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Ecotours Offer Respectful Walks on Wild Side

WASHINGTON POST

Ecology is fast becoming a buzzword of the ‘90s. If you have an inquiring mind and welcome unusual and even challenging experiences--are you, for example, willing to sample the local fare of the country you are visiting?--then you are a likely candidate for that relatively new and growing breed of leisure traveler: the ecotourist.

The world’s great wild areas--its tropical rain forests, wind-blown deserts, Arctic ice flows and mountain preserves--are the new and often rugged “in” destinations these days for travelers who want to see them while they remain relatively pristine. And importantly, these travelers hope to contribute--in a variety of ways--to saving the wilderness. Rescuing endangered wildlife also ranks high in their priorities.

Ecotourism might roughly be defined as going on a nature trip, whether it’s bird-watching, hiking a mountain trail or snorkeling off a reef in Belize. But there is more to it than that. A key component for leaders in the ecotourism field is that nature or wildlife tours should be organized in a way that fosters preservation of wild areas and wildlife. Many conservationists have come to realize that tourism can have a beneficial impact on wild areas as well as a negative one.

An excellent example is the annual winter tours to see the little fluffy white harp seal pups who are born in March on the floating ice fields just west of the Magdalen Islands in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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In years past, the pups were slaughtered for their unusual fur by local hunters. The International Fund for Animal Welfare pushed for a ban, which the Canadian government adopted in 1987. Since then, the fund has sponsored a series of five- to eight-day seal-watching tours. Income from tourism has tripled what the islanders made from the annual hunt, says Richard Moore, the fund’s executive director.

A Seattle company, Wildland Journeys, sets aside part of the proceeds from all of its nature tours to develop projects in the host country, according to Kurt Kutay, the firm’s founder and a leader in the ecotourism movement. In the past, the firm has helped restore a Buddhist prayer wheel in the Indian Himalayan district of Ladakh, and once a year it organizes a reforestation project in Nepal as a three-day extension of a guided mountain trek.

Among the tour operators, cruise lines and other organizations with a reputation for offering or sponsoring quality nature trips:

--World Wildlife Fund: The organization sponsors a variety of wildlife protection projects throughout the world, and its annual tours usually include a visit with the field staff at one or more of them. On Dominica, for example, site of one of the tours, efforts are being made to protect the island’s virgin rain forest, the largest expanse in the Caribbean.

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An 18-day trip to Kenya, which departs Aug. 8 and returns Aug. 25, is expected to reveal lions, cheetahs, leopards, giraffes, impalas, zebras, rhinos, hippos and hundreds of species of birds. The itinerary includes Sweetwaters Tented Camp, Zamburu Game Reserve, Lake Nakuru National Park, the Longonot private reserve and the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Participants also will visit a World Wildlife Fund project, which is an environmental education center at Lake Nakuru.

Cost is $5,668 per person, double occupancy, with round-trip air fare from New York City, via Frankfurt to Nairobi.

For more information, contact the World Wildlife Fund, Travel Program, 1250 24th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037, (202) 778-9683.

--International Fund for Animal Welfare: Every winter, some 250,000 harp seals make their way into Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, where their pups are born on floating ice fields near the Magdalen Islands. Visitors stay in villages on the islands and make seal-watching excursions by helicopter. It’s not unusual to be able to cuddle one of the wide-eyed pups.

While not on the ice fields, participants can tour the French-speaking islands, cross-country ski, snowshoe and watch the Northern Lights. Wildlife lectures and photography workshops are offered. Tours range from four to seven nights and are scheduled for February and March every year, the next being in 1992.

The price from Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the four-night tour begins at about $1,295 per person, double occupancy, which includes hotel lodging, some meals and at least one flight to the seals. Air fare to Halifax is additional.

For more information, contact Natural Habitat Wildlife Adventures, One Sussex Station, Sussex, N.J. 07461, (800) 543-8917 and (201) 702-1525.

--Sierra Club: Though noted primarily for its backpacking trips in the West, the Sierra Club also puts together an annual roster of international trips. A new one for 1991 is a 17-day cultural and ecological tour of the Soviet Union, including visits to Leningrad, Moscow, Byelorussia and the Ukraine. Cultural sightseeing will be balanced with hiking in the Carpathian Mountains, touring a nature reserve in Byelorussia with a Soviet ecological group, and visiting proposed sites for new national parks.

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The tour departs May 12. Price from Leningrad is $2,980 per person, double occupancy, which includes lodging and all meals. Air fare to the Soviet Union is extra.

For more information, contact the Sierra Club, Outings Department, 730 Polk St., San Francisco 94109, (415) 776-2211.

--Wildland Journeys: Founded 10 years ago, Wildland Journeys specializes in nature travel to Latin America.

A popular destination is the Central American republic of Costa Rica, where a 10-day trip to Tortuguero National Park is scheduled, departing July 15 and Aug. 12. Highlights of the trip are observing sea turtles nesting on the beaches of Tortuguero, a visit to the Poas Volcano, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the Carara Biological Reserve. Two days in the park will be spent observing turtles at night and exploring the jungle by day.

