What is Ecotourism?
Environment-friendly travel practices – or ecotourism as most of us know it – is all about sustainable travel, a concept that picked up back in the 1980s.
In recent times, though, the term ‘ecotourism’ has been referred to with many different expressions, including responsible travel, nature travel, green travel, ethical travel and the likes.
We may choose to call it by any name that strikes our fancy but the fact remains that ecotourism is, basically, about respecting nature and while we are free to enjoy and appreciate it, we must ensure that we do not contribute towards its degradation in any way, whatsoever.
It is our moral obligation to help preserve the gifts that nature has bestowed us with, particularly when we travel to protected areas, so that future generations are not deprived of the pleasures of these natural wonders, relatively untouched by human interference.
In addition to preserving and protecting the natural resources of these destinations, the concept also demands the empowerment and well-being of local communities in order to sustain eco-friendly travel.
As greenglobaltravel.com rightly notes:
“In order to be considered truly eco-friendly, ecotourism must make a positive impact on both the ECOlogy and ECOnomy of a given destination.”
According to ecotourism.org, those involved in implementing and promoting ecotourism activities are expected to adhere to the following guidelines.
- “Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.”
- “Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.”
- “Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.”
- “Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.”
- “Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.”
- “Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.”
- “Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.”
- “Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.”
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines ecotourism as “environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features—both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations.”
During an interview with Greenglobaltravel.com’s Bret Love in 2014, when Dr. Martha Honey, author of the book “Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise?” was asked what had changed in ecotourism over the last two decades, she said:
“It hasn’t lost or changed its core values, which are essentially that tourism should be done in a way that’s beneficial to environmental conservation and local communities and respectful of local cultures. I believe it’s educational, beneficial and enjoyable for the traveler.”
She further said: “All sorts of things have come out of these tenets: The Slow Food movement, organic agriculture, travel philanthropy, concern about human trafficking and child sexual abuse, fair trade, carbon offsets and animal welfare are all branches on the original tree.”
Situated on the edge of the Arctic on the northern tip of the American continent, and often referred to as “The Great Land,” Alaska is a dream ecotourism destination for nature and wildlife lovers who are also responsible travelers dedicated to adhering to the tenets of eco-friendly travel.
A land of snow-capped peaks, glaciers and vast expanses of tundra, Alaska is home to a wide range of protected wildlife species, including the grizzly bear, moose, caribou, humpback and blue whales, sea otter, sea lion and others – some of which are otherwise threatened or endangered elsewhere.
Let’s begin our tour of this 49th American State from the small town of Ketchikan, founded by the Tlingit Indians and located some 526 nautical miles north of Vancouver.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the town’s economy was dependent on salmon and timber; however, today this picturesque town relies on tourism.
While in Ketchikan, visit Creek Street – a wooden construction on posts along the Ketchikan Creek full of elegant shops and restaurants but never far from nature. Bald eagles hunting for fish in the waters of the creek are a common sight.
A short funicular ride will take you up to the Cape Fox Lodge, a place of tranquillity offering breathtaking panoramas of the small Ketchikan harbor, Ketchikan Creek and the Tongass National Forest.
The place may have come a long way from the time of the native Indians but their proud history and culture have not been forgotten – the Totem Heritage Center, home to America’s largest collection of totem poles, is a testament to that.
The center is dedicated to the conservation of several Indian villages and features traditional arts and craft of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples.
Juneau, the capital city of Alaska since 1906, is located across the channel from Douglas Island at the base of Mount Juneau.
With no road links to the outside world, you can only fly or sail to this wonderful Alaskan town.
Because it’s the seat of government, almost half the residents here are officials but almost always it’s the tourists who reign supreme, dictating the life and pace of the city.
Take a Mount Roberts Tramway gondola and travel 550 meters up the mountain of the same name, enjoying the increasingly spectacular views of the city, the harbor dotted with cruise ships, the Gastineau Channel, the Chilkat mountains and the inside passage, as the spacious and speedy gondola climbs higher and higher.
While in Juneau, don’t miss the chance to go whale watching. A small boat will take you to where mostly humpbacks are found in groups of up to 10-15. These 15-meter-long 30-ton animals with broad tail fins visit the Alaskan coast during summertime, which is the best time to watch these gentle giants of the sea.
The 19-kilometer long and 2-kilometer-wide Mendenhall Glacier travels from the Juneau ice field to the Mendenhall Valley.
Watch and photograph the awe-inspiring sight of water from the melting ice plunge into the lake below.
Unfortunately, more and more of the glacier is being lost every year due to global warming and, sometimes, unusually hot summers speeding up the process. In 2004 alone, some 183 meters of the glacier was lost.
Founded by steamship captain William Moore after the discovery of gold in the Klondike area of Alaska in 1890, Skagway, the northernmost port city of the inside passage, served as the gateway to the goldfields.
The population which had increased to 20,000 because of the gold rush dwindled to around 500 when the gold ran out a few years later.
