Advertising wilderness tours as 'environmental' is often just a marketing ploy


You can separate your trash, mothball your car and blow your savings on solar panels, but the quickest means to environmental correctitude is to employ a simple prefix: Eco. Add it to any word: ecocandidate, ecocompany, ecoarticle, ecotainment -- it's flexible, it's convenient and, if used properly, it will stick like so much green spray paint.

No one knows who first placed "eco" in front of tourism, but suffice it to say that somewhere some travel brochure writer is chuckling at the revolution the word ignited, the smoke from which can be spotted in just about every adventure-travel company's latest catalog. Ecotours are ready to take you aboard the hitherto untouched ice of Antarctica, bushwhack the rain forests of Costa Rica in search of the spectacularly plumed quetzal bird, poke around the rubble of Inca ruins in Peru or place you nose to nose with the pug-faced iguanas of the Galapagos.

"What we're dealing with here is the biggest trend in one of the biggest industries in the world," says Ray Ashton, a biologist and ecologist for Water and Air Research, a Gainesville, Fla., environmental consulting firm. If you ask him, Mr. Ashton will reel off figures both impressive and depressing: 5 million Americans participated in wildlife and nature tours last year; more than 300 U.S. companies offer such tours; the 35,000 people who visit the delicate Galapagos islands are monitored by a park staff of three.

But you have to be careful not to use the eco-word around him. "I hate that term -- 'ecotourism' doesn't mean anything," says Mr. Ashton, who used to work for an adventure-travel firm. "Most times, it's just a marketing ploy, applied to any trip that takes you out in the wilderness in any shape or form."

The reason for Mr. Ashton's anger can be traced to the results of his latest project, a survey of ecotourism vendors in which he examined the itineraries, educational materials, field protocol and extracurricular environmental contributions of 60 prominent outfitters. "None were superb -- most of them didn't know what they were talking about," Mr. Ashton says. "Many were simply purchasing the trips from someone else and had no knowledge of natural history or environmental sensitivity."

Even adventure-travel outfitters, at least those with enough perspective to ignore their own company's marketing, regard the ecotourism bandwagon with suspicion. "I cannot think of any [outfitter] that was doing environmentally oriented tourism 10 years ago," says Richard Bangs, president of Sobek, an American outfitter that offers four of what it calls Environmental Adventures to Tanzania, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Brazil. "Since the ecotours have this bit of extra worth of being ecological, outfitters can charge more for them. So I have to be suspicious of everybody's motives -- including Sobek's."

So that all of us can be a little more suspicious, here are a few rules to follow when selecting an outfitter of an environmental tour. Those interested in more details, including recommendations of excellent, moderately good and bad ecotour operators, can find them in Mr. Ashton's ecotourism chapter of "Ecologue: The Environmental Catalogue" ($18.95, Prentice Hall Press, 1990).

*Be wary of any trip that calls itself an ecotour, environmental tour or any similar green moniker.

TH *Look closely at how the trip differs from other tours to that area.

Does the ecotour have an educational element or anything else that makes it different from the others?

*Make sure the trip is led or accompanied by a qualified expert.

*Check out the history of the company. If you want to get some perspective, ask for a catalog from a few years ago. Ask a lot of questions, including whether the company runs the trip itself, and how long it has been offering ecotours.

But the most important point is that all tourism, whether accompanied by a prefix or not, makes a significant impact on land, culture and wildlife. Footprints on Antarctic soil remain for hundreds of years. Rain-forest trails cut to search out the quetzal bird disturb age-old patterns of wildlife interaction, and eventually erode into gullies. And contact with Westerners, especially when it occurs in pristine areas likely to be chosen for a good ecotour, can subtly alter a culture forever.

Montana writer Peter Stark is fond of telling the story of his expedition to the headwaters of Western China's Yangtze River, a trip that followed close on the heels of the first-ever American descent of the river. The children of one mountain village eagerly greeted the rafts with strange, backhanded waves. "At first, we thought it was some sort of weird ritual," Mr. Stark says, "but then we realized they were mimicking a Frisbee throw. The trip before us had brought a Frisbee, and they remembered."

Highly recommended ecotour operators:

*Alaska Wildland Adventures, Box 389, Girdwood, Alaska 99587; telephone (907) 783-2928 or (907) 595-1279.

*Cowabunga Safaris, Private Bag 4863, Gage Centre Station, Topeka, Kan. 66604; (913) 272-7604.

*Journeys, 4011 Jackson Road, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48103; (313) 665-4407.

*Mountain Travel, 6420 Fairmount Ave., El Cerrito, Calif. 94530; (800) 227-2384.

*Sobek, Box 1089, Angels Camp, Calif. 95222; (800) 777-7939.

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