At the Monteverde reserve, the altitude is about 6,500 feet, and several different ecological zones can be visited. Accommodations are at lodges and inns. Land cost is $1,495 per person, double occupancy, including meals. Air fare to Costa Rica is extra. Among the firm’s other programs are foot safaris in East Africa and volunteer maintenance work on the Inca Trail in Peru. This year, Wildland Journeys plans to build latrines along the trail.

For more information, contact Wildland Journeys, 3516 N.E. 155th St., Seattle, Wash. 98155, (800) 345-4453 and (206) 365-0686.

--Journeys International: An affiliate of Wildland Journeys, Journeys International focuses its attention on Asia and Africa. One of its many programs is an annual 20-day tree-planting trek in Nepal, where the forests have been cut for firewood. Participants assist local people in what is designed to be a cultural-awareness experience for the travelers.

This year’s trek departs April 11. Land price is $1,495 per person, which includes lodging and most meals. Air fare to Nepal is additional.

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For information: Journeys International, 4011 Jackson Road, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48103, (800) 255-8735 and (313) 665-4407.

--International Expeditions: One of the largest of the ecotour operators, International Expeditions offers trips to 30 destinations, guiding about 4,000 travelers annually. The firm recently held its “1st International Rain Forest Workshop.” The second is scheduled for March 21-28, 1992. Although it features noted ecological experts, the workshop was designed primarily for people with an interest in learning about the rain forest and its inhabitants.

Panel topics will include Amazon birds, tropical mammals, tropical forest Indians, Amazon fish, Amazon orchids, social insects, rain-forest frogs, tropical butterflies, the relationship of man and the rain forest and Amazonian geography and history. Attending will be representatives from the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, numerous United States and South American universities and several natural history museums in Peru and elsewhere.

Headquarters for the event will be Explorama Lodge and Explornapo Camp, two ecologically sensitive resort facilities about 50 miles downstream from Iquitos in dense primary forest.

(The facilities also are utilized for the firm’s eight-day tours to the Amazon, which are offered monthly. Upcoming departures are April 13, May 4, June 8 and 15, July 6, Aug. 10 and 24, Sept. 7, Oct. 5 and 19, Nov. 2 and Dec. 7 and 21.)

Cost to attend the International Rain Forest Workshop will be $1,498 per person, double occupancy, including air fare from Miami.

For more information, contact International Expeditions, 1 Environs Park, Helena, Ala. 35080, (800) 633-4734 or (205) 428-1700.

--Cross Cultural Adventures: Founder Piotr Kostrzewski’s interests lie in cultural interaction. He organizes tours to remote regions where villagers rarely see outsiders, among them the mountains and deserts of Morocco and the government-restricted areas of Bastar and Nagaland in India. Following ecological principles, the tours are designed for minimal impact on the local population.

However, Kostrzewski realizes that “the fact that we are there is a bit of an intrusion.” But he arranges for participants to talk with villagers and share a cup of tea or other drink with them as a way of fostering mutual appreciation. He believes this is less disturbing to a culture than “a large group of tourists driving by in a bus and stopping to take pictures. Both sides remain an enigma.”

He will be leading a two-week tour Sept. 7-21 into an area in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Through his personal contacts in Morocco, the group will attend typical folklore celebrations in the homes of Berber tribal leaders. Land Rovers will be used over mule trails to get into the most remote valleys of the mountains. The land cost is $2,660 per person, double occupancy. Air fare to Morocco is additional.

A tour to Bastar, India, one of the most undeveloped and restricted regions of the country, is planned for Nov. 22. Bastar is home to some 62 aboriginal tribes that reportedly live without machinery or other modern devices much as their ancestors did. Located in eastern India south of Calcutta, Bastar is an area of rugged hills and lush forests. India has limited access to outsiders to preserve the primitive culture.

For more information, contact Cross Cultural Adventures, P.O. Box 3285, Arlington, Va. 22203, (703) 204-2717.

--National Audubon Society: Don’t just think bird-watching here. This long-established organization sponsors a variety of wildlife-viewing tours--birds, of course, but plenty of mammals, too.

The society has chartered a 70-passenger vessel of Special Expeditions, an ecology-minded cruise line, to explore the remote bays and fiords of southeastern Alaska. The 10-day cruise departs June 26 from Prince Rupert in British Columbia. Depending on cabin, the cost is from $2,850 to $3,930 per person, double occupancy. Air fare is additional.

For more information, contact the National Audubon Society, Travel Program, 950 Third Ave., New York 10022, (212) 546-9140.

--Wildlife Conservation International: Since 1964, Wildlife Conservation International, a division of the New York Zoological Society, has been studying wildlife in Argentina’s wild and windy Patagonia region. Next January, it will take a group of 15 tourists to the Punta Tombo Reserve and Research Station in Chubut Province south of Buenos Aires to help count, band and weigh the Punta Tomba colony of penguins. “Most of your time,” says the organization, “will be spent in the company of hundreds of thousands of Magellanic penguins.”

A two-week trip this January included a day stopover to tour Buenos Aires, two nights at the Andes Mountains resort village of Bariloche and nine nights in a tent encampment at the research station. The cost was $3,285 per person, double occupancy, which included air fare from New York City, lodging and most meals.

For more information, contact Lynn Seno Smith, Members Afield International-New York Zoological Society, 217 East 85th St., Suite 200, New York 10028, (212) 879-2588.


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