By Jessica Kirby —
Thirty years ago, there was no ecotourism. There was tourism, which meant going to unfamiliar places in a recreational state of mind, but the prefix “eco” was reserved for more traditional concepts like “ecology” and “economy,” and not at all for a gentler, and greener way of interacting with nature.
Ecotourism in its contemporary expression can mean several things—travelling into delicate, gently touched, environments with light feet and strict respect; low-impact, small-scale travel in relatively undisturbed areas; and, travelling to developing nations to gain perspective and experience for international environmental concerns.
In this fast-paced, electronic world people are looking to disconnect and re-energize and breathe clean air and the place to do this is to return to the roots of humankind in nature.”
This vision evolved over the past 30 years thanks to public emphasis on preventing environmental destruction, promoting economic preservation, and reconciling the debate on international aid—ecotourism combines and supports all three by financially supporting communities,
educating travellers, and preserving nature, ideally simultaneously and in a single place.
Internationally, ecotours generate awareness about environmental plights in various countries with the hope that travellers will appreciate and take personal interest in these places. Often funds from ecotours will go into community development funds, empowering entire communities, and fostering respect for cultural diversity and human rights.
In Canada, ecotourism means more or less the same thing, but on a larger scale. Our diverse natural landscape has made the bucket lists of millions, mainly from other developed countries, especially those where true wilderness is a thing of the past. As a privileged nation, we may not live and die by eco-tourism dollars, but they are important economic drivers. In 2011, revenue from international travellers to Canada and Canadians travelling domestically reached $78.8 billion, resulting in $26.4 billion in constant dollars, $31.2 billion in unadjusted dollars, $22 billion in tax revenues, and 603,400 jobs.
But even more importantly, Canada’s status as a highly desired eco-tourism destination, the fact that people want to come and see our bears and eagles, walk in our forests, swim in our rivers, and look in awe at our sunsets, should serve as an essential reminder that we are fortunate and have something here that exists nowhere else on earth.
Peggy and Gary Zorn own Ecotours-BC, a family-run wilderness adventure company based in Likely, BC that brings worldly travellers in touch with the beautiful Cariboo Mountain natural environment. The Zorns have been in tourism for three decades, and have an integral interest in preserving BC’s wilderness and sharing it with travellers.
“Ecotourism has become the number one reason to travel in the world,” says Peggy Zorn. “To be eco-friendly in tourism, our clientele expects reuse and recycling in every way possible, but without having to give up comforts/luxuries they are used to.”
Ecotours-BC offers mountain high backcountry adventures with hiking, rock climbing, and wildlife observation; tours focused on observing bird habitats; winter “call of the wild” tours to get a look at moose, wolves, and high-mountain beauty; and, for thrill-seekers: chances to walk among the bears in the boreal forest.
“Our tours are non-intrusive and educational for clients,” says Zorn. “We are very careful not to disturb sensitive eco-systems, particularly in the alpine and in areas where rare species of plants exist. With wildlife we maintain distances in order to not stress the animals, and we take only small groups and avoid visiting the same areas on a daily basis.”
Passion for nature and wildlife has always been a way of life for the Zorns, and after 35 years in the outdoor adventure business, the company took its natural course into eco-tourism.
“We were involved in the guide outfitting business and the fly fishing industry, and clients often brought non-hunting/fishing partners who were more interested in nature, wildlife, birds, and the ecosystems so it was a natural progression to offer exclusive ecotour programs,” says Zorn.
Ecotours-BC’s primary clientele is highly populated European countries with huge cities where wilderness no longer exists, says Zorn. This generation of travellers want to see many things in the world, including grizzly bears, polar bears, whales, tigers, and other natural wonders. They also want adventure that will elevate their natural lives to a new level of experience and excitement.
“Over the past 15 years or so these desires have grown in the world, creating the opportunities to grow ecotourism businesses in Canada—something that was almost unheard of 20 years ago,” says Zorn. “In this fast-paced, electronic world people are looking to disconnect and re-energize and breathe clean air and the place to do this is to return to the roots of humankind in nature.”
Zorn says travellers are battling “nature deficiency disorder” by bringing their young children and other family members to learn about and reconnect with nature. “Many North Americans still do not understand ecotourism and its contributions to society, a better way of life and thinking, and the economies of communities,” she says.
The Zorns’ biggest challenge as an industry is with consumptive industries permanently altering or even destroying BC’s wilderness.
“Once an area is disturbed or infrastructure is created it cannot be returned to the natural or wilderness state,” says Zorn. “As far as the business is concerned there are many things we can do to green our operations from recycling to using energy efficient equipment. However, the costs of greening our operations is often prohibitive for small operations like ours.”
Interior Whitewater Expeditions (IWE), located inside Wells Gray Provincial Park in Clearwater, BC, also operates under green pretences, taking whatever baby steps it can to lighten its impact on the Earth.
The business has 30 years behind it, taking adventurers rafting on some of the most powerful and pristine rivers in BC’s interior. Tours range from three hours of wet and wild whitewater manoeuvring where participants “get intimate with the water” to family-focused day trips and multi-day camping-rafting-wildlife-viewing expeditions focused on kicking back and relaxing in nature.
Co-owner Jane Trotter says the company observes eco-tourism principles like leaving no trace on the wilderness, respecting wildlife, and educating travellers on the park’s ecosystems, but not because it is trendy.
“My husband Doug started this business 30 years ago and has always spent time outdoors and respected the environment,” she says. “He was aware of and respected the natural environment probably before many others did.”
Besides working closely with the parks department to observe its boundaries, trails, and water safety requirements, IWE oars every trip, and Doug ensures tourists don’t leave so much as a twist tie behind. “He’s a stickler,” says Trotter. “We use and encourage reusable containers as much as possible, but we also make sure whatever we bring in, we take out.”
The Trotters use environmentally safer products and apparel in the day-to-day operation of their business, and the on-site Kettle Café serves up a 100-mile diet with tasty, nutritious meals prepared from scratch.
The future of tourism in BC has got to be green, says Trotter, as travellers tend to be more health conscious and looking for ways to live those ideals while on vacation. “People who are interested in outdoor sports are usually in tune with the environment, and respecting the environment is an issue that is important to them,” she says. “People take the environment into consideration when making decisions about how they spend their time, because they are involved in it and want it to stay the same and beautiful.”
Tourists and travellers the world over can help companies like Ecotours-BC and Interior Whitewater Expeditions stay committed to safe, green exploration of the natural world by sharing their experiences in other parts of the world and communicating green ideas that have impressed them in other places.
“Many people like to contribute by joining in restoration projects to enhance damaged areas,” says Zorn. “They can also contribute to nature and wildlife foundations and local projects in areas where they visit.
“Advocacy work by tourism industry organizations is important in maintaining operating areas as well as natural areas and parks for all—resident recreationists, visitors, and tourism businesses.