Just as the 100th birthday of the National Park Service is casting a spotlight on U.S. national parks in 2016, we can expect an enhanced emphasis on ecotourism throughout 2017—declared the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations.
To be sure, the idea of ecotourism isn’t a new one—it’s already known as one of the fastest growing segments in the tourism industry. Put that together with family travel—another of the industry’s rapidly growing segments—and the time is ripe for family vacations that include ecotourism.
At its core, the concept of ecotourism is simple. According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is defined as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education."
And, as with so many segments of tourism, the line blurs easily, with ecotourism overlapping with adventure travel, wellness travel and voluntourism, to name just a few other popular segments that often go hand-in-hand with ecotourism.
“Travel agents have a remarkable ability to influence where people go,” says Jon Bruno, executive director of TIES. “Ecotourism provides so many opportunities—and it doesn’t have to be 100 percent. It could be adding on a tour that has an ecotourism aspect to it, choosing accommodations that are a member of TIES, introducing the concept of asking about sustainability practices…”
“Many people automatically turn to big theme parks, giant cruise ships, all-inclusive resorts and those kinds of things when they think of family travel,” says Chris “Chez” Chesak, executive director of the Family Travel Association. “Those are all great products that are appropriate for families—but there’s also such a diversity of experiences that lie outside those products. We’re seeing an increasing interest in ecotourism and suppliers who consider children the next generation and stewards of the earth—they love to educate children about the impact on the land and local communities.”
A NATURAL ALLIANCE
For some, ecotourism means a group of millennials climbing Mount Everest; for others, it’s a month-long safari tour of South Africa—but for most, it’s a natural integration of the unique environmental and cultural aspects of any destination into a vacation experience.
“Kids and nature just go together—it’s such an easy match,” says Lauren Goldenberg, founder of the Family Traveler, an agency focused on family travel whose clients tend to be in the deluxe to luxury range. “It can fit into any style of vacation and almost anybody’s trip plan—from making time to kayak at the beach all the way up to going cruising around the Galapagos Islands to learn about Darwin.”
At the mid-range, Julia Slatcher, owner of Inspire World Travel, sees a similar interest in incorporating nature and learning into any vacation experience. Beyond the pure fun such activities can add to a vacation, she’s also seeing clients who start with the idea of “adding meaning to their travel,” she says. “A lot of parents today are interested in travel that helps their kids learn and care about the world. They want their children to be good citizens of the world, and they’re looking for ways to add that element to their travel—while bearing in mind that they have limited vacation time and also want to have a good time and relax.”
And sometimes it’s the kids themselves who seek meaning in their travel experiences. Lauren Maggard, a luxury travel consultant at Jet Set World Travel, recently planned a high-end trip to Africa for a family with two teenage daughters. “One of the daughters is vegan and very environmentally focused,” she explains. “They asked us to make sure that every accommodation option we chose had an opportunity for the family to engage in philanthropy or to give back to the community. Budget wasn’t an issue, but it was a challenge to find the right mix of upscale properties with an environmental focus, community outreach and vegan cuisine options.”
While Maggard’s challenges for that trip were very specific, other aspects of incorporating ecotourism into family travel are more common. Here’s a look at some of the elements that need to be factored in when planning a family ecotourism trip.
Decoding the Language
It’s rare for a client, especially one with a family in tow, to specifically ask for “ecotourism” when they’re describing their needs and desires. “Look for the client who’s saying something like ‘We want something more; we don’t want to just lie by the pool; we’re looking for something rewarding,’ ” says Chesak. “That person might not even know it yet—but if they’re looking for something ‘more,’ the concept of ecotourism should certainly be introduced.”
The Environmental Cost of Travel
If the eco aspect is a major part of the trip, the accommodations and method of travel choices are key parts of setting the tone. For accommodations, look for those that are certified green (standards may be set by a statewide entity such as the Florida Society for Ethical Tourism, or at the national level, like LEED certification in the U.S.) as well as properties that are members of ecotourism associations.
