Travel local

The new eco-travel: Off the tour bus and into a float plane.

Credit: Kevin J. Smith/Maple Leaf Adventures

My officemate waited until he’d tucked into his sandwich before he brought the topic up. That ingrate. I was buying lunch to celebrate an assignment to go trekking in Nepal, and he chose that moment to share his opinion that by encouraging people to go places, particularly far away places requiring a long-haul flight, I was contributing to the impending global climate-change disaster.

I decided I’d better educate myself, and unfortunately, the research bore my lunch companion out. According to a United Nations World Tourism Organization report released last year, 75 per cent of CO2 emissions created by global tourism in 2005 came from transport, and 40 per cent of that from air transport alone.

Like most travellers, I’d heard of carbon offsetting as an option to compensate for the evils of flying, but that’s a second-best option; it’s much better not to create the emissions in the first place. So if I wanted to make sure I was encouraging responsible tourism, restraining my air travel to within B.C. seemed like a start.

But I was also curious about a term I’d encountered many times before and had tended to gloss over: “ecotourism.” It sounded promising, but I was already jaded about the “eco” prefix. I couldn’t help but wonder whether “eco” is to today’s “carbon economy” what “dot-com” was to the “Internet economy” a decade ago – just an embellishment you slap onto your name to align it with the cause of the day.

Video: Catching a 50-pounder at Nimmo Bay

I call Chris Battrill, chair of the Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Management Program at Capilano College, and he tells me the term has actually been around sine 1983, when it was coined by environmentalist Hector Ceballos-Lascurain. It “lost credibility during the early ’90s because it was used so liberally, but it’s had a resurgence,” he tells me, propelled by climate change and a renewed interest in all things environmental.

For a definition, Battrill points to The International Ecotourism Society, which defines it as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

An independent assessment of a tourism operator’s performance would simplify my quest, but there is no such third-party certification available in B.C. Some countries, including Australia and Costa Rica, have ecotourism certification programs vouching for the authenticity of an operator’s eco-cred. However, there is neither a Canada-wide certification program nor even one in B.C.

For another perspective on what to look for in local adventures, I check in with David Butler, director of land resources at heli-ski operator Canadian Mountain Holidays and Chair of the B.C. Sustainable Tourism Collective (BCSTC). The association comprises six companies: Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, Canadian Mountain Holidays, Clayoquot Wilderness Resort & Spa, Whistler/ Blackcomb, the Armstrong Group/Rocky Mountaineer Vacations and Nimmo Bay Resort. The group came together two years ago and made a public commitment to work toward sustainability.

Butler is careful to make the distinction between what he terms “sustainable tourism,” which is what the BCSTC group seeks, and ecotourism. He prefers not to use the term “ecotourism,” he explains, because it is regarded by most mainstream operators as an “exclusive club,” and many will shy away from such a goal. But when sustainability is proposed, almost everyone in the industry is ready to get involved.

Whereas ecotourism is associated with nature-based, small-group outings, according to the World Tourism Organization, “sustainable tourism development guidelines and management practices are applicable to all forms of tourism in all types of destinations, including mass tourism.”

In my own quest to for responsible tourism options in B.C., I decide to settle on the “ecotourism” ethic to guide my choices. I already have a bias against mass tourism, which holds little appeal for me even if done in a way that strives to be sustainable. I’ve also found that travel experiences with a strong learning component have a far more lasting impact; they’re enriching rather than just entertaining.

I begin my quest for ecotourism options in B.C. by asking SFU’s Peter Williams which B.C. operators he would view as running ecotours. He tells me he would send his children on a trip with Maple Leaf Adventures, cruising aboard a 92-foot schooner through the largest intact temperate rainforest in the world, viewing wildlife and learning from naturalists, listening to a master storyteller from the Killer Whale clan of the Henaaksiala people.

Williams tells me his wife, on the other hand, would probably enjoy something more like Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, which is by the operator’s own description, “an ultra-luxurious eco-resort.”

But perhaps no resort operator has done more to associate the term “ecotourism” with B.C. than Nimmo Bay Resort, on the B.C. coast about an hour’s float plane ride north of Vancouver. It has gained international acclaim for its dedication to sustainability. Not only did the hit television series Boston Legal film an entire episode there (titled Finding Nimmo), but Forbes Traveler named Nimmo Bay one of the 10 Best Luxury Eco-resorts.

At the B.C. Tourism Industry Conference this past February, Kim Lisagor, coauthor of the book Disappearing Destinations, cited Nimmo Bay Resort as her favourite wilderness lodge. The U.S. author has travelled worldwide for her book about 37 endangered travel destinations, as well as for her magazine articles about ecotourism, travel and the environment. She points to Nimmo Bay’s waterfall-powered turbine that provides the majority of the resort’s power and the work with local First Nations as two of the resort’s admirable characteristics. And, said Lisagor, “When I asked about how they deal with sewage, [owner Craig Murray’s] eyes lit up and he got really excited. He said, ‘I’m going to take you on the poo tour!’” She was referring to the state-of-the-art Hydroxyl system Nimmo Bay uses to neutralize human waste.

Nimmo Bay certainly fits the broad definition of sustainable tourism in the sense that its operations are designed to minimize damage to the environment. Although it makes no claim to being an ecotourism destination in its literature, the resort does appear to fit the more exclusive criteria of that designation. With its remote location surrounded by pristine wilderness, Nimmo Bay is certainly nature-based. The resort’s activities have strong educational components with various expert guides passing on their knowledge about wildlife, outdoor skills and even speleology. Nimmo Bay had worked to reach an agreement, the Wi’la’mola Accord, signed with the area’s local First Nations. And the resort can boast an impressive array of measures taken for environmental stewardship, from its clean power generation and waste management systems to its use of ecologically sound cleaning products and catch-and-release fishing policy.

