5 Things to Consider About Conservation Vacations

Vancouver, BC | Posted: May 6th, 2016

View a macaw on you next conservation vacation

5 Things to Consider About Conservation Vacations

Updated on February 12, 2019

Ecotourism, green travel, sustainable tourism – call it what you will, conservation vacations are now one of the fastest growing parts of the tourism market. Minimizing the negative impacts of travel has the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions, benefit low-income communities, and support efforts to protect endangered animals.

Unfortunately, so far, the impact (whether good or bad) of travel on wildlife has been an afterthought for most travelers. Tourism and the infrastructure it requires can destroy wildlife habitat, worsen climate change, result in litter and other pollution, and increase stress on wild animals.

When done carefully, however, what we call conservation vacations can be a force for good, providing volunteer help and generating funds for local conservation groups. Perhaps the most significant way that conservation travel can help endangered species is by creating economic benefits for local residents who otherwise would earn a living through fishing, hunting, or other activities that harm wildlife.

As you plan your next vacation, here are some things to think about before you decide where to go and what activities to do while you’re there.

1. Is your destination is a wildlife hotspot?

According to Conservation International, about half the planet’s species live in “biodiversity hotspots” occupying less than five percent of the world’s land. If you visit one of these spots, read up on which animals live there and look for opportunities to visit research and conservation programs. Some of these programs may offer short-term volunteer opportunities where you can participate in activities that few travelers get to experience. Many of these programs work through tour operators that offer these volunteer experiences together with transportation, food, and accommodations.

photo of sea turtle in costa rica

2. Supporting conservation and local communities.

If you decide to travel through a tour operator, do your research to make sure the one you choose actively supports environmental and social projects in its destinations. Some operators will offer discounts for travelers who donate to funds set up to support community groups; a great example is the Travelers Conservation Trust established by Wildland Adventures to support conservation organizations in various countries. Most of the operators who truly support such programs will be transparent about where the money goes.

If this information is not readily available, make sure you ask the operator what they do to support wildlife conservation. After all, if their business is based on travelers going to see lions in Africa or tigers in India, shouldn’t they want to make sure those animals will always be around? If they can’t answer that question, let them know you’ll be looking elsewhere. There’s no better way to motivate a company to improve its practices than by denying it your business.

Photo of people hiking

PHOTO: WILDLAND ADVENTURES

3. Does your operator go beyond donations?

Giving money is one of the easier ways to support wildlife. Ask operators if they also support environmental protection and local residents in other ways. Do they offer volunteer programs? Do they employ people from nearby communities and use locally owned hotels and restaurants? Do they advocate for wildlife protection or participate in efforts to improve tourism practices?

One of the best examples of going beyond donations is Canada’s Maple Leaf Adventures, whose founder Kevin Smith has been a leader in setting tourism standards for the Haida Gwaii Islands and promoting bear watching over bear hunting in British Columbia. The company also provides financial support to conservation organizations such as the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

photo of grizzly bear taken on conservation vacation in British Columbia

PHOTO: MAPLE LEAF ADVENTURES

4. Make sure your vacation plans do not include activities that could harm wildlife.

Once you know which animals live in your destination and what your operator is doing to protect them, the next thing to think about is whether your choices of accommodation and activities might impact local wildlife. Are you staying in a high-rise chain hotel on a turtle nesting beach? If so, you might want to look for a locally owned cabin away from where the turtles come ashore instead. If you plan to use jet skis or boats, make sure to drive slowly, obey all regulations, and stay away from habitat for manatees and other animals. Check out this Turtle Watching Guide for ways to prevent harming turtles on nesting beaches and at sea. The Coral Reef Alliance also has several guides for travelers.

A young Green Sea Turtle is released on a beach in fornt of observers from the local community. Chelonia mydas. Playa Negra, Costa Rica.

PHOTO: NEIL EVER OSBORNE

5. Stay off the beaten path.

Many of the most popular places to see wildlife become overrun with tourists, encouraging uncontrolled development that negatively impacts wildlife habitat. However, by doing a little research, you can usually find other places to see the same animals that don’t get nearly as much traffic. There are dozens of turtle nesting beaches in Costa Rica, yet the vast majority of travelers go to Tortuguero National Park. For your next African safari, consider places like Mozambique or Namibia’s Communal Conservancies instead of following the crowds to see lions in Kenya.

By following these five recommendations as you plan your next adventure, you can enjoy a wildlife travel experience that not only leaves you with indelible memories but also has a positive impact on the places, people, and animals you’ve traveled to see.

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