Conservation International and National Geographic Traveler Magazine have announced the first World Legacy Awards. The winners are three destinations that represent the very best in eco-tourism. Host Steve Curwood talks with Costas Christ of Conservation International about what makes an eco-friendly vacation.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
If you’re looking to beat the winter blues with a quick vacation, consider this: folks at Conservation International and National Geographic Traveler Magazine have found some green getaways while scouring the globe for the most environmentally responsible tourist experiences. And after sampling a variety of these eco-vacations, they recently gave three destinations the first World Legacy Awards. A wilderness safari in South Africa, a village home-stay program in Thailand, and a walking tour on paths dating back to the fifth century in Italy got top billing for being environmentally and socially responsible destinations.
Costas Christ is senior director of Conservation International’s eco-tourism department. Mr. Christ, so those are the best environmental tourist experiences on the planet. But what about the worst?
CHRIST: I have great concerns about the development of Cancun. To me, what has happened in Cancun has been, in many respects, quite tragic, both for indigenous people who used to inhabit this area as well as for the environment, in which we’ve seen tremendous devastation to endemic plants and wildlife in the Cancun area. Although we have a winner in the country of Thailand, a very deserving winner for incredible work they’re doing, there’s another place in Southern Thailand, just south of Bangkok, terribly over-developed with devastating impact on the environment, as well.
CURWOOD: Your organization used scientists, anthropologists and tourism professionals to help you make these judgments, but how does the average tourist tell if a vacation spot is environmentally responsible? What are some of the signs to look for?
CHRIST: Number one, I would look for a company that not only has expertise in that area, but whose operating philosophy is one of, say, care for the earth, care for the people, care for the environment around it. How do you see that? Well, are they employing local people, for one? Are their guides representative of the local culture in the area you’re visiting? On a safari to Africa, I would love to learn about Africa from an African guide more so than I would by a knowledgeable American. I would ask do they buy their fruits, their vegetables, their foods, their materials, their vehicles, whatever it might be, in a way that supports and benefits the local economy most directly? And I would also want to know how do they invest in conservation of the particular area, whether that’s a historical monument, or whether that’s rare wildlife?
CURWOOD: What’s the next eco-tourism hotspot that you see developing?
CHRIST: I think that Belize continues to get attention. I think that not only Belize as a country but the five Central American countries that hold the heritage of the Mayan world, and also have some of the world’s most pristine wilderness areas and very rich in biodiversity. Those would be southern Mexico and Guatemala and Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. I think that, politics aside, the Philippines, the island of Northern Palawan is an area of great interest and spectacular beauty and rich cultural heritage as well. There’s a project there that’s underway to try and develop Palawan into the world’s first sustainable tourism resort.
An area that has tremendous potential that I think few, if any, people have heard of is the country of Gabon in western Africa. Absolutely mind-boggling in terms of its, you know, very, very rich wilderness heritage and the last stronghold, for example, of lowland gorillas on the African continent. The only place that I know of in Africa where you can see, for example, elephants walking on a beach. You can see hippos surfing in the waves. It’s really amazing what Gabon has to offer. And we’re doing some work there, as well, to help that government develop its interest in tourism for economic gain, but to do so in a way that will help protect what makes Gabon special today.
CURWOOD: Tell me, is eco-tourism the same as environmentally responsible tourism?
CHRIST: It is a common misunderstanding to confuse eco-tourism and nature tourism. They are not the same thing. You and I could go on a wonderful jungle-rafting trip tomorrow in Costa Rica and we could have the greatest time, enjoy it, eat good food, look at the stars, see the birds, and come home and say, boy that was a nice vacation. But it was just a nature travel experience unless that trip contributed to the conservation of the area we visited, and helped to sustain the well-being of the local people in that area. That’s what makes it eco-tourism.
It’s easy for places to promote themselves, but as travelers become more aware that their choice does make a difference, and they begin to ask more discerning questions, and it becomes more and more easy to see those who are trying to present themselves as eco-friendly from those who are really doing the hard work to make it a reality.
CURWOOD: Costas Christ is senior director of Conservation International’s eco-tourism department. Thanks for taking this time today.
CHRIST: Thank you very much for having me.
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