The growing popularity of ecotourism, a still-developing branch of travel that gives tourists an opportunity to help preserve the natural environment and interact with local people, has led to confusion among some consumers because of the sometimes misleading promotional material produced by travel companies eager to take advantage of a hot trend.
To counter this confusion, The Ecotourism Society, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Va., whose motto is "Uniting Conservation and Travel Worldwide," is establishing a rating system based on consumer evaluations that will help future travelers make educated and accurate decisions on nature-sensitive excursions. The ratings are expected to be in place and available to consumers by the fall of 1994.
The Ecotourism Society, founded in 1990, currently claims more than 400 members, including tour operators, lodge owners, conservation specialists, park system officials and tour guides. Among those organizations listed by the society as "supporting institutions" (i.e., those that donate $1,000 in annual support) are: Conservation International, the National Audobon Society, Wildland Adventures and International Expeditions.
"It's a 'consumer beware' situation with use of the term ecotourism," said Megan Epler Wood, executive director of the society. "Consumers have no way of really interpreting that label.
"In every country where there is a large nature tourism industry, there are some tour operators trying to cash in on the ecotourism phenomenon by using the word 'ecotourism' without necessarily offering the important components of an ecotour. Companies pick up on the word, which sounds good, and use it in their marketing. There's no global standard for use of the term, and we're the first organization setting up much-needed standards."
Consumers will be asked to rate tour operators offering ecotourism-related trips. The survey will be comparable to the popular Zagat guides, where consumers rank restaurants and hotels according to a list of specific criteria supplied by the Zagat company. In the 1992 "Zagat Los Angeles/Southern California Restaurant Survey," for example, a total of 4,400 consumers participated in the rating process.
The first step in establishing a rating system took place last summer when The Ecotourism Society contacted ecotourism operators (according to one report, there are more than 300 U.S. tour operators now booking environmentally sensitive trips), conservation groups, lodge owners and others in the field about helping to devise a code of standards.
"Based on these standards, which are being reviewed now, questionnaires for consumers to fill out in evaluating their ecotourism trips will be available next fall," explained Wood. "For the first year, these questionnaires will be available only through tour operators so we can see how they're working out. We'll announce which operators are participating in the late summer."
Information sought from tour participants is likely to include such questions as: What information on ecology and the environment is included in the pre-departure kit provided by tour operators? What kind of information about preservation of the environment is being offered by tour guides during the actual experience? What kinds of opportunities do travelers have to make donations to conservation efforts? What chances do travelers have to purchase local handicrafts and contribute to the economy?
Other questions might relate to tour operator policies about taking natural materials, such as rocks, plants and flowers, from a destination without approval; what systems for disposal of food and waste are used, and what guidelines are provided on viewing, photographing, tracking and even touching wildlife.
The Ecotourism Society won't endorse specific tour operators, according to Wood, since this could inhibit participation by other members of the industry not endorsed.
The standardized forms will be available to travelers through tour operators and lodge owners, and from the society itself. Travelers can mail the forms back to the society. After processing, the data will be available to consumers, governments, conservation organizations, tour operators and others in the travel industry on a worldwide basis.
"We think a carefully crafted evaluation should help consumers as well as travel agents," said Sven Lindblad, president of New York-based Society Expeditions, which Offers ecotourism-related trips around the world.
That opinion seems to be the consensus among ecotourism operators.
"There is a need for some sort of evaluation, since there are companies that claim to be involved with ecotourism but that aren't really that involved," said Margaret Schaeffer, president of New York-based Caligo Ventures, which offers natural history tours mainly to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Both Lindblad and Schaeffer said that an understanding of the use of local guides and services is very important.
"We try, when possible, to use local guides," Schaeffer said. "However, some guides are better trained than others. Accordingly, we help train local guides. One way that ecotourism operators establish credibility is through practices that generate, to some degree, benefits for the local economy.
"We also try, when feasible, to use locally owned hotels so that the money paid to these properties stays in the country instead of filtering out. It's important that locals see that this money is staying in the country."
The Ecotourism Society is open to consumers. The annual cost of membership is $35. Among other things, members receive a quarterly newsletter. A complimentary copy of the newsletter is available by contacting the society at 801 Devon Place, Alexandria, Va. 22314, (703) 549-8979.