Wanderlust: On Ecotourism

Opinion by Johnny Bartz
May 11, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

Wanderlust: On EcotourismI was a child who dreamt of frolicking in the rainforest with macaws, monkeys, iguanas and butterflies, however it wasn’t until I came to Stanford that I actually realized those dreams. Since I’m all about sharing experiences, I’d like to plant the seeds for you to have your own rainforest adventure on an ecotourism trip. It isn’t as hard or expensive as you think.

First, there is a distinction one must make when labeling something as ecotourism. It is an experience out in nature where the wildlife acts naturally. This means no feeding the monkeys to make them come close to tourists for pictures. The field guides should be of high caliber — with specialized training in tropical ecology and familiarity with the proximate natural system. The way in which one views nature and the activities on an ecotourism trip should ensure the future sustainability of the ecosystem, and lastly you as the ecotourist must give something back to the environment or surrounding community.

The example that epitomizes a proper ecotourism venture is Rainforest Expeditions (RFE), a company that operates three ecolodges on the Tambopata River in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. It’s cushy ecotourism — there are showers, scented sheets, delicious cooked meals and the best guides in all of Peru as far as I’m concerned. Not to mention you can fly to Puerto Maldonado after a quick stop in Cuzco (perfect chance to check out Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas), jump on a boat and in three hours you are in the middle of the rainforest.

One of the lodges, called Posada Amazonas, has an interesting profit sharing scheme between the ecotourism company and the local Ese’eja community. Community members are involved in the decision-making process surrounding the ecotourism operation, and many of them are also employed at the lodge. RFE is most famous for its giant river otters found at oxbow lakes and macaws at the clay lick. The Tambopata Research Center boasts the largest clay lick in the world that attracts thousands of birds every day, ranging in size from parrotlets to the macaws. There is nothing more spectacular than the cacophony of the flocks of resplendent birds.

The lodges value scientific collaboration, and each summer they host Stanford students to conduct research. Projects range in content from forest carbon stocks, to stream fish ecology, to macaw reproduction and the impacts of tourists on wildlife. For more information, check out the Tambopata Summer Research Program through the Anthropology department.

Yet, for every actual ecotourism place one may visit, there are at least five operators of what I like to call ‘poser ecotourism.’ It’s usually small, unorganized, informal trips led by ‘knowledgeable local guides’ who are nothing more than people who can speak English and entertain a crowd.

One such example I experienced was in Iquitos, Peru. A kid my age approached my friend and me on the street, and soon we had negotiated a good price and were aboard a little boat humming down the Amazon. There were many memorable kitsch ‘ecotourism’ activities, but the best/worst was a visit to an island of tame rainforest animals. Monkeys were thrown into our arms — which we carefully set on the ground, for fear of the disease. A coati attacked me from a nearby tree, crazed by the shiny carabineer on my backpack. An anaconda was put around my neck, which thankfully did not suffocate me. The icing on the cake was the sad toucan that didn’t even have the dignity to fly away from my shoulder. It wasn’t ecotourism and more importantly it didn’t come with a rabies shot.

Unfortunately, many ‘ecotourism’ adventures follow the latter example. I highly encourage you to do your homework before being disappointed or supporting an activity that actually harms surrounding ecological and human communities. A good way to determine legitimacy is to look for websites, sustainability certifications, testimonials and photos of the lodges and activities.

If all else fails, and you’re ready to get your hands dirty and brave the mosquitos, I suggest you find a conservation project that sounds interesting and contact the researchers with an offer to volunteer your time for a week or two. Usually you’ll ‘make a donation’ which essentially is a modest fee to cover your basic food and lodging expenses. You won’t have laundry service or scented sheets, but you will gain hands-on experience working in the field while making positive contributions to an environmental cause.

Whether you actually work on a project or simply exercise the power of the purse, wherever you travel, ecotourism or not, you carry an impact on local economies and environments. Trust me, responsible travel is the new cool thing.


Johnny wants to hear about your best ecotourism experience. Tell him about it at [email protected].


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