Kalu Yala, an eco-city in Panama’s Tres Brazos valley, is one example of a sustainable vacation centered around a traditional-style home base. Visitors sleep in tents on raised platforms, eat locally sourced meals, and explore the surrounding valley. (Emma Sarappo/Medill)
Ecotourism: Adventures that shed the carbon footprint
By Kaitlyn Budrow
When Brett Towle went looking for vacation plans, he wanted an off-the-beaten-path experience. He didn’t expect to come away with a newfound appreciation for environmentalism.
Towle went on a surfing trip led by Henry Heyman, owner of ecotourism business Tres Brazos Outfitters.
“I chose to go on this trip because I have lived in northern climates for the past 15 years and have been foaming at the mouth at any opportunity to catch some waves,” he said. “I improved my surfing for sure, but this trip also left me with an immense respect for the natural environment.”
Henry Heyman, a former intern at Panama’s eco-town of Kalu Yala, started a business based in Panama in December taking patrons on vacations with net zero carbon emissions. The goal of his and other ecotourism businesses is to get travelers thinking more about sustainability and conservation.
“It’s less of like ‘here’s a beach resort, hang out here, drink as much as you want, eat as much as you want, relax’ and more of like ‘let’s go on a low-impact adventure where you get a really scenic trip with a really low environmental impact,’” Heyman said.
His trips include everything from short day hikes to picturesque waterfalls and swimming holes in the Tres Brazos valley in Panama to a multi-day scuba diving trip in the historic town of Portobelo on Panama’s Caribbean coast.
While his trips are scenic and fun, they also raise awareness about environmental issues through outdoor adventure.
“A huge part of every trip I do is really trying to have some kind of educational component and really place-based,” he said. “When I take people rafting on the Chagres River in Panama, for example, I like to start a conversation about dams that pop up on rivers and how that negatively impacts the ecosystem there.”
But ecotourism is by no means limited to Panama, or even Central America. Mark Thomson has spent the past 15 years running whitewater river expedition trips in the Canadian Arctic. He said the people who come on his trips love exploring parts of the world they wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to see.
“I think often people also leave with an increased sense of national pride, having experienced a part of their country that many others don’t ever get to in a lifetime of living in that country,” Thomson said.
A major goal of the ecotourism industry is to reduce strain on the environment imposed by vacationers, but the mission has a catch.
“The trips themselves have little to no impact on the environment, but it’s hard to ignore the massive carbon footprint of the plane ride or whatever other means of transportation people take to get to the destination,” Heyman said.
The thinking is that the initial carbon footprint left by the flight is mitigated by limiting the environmental impact of the stay itself.
“Outside of the initial travel, the rest of the trip is typically man powered transportation, causing no environmental strain whatsoever,” Thomson said.
He added that most trips, including all of his own, practice what’s called “Leave No Trace” camping. This method means everything brought in for the trip leaves with the campers including all human, food and packaging waste. Waste generated throughout the trip is typically recycled, composted or reused wherever possible.
Care is taken when cooking to ensure food smells don’t linger and camping spots are chosen carefully to protect fragile habitats and ensure animals don’t grow accustomed to human presence.
“Ultimately, people aren’t just going to stop traveling because it’s bad for the environment,” Heyman said. “The way I look at it, if you’re trying to see Central America at least you’re coming on my trip that’s very very low impact as opposed to other alternatives.”
While ecotourism is certainly geared toward nature-lovers, these trips appeal to more than just the environmentally-savvy.
“Each day provides opportunities for reading and relaxation in many of the ways that a traditional resort experience would offer,” Thomson said. “My trips are usually situated in remote areas with plenty of opportunity for wildlife viewing, but there are certainly plenty of ecotourism opportunities for folks who don’t want to travel to remote wilderness areas, and prefer a more traditional hotel style ‘home base.’”
These home bases usually include a campsite or a cabin somewhere in nature. Among Heyman’s many trips, he offers tourists a chance to stay at Panama’s Kalu Yala for a few days, enjoy the food and area economy there and explore the surrounding valley with interns from across the world who come to study there for 10 weeks. They live in tents like the interns and eat many farm-to-table foods.
But travelers said the best part of ecotourism is learning more about little-known environmental issues and local cultures.
“The best part of the trip was befriending some locals and exploring the town over, Isla Canas,” Towle said. “We were able to visit the community skate park and learn about their small town culture, and that was an invaluable and priceless experience to say the least.”
And industry pioneers hope the education they spread through their trips will affect meaningful change, one trip at a time.
“It’s the combination of an increased sense of enthusiasm for regions of the country people had never experienced before, along with a new bank of knowledge about the importance of that area and pressures on it,” Thomson said. “These things result in a concern for the well-being of these areas that can’t be replicated elsewhere.”