SLEEK black water grabs our raft and hurtles us through the Ottawa River’s raging Rocher Fendu rapids. “Paddle hard! Harder! Go, go, go!” our leader shouts, and with a swoosh we’re through the churning froth. Before tackling the next whitewater, we rest while our guide tells us about the river’s ecology and spins tales from First Nations history of the area.
We are ecotourists - part of a growing number of travellers who, in the era of climate change, are seeking low-impact getaways.
The devil’s in the definition
Interpretations of ecotourism are widely varying and sometimes contradictory, but most definitions share common elements: experiencing nature with minimal environmental impact, cultural awareness, and local socio-economic benefit. See “About Ecotourism” at the website of The International Ecotourism Society for an explanation or check out the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s take.
My husband and I are confident that our outfitter’s commitment to conserving the river, carefully managing waste and emissions, and promoting the local economy and heritage means we have chosen an authentic eco-adventure. But in this burgeoning and loosely defined business, the ecotourism scene is ripe for greenwashing.
Case in point: A few years ago, I found myself in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert on a nighttime wildlife-watching excursion. Dubbed an “ecotour,” it promised a spectacular view of the desert during a full moon—from a Hummer. To add injury to insult, our Rambo-style guide, hoping to impress “the little ladies,” veered off-road, zooming over the delicate ecosystem.
A true eco-experience? Clearly not. But besides trusting your gut, how can would-be eco-travellers assess what’s genuine? Ask questions, says Bill Kendrick,who operates a tourism company on Prince Edward Island that exposes visitors to local culture, industry and ecology with an eye toward sustainability. Inquire whether the operator contributes to any sustainability organizations or initiatives, and how waste, water and energy consumption are handled. Ask whether they expect their partners to adhere to a certain policy. Even simple things like what kinds of light bulbs a B & B uses or what types of vehicles are employed and whether chemical pesticides are used on the property are worth inquiring about. “If the operator doesn’t have satisfactory answers,” says Kendrick, “perhaps they are using sustainability as a marketing tool rather than walking the talk.”
— Katharine Fletcher
This article was published in Checkerspot Magazine, summer 2008: Living: On the Go Ecotourism Department section. The magazine ceased publication in 2009.