But is this ecotourism? The feature attraction of the resort is the use of personal helicopters to hit remote peaks, beaches and fishing spots. Making heavy use of CO2-emitting flying recreational vehicles may not jive with some peoples’ idea of ecotourism. For others, using a helicopter is the best alternative for getting to those wild places short of creating high-impact trails or roads.

“Transportation is the Achilles heel of the eco-equation. But it’s not the full equation,” says Williams, “It comes down to the personal calculus that people do. Some would say that luxury and opulence don’t go with ecotourism.”

At the other end of the ecotourism spectrum, transportation and excessive creature comforts are less of an issue with Battrill’s pick as a case study for ecotourism in B.C. He points to Tofino Sea Kayaking Company, which, like one of Williams’s picks, also operates in Clayoquot Sound on the central west coast of Vancouver Island. But like Nimmo Bay Resort, Tofino Sea Kayaking Company’s website is noticeably devoid of any references to ecotourism. It certainly fits the definition, though: one example of its minimum-impact kayak camping tours involves paddling past varied shoreline and sea ecologies as guides share their knowledge of wildlife and flora. They’ll also discuss “cultural history and contemporary life in First Nations communities.” The company’s stated aim is to provide an experience that will “promote environmental awareness” and “cultural sensitivity.”

According to Battrill, Tofino Sea Kayaking Company and other local operators were instrumental in leading to the designation of Clayoquot Sound as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The trust that administers the reserve is made up of First Nations and local communities.

Whether billed by the operator as ecotourism or not, what people interpret as eco-tourism can clearly span a range of activities, price levels and venues, and can make use of many forms of transportation, CO2-emitting or otherwise.

This leads me to think about some of the trips that I’d recently taken and written about, to see if they might qualify as ecotourism even if they weren’t called such. A gourmet kayaking camp trip in the Gulf Islands, which made almost exclusive use of locally sourced foods and wines. A hike along the West Coast Trail to observe the storm damage. A visit to the new Haida Cultural Centre in Haida Gwaii at Qay’llnagaay with a Zodiac tour through Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. A black bear tour on Whistler Mountain with bear researcher Michael Allen. I find that I could make a strong case for each fitting the definition of ecotourism.

I owe some gratitude to my officemate (though not another lunch) for making me aware of what is involved in responsible travel. If there were such a thing, I’d still be a long way from earning any sort of “eco-travel writer” designation, but I’m at least conscious about where I need to be heading.

{+} Close to home
B.C. ecotourism options range from luxury outposts to beach camping

Canadian Mountain Holidays bills itself as the world’s largest heli-skiing and heli-hiking company. It offers summer hiking and mountaineering tours and winter skiing tours in the mountains of eastern British Columbia from nine backcountry lodges and three town-based hotels. One-week heli-skiing packages range from about $4,000 to $9,000 per person. Three- to six-day summer heli-hiking packages range from about $2,300 to $4,900 per adult.

Clayoquot Wilderness Resort in the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere reserve near Tofino caters to those seeking a combination of luxury accommodation and “soft” eco-adventure. Guided hiking, horseback riding and kayaking include instruction on the region’s aboriginal history. A three-night stay costs about $5,000 per person, including return flight from Vancouver.

Nimmo Bay Helicopter Fishing & Wilderness Adventure includes a central lodge and nine chalets on a remote coastal bay across the Queen Charlotte Strait from Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island. Adventures include heli-fishing, rafting and day tours of the local environment. Rates start at $6,585 for a three-day stay, including air transportation from Port Hardy.

Maple Leaf Adventures offers sail ‘n learn voyages aboard a 92-foot schooner through such B.C. coastal treasures as the Gulf Islands, Haida Gwaii, and the Great Bear Rain Forest. Trips in Alaska and the Galapagos Islands are also available. Price for B.C. destinations range from $2,550 for a seven-day Gulf Islands tour to $4,900 for a 10-day Great Bear Rainforest tour.

Tofino Sea Kayaking Company offers guided day tours, wilderness camping tours and lodge-based kayaking tours, all aimed at promoting environmental awareness and cultural sensitivity specific to the Clayoquot Sound area off the west coast of Vancouver Island. A six-day adventure tour costs 1,350.

{+} Green travel tips
There’s no reason to leave your good habits at home

We’re all trying to be a little greener in our homes these days, but what about when we’re on vacation? With nearly a billion tourists crisscrossing the globe every year, it’s more important than ever for travellers to minimize their individual impact on the earth’s natural and cultural treasures. Here are some simple rules to follow for keeping up your good habits while on the road.

When you’re staying in a hotel, think of it as your home. Would you normally take a 20- or 30-minute shower?

Take your own shampoo and conditioner. Nearly 70 per cent of frequent travellers admit to opening a new mini-bottle of shampoo and conditioner each time they shower on the road. That just means more plastic waste.

Hang up your towels. Only a third of people in a recent survey said they change their linens daily at home, yet 75 per cent want fresh sheets and towels every day in a hotel. If you’re towels aren’t dirty, hang them up and reuse them.

Limit buying bottled water. I know it’s a necessary evil while travelling in many countries, but after seeing a photograph of almost half a hillside covered in plastic bottles in India, I would definitely recommend refilling your water bottle instead of buying a new one.

Make yourself aware of your hotel’s recycling program and sort your trash accordingly. If your hotel doesn’t recycle, consider taking your empty bottles or other items home with you to recycle them there.

Don’t be shy about giving your hotel feedback whether it’s good or bad. Express your appreciation for any eco-friendly programs it currently offers, or if it doesn’t, encourage the management to go green in the future.

Source: Claire Newell, travel consultant, Global Television.