Ecotourism - visiting a place without disrupting its natural or traditional way of life - is likely to be the next big thing. Tessa Fox looks at how it is being managed in some other parts of the world, and gets a few hints on how to apply it closer to home.
At the end of January a group of hoteliers, tour operators, conservation experts, government representatives and local people gathered in a remote part of north-east India to debate ecotourism.
The conference, in Gangtok, capital of the Himalayan state of Sikkim, focused on ecotourism in south Asia and was one of a series of regional meetings organised by the US-based International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as part of this year's inaugural International Year of Ecotourism (IYE).
IYE is a United Nations initiative aimed at promoting environmentally responsible tourism worldwide - and, if statistics are to be believed, it has come not a moment too soon. According to the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), the number of people opting for nature tourism (ecotourism is included in this sector) is growing, albeit from a low level, at between 10% and 30% year. This compares with a 4% growth in global tourism overall. TIES argues that if that growth is to be managed successfully, and the fragile environments that are attracting more and more visitors are to be preserved, then there is an urgent need to address the ecotourism issues.
Speaking at the New York launch of IYE, WTO secretary-general Francesco Frangialli stressed the importance of ecotourism. He said: "It is far from being a fringe activity. It should not be regarded as a passing fad or a gimmick, or even as a secondary market niche, but rather as one of the trump cards of this industry of the future - tourism."
But what exactly is ecotourism, and what do operators have to do to earn their ecotourism colours? Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, says: "It should provide an opportunity to develop tourism in ways that minimise the industry's negative impacts, and a way to actively promote the conservation of Earth's unique biodiversity. If handled properly, ecotourism can be a valuable tool for financing the protection of ecologically sensitive areas and the socio-economic development of populations living in or close to them."
In other words, according to Fergus McLaren, who is in charge of IYE activities at TIES, tour operators will generally be small, and will hire staff and buy food locally; group sizes will be small and will be led by local guides; the number of visits to any given area will be limited; and wildlife viewing will be managed with care. For hoteliers, it means there should be a commitment to using local and natural materials for building, making careful use of energy and water, employing local people and providing support for the local community.
So who's already doing a good job of ecotourism? On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, a country that pioneered ecotourism and whose competitive advantage in tourism relies on it, Americans Karen and John Lewis have for the past 10 years run the upscale eco-lodge Lapa Rios, surrounded by the 1,000-acre Lapa Rios rainforest reserve. They built their 14 thatched bungalows using a local workforce and local, natural materials, and the environmentally friendly systems they have incorporated include on-site waste disposal, solar-heated water and minimal use of plastics. Guests can contribute to a reforestation programme by planting trees during their stay, and more than 25,000 native palms have been planted for future thatch replacement.
"About 90% of the hotels in Costa Rica are environmentally aware," say the Lewises, "and out of those about 20% are supporting it, so it is still a niche market." But it's one that makes sense for the Lewises, who say that they can charge a premium rate because of their environmental credentials. "People enjoy knowing that they are contributing to improving the world," they say.
Several thousand miles away, the Kipungani Explorer Lodge, on the coastal Indian Ocean island of Lamu, has operated according to environmental criteria for the past 10 years. Part of Kenyan hotel group Heritage Hotels, its beach chalets are built on mangrove poles collected by local fisherman, the roofs are made from palm leaves woven by local villagers and sold to the hotel, and water is warmed by the sun.
Tented camps are an environmental alternative. The Cottars' mobile safari camp in Kenya's Masai Mara reserve markets itself as a 1920s-style camp where luxury comes in the form of service and the natural pleasures of the environment, rather than from traditional facilities. Louise Cottar says: "There is no electricity, water is carried by hand to the rooms, and all rubbish and waste is carried back to Nairobi. There is no concrete, no pipes, no permanence."
And in northern Kenya, on the banks of the Uaos Nyiro river in the Samburu national reserve, is the Samburu Intrepids, a tented camp that offers luxury accommodation at the same time as environmental credentials, including financial support for the local school and the local medical facilities.
As in Costa Rica, such properties are still in the minority, but there is clearly a will to pursue ecotourism in countries with such fragile environments. Indeed, as David Stogdale, managing director of Heritage Hotels, says, ecotourism is essential if deforestation, pollution and human encroachment on nature are to be halted. "Ecotourism is now dictating how hotels are being constructed and run today," he says. "In an area like the Masai Mara, there is legislation to stop further construction of hotels to ensure the impact of tourism activities can't overstretch the environment. Not all the hotels in Kenya are eco-friendly, but there is certainly more awareness, and ecotourism is being very much encouraged."
But what if it were ignored? For PD Rai of the Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim - an organisation that promotes understanding of ecotourism and conservation in the region and that organised the recent IYE conference there - that's not an option. "We would see livelihoods destroyed or people not earning enough, and that would mean a degradation in the quality of life," he says. "In Sikkim, we cannot think of anything else except ecotourism. This is the only way we can hope to preserve our biodiversity, which is recognised as our competitive advantage and natural capital. It is the only way forward for our little Himalayan mountain state."
No doubt hoteliers with an environmental conscience the world over would echo his views.
While solar energy may be an important environmental option in places such as Kenya and Costa Rica, it's not as practical in the UK. However, operators running conventional hotels here can make an environmental difference by making some small operational changes:
World Tourism Organisation
International Ecotourism Society
Ecotourism in Sikkim
Ecotourism in Kenya
Ecotourism in Costa Rica