Today, it’s primarily a tourist destination with visitors crowding the jewelry and souvenir shops of the town’s historic streets.
Visit the Brothel Museum from the gold rush era and check out the rooms and clothing on display. This is the place where months of hard-earned money often changed hands in a single night back in the days.
Take a trip up White Pass on a narrow-gauge railway called the White Pass Scenic Railway. As in the old days, tickets are checked as the train travels slowly up to the pass, passing through some of the most pristine and scenic landscapes you have ever seen.
Around four thousand years ago, during the Little Ice Age, Glacier Bay was completely covered by ice and glaciers.
Today, the glaciers are situated within the arms of the bay, stretching about 100 kilometers to the north.
These rivers of ice are constantly moving towards the sea, continuously changing shape and eventually breaking up to form floating masses of ice, or icebergs.
Today, there’s not much left of the gigantic glaciers that once graced the Glacier Bay – thanks to global warming.
Seward is a perennially ice-free natural harbor located in a scenic setting between Resurrection Bay and Mount Marathon and surrounded by green mountains.
Originally discovered by the Russians in 1793, the city was named after William Seward after the American politician bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for a sum of $7 million.
The state-of-the-art Alaska Sealife Center on the shores of Resurrection Bay is an impressive combination of an oceanarium, research center and museum – a truly fascinating window into the underwater world of Alaska.
It was founded in 1998, primarily to understand and maintain the marine ecosystem of Alaska through research, rehabilitation, conservation, and public education.
The life cycle of the region’s dominant fish – the Pacific salmon – is well featured in the “Alaska’s Pacific Salmon” section of the center.
Harding Icefield Trail
About six kilometers north of Seward, extending high above the Gulf of Alaska is the Harding Icefield Trail.
Although, the ice flows from the thirty-two glaciers of the Kenai Fjords National Park are melting faster than ever before, this is still a huge natural wonder – a remote world of ice and snow and wilderness far from civilization.
Driving to Anchorage through the Seward highway is a different kind of thrill in itself.
The highway crosses the Kenai Peninsula, passing through some amazing country blessed with divine beauty, including glassy lakes, rushing rivers, green hills and the dramatic Chugach Mountains.
Anchorage is a modern metropolis in the Alaskan wilderness. It is not only the 49th state’s largest city but also its economic and cultural hub.
Originally called Ship Creek, after its namesake river, the name was soon changed to Anchorage, and fittingly so, because it was a site where ships could easily anchor.
The Anchorage Museum is a fine modern building, home to an impressive collection of Alaska’s wildlife exhibits alongside old boats and fishing equipment and the wooden huts from the gold rush era.
Life-size puppets, masks, weapons and original clothing of Native Indians are also on display here.
Another must-see Anchorage attraction is the Alaska Native Heritage Center located in a small forest outside the city limits.
Here replica buildings around a small lake represent the cultures of the indigenous peoples of the region.
The descendants of five native groups explain their traditional lifestyle to visitors, showing them hunting techniques and allowing them to explore the buildings in detail to understand their construction methods.
Another must-see attraction in Anchorage is the popular Saturday Market where traders and craftsmen sell souvenirs, clothing, kitchen utensils, etc. in the open air in makeshift stalls they erect every Saturday at the crack of dawn.
In the nearby river, you will notice a lot of seaplane activity, and understandably so, because seaplanes are the only practical way of traveling to remote areas of the region.
For those interested in aviation and aircraft, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum located on Lake Hood offers an impressive collection of Alaska’s iconic transport. Almost all of the exhibits are backed by explanations and photographs.
Opened in 1969, the Alaska Zoo features the region’s wildlife, including polar bears, Alaskan grizzlies, sea eagles, seals, fox, moose as well as several other species. It is, indeed, a great place to check out the Alaskan wildlife because not many will get to see all of them in their natural habitats.
The Portage Valley Recreation Area, encompassing the Portage Lake and a glacier of the same name at the eastern limit of the fjord, is a great day trip to make from Anchorage. The place offers some of the most awe-inspiring scenic beauty you can ever hope to see.
At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, watch and photograph moose and bison in their natural habitat from behind a safety fence that protects humans from beasts – or is it the other way around?
Some of the other visit-worthy Alaskan destinations
Kodiak Island: Kodiak Island is famous for the Baranov Museum, Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church, Traditional Tribal Dancers, the salmon run in summer and the natural beauty all around this great location.
Talkeetna: Mountaineers consider the town of Talkeetna as the gateway to Mount McKinley. The place is also known for its Denali National Park and Preserve.
Mount McKinley: Surrounded by sub-arctic wilderness, Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in North America, best seen from the air.
Fairbanks: Fairbanks is Alaska’s second largest city. It’s the gateway to the Arctic region. Some of the main attractions of the city are the Golden Heart Park, Pioneer Park – a theme park and history museum in one, Riverboat Discovery trip along the Chena River.