Travel Lightly: The Beauty of Eco-Tourism

An unexpected invitation leads our fitness editor into the jungles of Nicaragua — and opens her eyes to the possibilities of ecotourism.

eco tourism

Sparkles? I wondered sleepily as I opened my eyes. It was pitch black save for the heavy-duty dusting of glittering gold around me. Stars? I thought next, slowly gathering my wits about me. I rubbed my eyes, and suddenly my ears were flooded with noise.

Howling monkeys, chirping frogs, hooting owls, buzzing insects, and other miscellaneous fauna I didn’t even try to identify.

In the distance, waves crashing.

Then I remembered where I was: in a bed, at Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge on Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast.

My mom slept beside me; my sister, on the opposite side of bungalow No. 9, one of 15 situated amid impossibly tall trees on 4,000 acres of preserved forest land. Nature was upon us in all its noisy nighttime glory.

Fireflies, I realized. Not manmade sequins or celestial bodies but phosphorescent Lampyridae held at bay, like the other creatures, by thin walls of mosquito netting.

I watched the fireflies, their bodies flashing as though they were communicating in code. I couldn’t interpret the message, and my eyelids grew slack. The fireflies’ unique lights converged into one subtle explosion as I drifted back to sleep with the vague feeling I was experiencing something very special.

Ecotourism Explosion

“Special” is one way to describe the ecotourism experience. “Booming” is another.

The concept — getaways designed to conserve the environment and improve the welfare of the local community — emerged in the late 1970s, an era marked by growing interest in ecological and cultural preservation. As the global environmental movement grew, so did this niche sector of tourism. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) was launched as a nonprofit in 1990 to promote ecotourism as a tool for conservation and sustainable development.

TIES and other like-minded travel groups inspired and supported the rising consumer demand for ethical-travel opportunities that has made ecotourism one of the fastest-growing sectors of the travel industry.

Protected natural areas worldwide host an estimated 8 billion visitors annually, according to a 2015 study published in the journal PLOS Biology. The most visits per area occur in North America — with 2.5 billion in the United States — and the fewest in Africa. The total in direct spending worldwide was $600 billion.

“Our $600 billion figure for the annual value of protected-area tourism is likely to be an underestimate,” notes study author Robin Naidoo, PhD, of the World Wildlife Fund. “Yet it dwarfs the less than $10 billion spent annually on safeguarding and managing these areas.”

Consumer demand is reflected in traveler surveys, as well. A 2011 Condé Nast Traveler poll found that 93 percent of readers think travel companies should protect the environment, with 58 percent saying their travel decisions are influenced by the support a hotel gives its local community. A 2013 survey of 1,300 U.S. travelers indicated that nearly two-thirds “often” or “always” consider the environment when choosing hotels, transportation, and meals.

Wild Nicaragua

While these numbers reveal a growing interest in sustainability and ecological preservation among vacationers, I’m embarrassed to admit I became an ecotourist during last summer’s trip to Nicaragua by accident — and out of laziness.

I’d been invited to a friend’s wedding and simply didn’t have the energy to plan the trip with my signature level of persnicketiness. I booked flights for myself, my mom, and my sister; reserved a weeklong stay at the wedding site; and figured we’d wing the rest. “There’ll be volcanoes for you to climb and jungles to run through, and you can learn to surf,” my friend promised when he invited me to his ancestral home — as though I needed more incentive than the wedding celebration.

Morgan’s Rock is a hideaway nestled into the cliffside jungles facing a milelong, white-sand beach near San Juan del Sur, a sleepy surf town about two hours south of Nicaragua’s capital, Managua.

Nearly half the property is a private reserve with forests that are home to spider, howler, and capuchin monkeys, as well as white-tipped deer, sloths, anteaters, and a variety of native and migrant birds and reptiles. The beach serves as a sanctuary for two species of endangered sea turtles. I spotted monkeys playing in the trees while drinking my morning coffee on our private patio and later watched lizards stalking insects by the lights of the bar. Red and blue crabs beautifully, if nervously, skittered about the grounds.

Morgan’s Rock is also home to a low-impact agricultural project, a working farm called El Aguacate. Thanks to the cows, chickens, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and a sustainable shrimp farm, the ecolodge sources about 60 percent of its food from the premises. And it supports the local fishing industry, as well as vendors, farmers, and tradespeople; its pottery collection comprises handcrafted pieces by artisans in nearby San Juan de Oriente.

The resort staff — nearly all of whom are local Nicas and speak fluent English — welcomed every opportunity to tell me about “wild Nicaragua” and encouraged us to explore the site by hiking, climbing, kayaking, and paddleboarding.

The goal is to create awareness of the natural world and the local communities that support it, they explained. With awareness comes respect, and with respect, a sense of shared humanity that they hope will lead to additional protection, preservation, and sustainability efforts.

This attitude isn’t unique to Morgan’s Rock. Ecolodges in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil, such as the Caiman Ecological Refuge, and eco-friendly hotel chains, like Six Senses in Thailand, Vietnam, the Maldives, and Oman, feature environmentally sustainable lodging, renewable energy, innovative waste management and reduction, as well as recycling and composting. They maintain on-site organic and biodynamic farms and gardens, support local growers and tradespeople, employ local workers, and protect native animals and vegetation.

When I booked my Nicaragua trip, I was seeking convenience and a relaxing getaway. But now that I know the world of possibilities available for responsible travelers, I’m a bit anxious about planning the next one. Despite the popularity of ecotourism, it can be difficult (and prohibitively expensive) to plan a vacation that is clean from start to finish — most notably because air travel is one of the leading sources of carbon emissions.

So aim for awareness rather than perfection when seeking sustainable vacation options. Just as you contribute to an eco-friendly culture at home — recycling and composting; opting to walk, bike, or take public transport; planting native trees and wildflowers; supporting local businesses — simply pay attention to your habits and be intentional about your actions. You might just end up in paradise.

, RKC, is an Experience Life senior editor.

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