The family aspect can add further complications to an accommodations choice. “Not all places have accommodations with connecting rooms, and even some that do won’t guarantee that the rooms will be connecting before the travelers arrive,” says Goldenberg. “In other situations, you have kids who won’t share a bed or a teenager who won’t sleep on a rollaway. We extract all the information we can from the parents to find out what will work best for their unique situation.”
Unless clients are literally just walking down their own street, there’s going to be some environmental impact from the mode of transportation. Train travel has less of a per-person impact on the environment, but its use is limited by destination choice. Air travel will leave the largest carbon footprint, although moves by the airline industry to make planes more fuel efficient (and more crowded) continue to bring down the impact. Bruno also points out that travelers can contribute to carbon offset programs and that TIES continues to urge airlines to make such programs more easily accessible.
While there’s no age limit for ecotourism, some trips naturally lend themselves to older children. “If a family is considering a safari, I recommend waiting until the youngest child is about 10 so they can really participate in and remember the experience,” says Maggard as an example of a trip where age matters.
On the other hand, Bruno points out, “Children of all ages love animals—and almost any place in the world, you can find a unique animal experience, whether it’s watching baby sea turtles make their way to the sea, a bald eagle nest in a tree, a live moose wandering by. When children see these kinds of things up close, it can have a lifelong effect.”
And don’t forget multigen travel. Just as very young children add some constraints to the possibilities, so too might grandparents. But that’s certainly not always the case. Maggard cites a recent example where a grandmother was not only part of an ecotourism-focused trip, but the driving force. “She was hell-bent on showing her family that not everyone was as well off as they were,” says Maggard. And to that end, the eco-focused trip to Costa Rica, which included the grandmother, her son, his wife and the grandchildren, included a week of eco-opportunities, such as picking up garbage, recycling and hands-on community work, before a more leisurely stay at a high-end villa.
The Great Balancing Act
Almost any kind of travel requires balancing disparate needs to some extent—desire vs. budget, activities vs. relaxation, time required to do a trip “properly” vs. available vacation time and so on. Many of these factors become even more exacerbated when children are involved. Here are some specific areas to be sure to consider.
Know the children’s limitations: A 4-year-old can’t go ziplining and even a 7-year-old is not going to be able to do a full-day hike. Consider if all activities are physically possible, appropriate and desirable for the ages of the kids. “Sometimes we’ve had issues with families that have older children and one much younger child,” says Goldenberg. “In that case, we have to modify the activity or suggest splitting up for part of the day.” For example, can the older children and mom take to the zipline, while dad goes shelling with the younger children? Or can the little ones stay at a hotel kids center while the parents go deep-sea fishing? And if there’s really no good solution? “Sometimes we actually recommend holding off for a few years until the youngest are old enough to really enjoy and appreciate the trip,” says Goldenberg.
Don’t underestimate the kids: On the flip side, do plan activities that will give children the chance to explore outside their comfort zone and possibly learn that they like things they didn’t know about. “You never know what a child will find interesting,” says Slatcher. “Maybe it’s birding—with the right guide, kids might find they’re fascinated by something they never even thought about before.”
Prepare the kids ahead of time: Slatcher recommends a reading list for kids so they have some sense of where they’re going. There are kids’ books and movies that take place almost any place in the world, from the beach to the Grand Canyon to India. She also recommends taking cues from the kids in planning the specifics: “If a child has read a book or seen a movie that takes place in the destination and keeps talking about one aspect, we’ll do our best to include that aspect, whether they’ve become fixated on seeing a certain animal or want to go river rafting like their favorite heroine.”
Schedule—but don’t overschedule: As with any trip, if clients know they want to do something, it’s best to schedule it from the start to make sure it’s available and they’ve left the right time for it. But with kids along, scheduled free time becomes even more crucial. “We try to schedule one or two activities a day and then give options for downtime,” says Maggard. “Kids move at a slower pace and take in things more slowly than adults. They also need time to release energy—maybe there’s an organized bike tour in the morning, but free-time swimming in the afternoon—or even a nap.” Slatcher, too, recommends ensuring plenty of downtime. “With my own family, we like to take an hour or two before dinner to decompress,” she says. “It allows us to maximize the value of the day. Kids need to process what they’ve seen and experienced, even if they don’t know it.”