Rap 101 (basic boring bullshit) that allows us to shift our perspective from seeking a Disneyland style, mediated experience and immersion in our natural surroundings. Environmentalists tend to focus on the physical world and the natural organisms and processes that take place in an area, but the ecotourist who stops there is also missing much of the experience. Human culture and responsible interaction with the native people is part of the process of transforming ourselves to not so much blend in, but to responsibly interact with the populations that will remain after the tourist departs.
Often, the ECO-Tour is the beginning of a heart to heart with a region, a specific river valley, a mountain or estuary. The Earth can literally speak to us in ways that exploitative tours can never approximate. Being engaged in the living processes of the landscape, we are able to see with new eyes. Years ago, I learned that in many places around the world, harvesting wood for fires is the number one cause of deforestation. bringing one's own fuel for cooking in these areas is essential if we are to not be part of the problem, or agents of negative change for native people. After we leave, the ripples continue to spread out across the living tapestry of life that we have interacted with. ECO-Tours reflect an awareness of this and seek to minimize the negative impacts while enhancing the sustainability of the natural systems that brought us to the area in the first place.
Folks who used to hike and camp with me thought it odd that I frequently opted for smooth soled shoes and would even walk barefoot across the land. After years of scientific inquiry, this method of hiking has been found to be healthier for the environment in several ways. Deep lugs on the soles of our shoes can not only scar the path, if there is one, but create mud and rip at tiny root hairs close to the surface. They can transport invasive species from one location to another, creating damage that could blossom into a major threat years after we have gone home.
Years ago, I was given several nicknames by my travel companions. Tony Appleseed, God's Exterior Decorator and Crazy Guy to name a few. I would often work to do trail building and maintaining, working to minimize the possibility of wash outs on the trails, or making sure that the path would create the least damage by strategically placing stepping stones or creating retaining walls and laying downed trees across the hills, terracing and helping to build soil, thinning over planted mono-cultures or planting native plants in appropriate areas that would create habitat or slow erosion. the Earth has been my guide in ways that are difficult to put into words, but those who pay attention to what they are seeing, not just taking a glance at the natural world, but truly integrating with it will know of what I speak.
I have a friend who is an old hunter who has not taken an animal in over twenty years, although he has had many opportunities to do so. The last creature he fired upon was a wounded fawn who was trailing intestines out of a gaping hole in it's side created by another hunter, perhaps days earlier. The mercy he showed to that tiny creature stayed with him. He still carries a gun with him in the woods,"just in case" and so that other hunters don't question why he is there, but he is there for the experience of being in the woods, not just seeing it like a passerby might, but as a living breathing part of the environment. He has been taking ecotours for longer than the word has existed as well. although we all must find our way toward a future that remains illusive, knowing where we are at any specific moment and understanding our reason for being there as well as our purpose can liberate even the most caged mind, body and spirit. Often people who embark on tours of this kind reflect on what they have learned, not only about the planet, or a specific place, but what they have learned about themselves.
Ecotours are far more than can be put into words. Ironically, they enhance rather than exploit places that are visited. Instead of leaving a path of destruction behind as we motor through the world, ecotours allow us to weave ourselves and the benefits of a conscientious organism into the tapestry of life that makes up the ecosphere. The very Earth that we inhabit deserves to be respected. Learning what to leave home before we travel and understanding ways that we can take only what we really need can change any trip into an ecotour. The soul searching and prioritizing that goes into planning for and taking an ecotour will always yield learning opportunities and insight that is not available to the traditional tourist. When we take time to integrate ourselves into nature, the rewards are truly infinite and when we return to our "normal lives" we can bring a bit of nature with us, reflecting itself as ways of living more lightly on the earth and with vision as to how we might reduce our negative impacts at home as well.

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