Ecotourism: It means ‘green is the new black’

Our base for three nights was an eco-camp inside of Torres del Paine National Park, which since 1978 has been part of a UNESCO world biosphere reserve. The park is in Patagonia, at the bottom of Chile and near the end of the world.

While Wisconsin struggles with windchills and snowfall, it is full-throttle summer in this park. The lush waterfalls, magnificent glaciers and mirrorlike lakes are out of reach to almost everyone, and that is a part of what makes it a treasure.

The area is isolated and uncontaminated, except for a handful of hosterias — simple but clean places to sleep — and the occasional gaucho on horseback, who watches the whereabouts of sheep.

Rheas strut the unfenced acreage. Herds of wild guanaco, similar to alpaca, roam and scuffle. Andean condors, with their 10-foot wingspan, soar and swoop. The daintier black-necked swans prefer to hunt in water.

For four days, we were truly unplugged from the rest of the world: no phones, television, radio or Internet connections. Hydroelectricity and solar power generated energy for light, heat and water in showers. It was not wasted on hairdryers. We reused our plastic water bottles, over and over.

Composting toilets use a pint of water per flush. Raised platforms — for our unheated tents and the walkways between them — minimize disruption of the terrain.

“If you want to come to this beautiful park, you will have to make sacrifices,” says Yerko Ivelic, director of operations for the ecocamp’s parent company.

Our guides are government-certified — knowledgeable, proud and protective of their homeland. They are torn between wanting to share what they love, and knowing how easy it is for humans to destroy it.

It will become that way in Wisconsin, too, especially as more businesses see ways to profit from the ecotourism bandwagon. It is easy to take for granted or exploit our natural phenomena – be it the Mississippi River bluffs or ice caves on the Apostle Islands.

When the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism convenes this week in Appleton, ecotourism will be a dominant topic. Keynote speakers include environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Planet,” and author Steve Zikman, whose “Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul” is big on communing with nature.

Ecotourism is about “acknowledging our history and distinguishing our brand,” notes Jerry Huffman, spokesman for the state Department of Tourism.

The World Tourism Organization calls ecotourism one of the fastest-growing niche markets, with an annual growth rate at 5 percent worldwide. Ecotourism and other forms of nature-related tourism make up about 20 percent of all international travel, says Duke University research.

Although a hot buzzword in the travel industry, the meaning of ecotourism can be vague and standards uneven. Hotels say they’re ecofriendly because they offer to not replace towels or sheets daily. For restaurants, it may only mean pouring fresh water by request only.

Terms like geotourism and responsible/green/sustainable tourism cloud or compartmentalize the issues and confuse the average consumer.

Regardless of the terminology: First, do no harm. That pertains to the traveler as well as the entity to benefit from the ecotourism attraction. “It doesn’t mean that everything new is bad,” says Jonathan Tourtellot, geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler, but “what is done with care to fit into the landscape?”

How many timbers are cut to create a ski run? What is sold in gift shops: the work of local artisans, or pretty trinkets made abroad? Tourtellot cringes at investments “going to create resorts that could be anywhere that a palm tree grows,” and considers attractive coastlines and mountain areas to be among the most vulnerable parts of the world.

These areas are attractive to tourists, who want to stay because of the beauty – and may want to never return if modern amenities dilute, ruin or clog instead of enhance and preserve.

“Green is the new black,” says Kimberly Lisagor, a journalist for Outside magazine. “But if you bring tourism to a place that didn’t have it before, and it fails, the place is worse off.”

Liz Wessel of Madison six months ago began Green Concierge Travel, which seeks local and environmentally friendly businesses when helping people plan vacations. She advocates the use of local mass transit systems, and train travel, to reduce costs as well as carbon dioxide emissions.

Her business also is about patronizing local B&Bs, “fair trade” coffee shops and restaurants that serve locally grown or organic foods. “How do you become an ecotourist,” she asks, rhetorically. “Enjoy the places and communities that you visit and support the locally provided goods, services and infrastructure.”

Wisconsin was one of the first states to establish a set of standards for labeling businesses and places as environmentally respectful. The Travel Green Wisconsin label can only be used by 38 entities, so far; each has proven their commitment to ecotourism.

Most participants are lodging establishments, led by the Arbor House in Madison and the Pinehurst Inn in Bayfield.

The International Ecotourism Society has chosen Madison for its Sept. 26-28 conference for educators, government officials, environmentalists and tour operators. It is only the group’s second such event.

“When executed effectively, ecotourism and sustainable travel are powerful ways to preserve and safeguard the national resources and cultural heritage upon which the future of tourism in the North American region depends,” the group notes.

For more about Wisconsin’s ecotourism efforts: www.travelgreenwisconsin.com, 608-280-0360.

For more about Green Concierge Travel: www.greenconciergetravel.com, 608-204-2717.

For more about the Patagonia ecocamp, which was a part of the Society of American Travel Writers’ 2006 conference: www.cascada.travel, 800-901-6987.

For more about the National Geographic Society’s efforts: www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/sustainable, 202-857-7349.