As we travel the far corners of the world, we are faced with the responsibility to preserve the fragile environments we visit.
The concept of traveling responsibly is called ecotourism. Ecotourism is traveling in such a manner as to protect the environment and nourish its many systems.
Taken to an extreme analogy, the disregard of eco-conscious travel would be akin to filling in the Grand Canyon to build a Starbucks. There is nothing wrong with Starbucks. Even though we all love a good mocha, our priorities should be aimed at preserving this planet's natural and cultural treasures.
By focusing on the impact of our actions and using a little common sense, travelers can make the right decisions to positively impact the world around them.
To begin eco-traveling, please follow these guidelines compiled by the American Society of Travel Agents. As some of the most travel-wise people in the world, ASTA members know how special our planet is, and why we must take good care of it.
Respect our fragile planet
Sure, the planet feels solid beneath our feet, and it can hold its own against the big boys in the solar system. Yet the earth's ecosystem - the scenic surface features we stand next to in pictures - is a fragile infrastructure dependent on balanced and cyclical nurturing.
Think of the ecosystem as the earth's hair. It looks great now, but the more we tread on it, the messier it becomes, until one day the planet wakes up completely bald. Unless we combine our efforts to help in its preservation, the unique and beautiful destinations we take for granted today may not be here for future generations to enjoy.
Keep your group small and manageable. Less people mean less of everything else: less garbage, less food, smaller fires, smaller campsites and less crowding of popular areas. Simple solutions make for major improvements.
Leave only footprints
Take only photographs and leave only footprints. These two simple phrases sum up the heart of eco-tourism. Do not leave litter of any kind and do not take any souvenirs from historical sites and natural areas. In some instances, such as taking a piece of the Great Barrier Reef, it's a crime.
Never disturb anything that you can avoid disturbing. Find fallen branches for firewood instead of cutting down small trees. The squirrels and birds will appreciate if you leave their homes exactly as you find them.
Also, leave the pretty rocks where they are. Your desk will survive without another paperweight. The "it's only one rock" attitude goes out the window when a million people each take one rock from one forest.
The road most traveled
Always follow designated trails and resist the urge to explore the forest.
Following the basic rules of eco-tourism can be as easy as following a well-marked trail, because on the well-marked trail is where you should be.
Do not disturb animals, plants or their natural habitats, and they will not disturb you. Remember how you were told a thousand times as a child to not tap the aquarium's glass? Well, consider each ecological wonder a special aquarium.
Education is a terrible thing to waste
Educate yourself about the geography, customs and manners of the region you plan to visit. This extends past learning about the best restaurants to dine at or which tourist attraction to pass up. Get to know the culture before you arrive and know which of your actions or standards may negatively impact the environment.
Tourism can also provide a positive boost to local people. Attending local events encourages indigenous pride and cultural heritage, enabling traditions to be preserved.
Respect the privacy of others and always ask before photographing people.
Some Australian aborigines believe that photographs steal their souls, especially with the lens cap off. While you may not believe this to be true, respect their beliefs and slide the camera back into the backpack.
Also, be respectful of local peoples' land by asking permission before entering buildings, shrines or sacred lands. Showing respect will gain you the most treasured of travel souvenirs: trust.
Souvenirs are a vital part of every trip, special for their uniqueness and a direct mental link to a great vacation memory.
As a concerned eco-tourist, do not buy products made from endangered plants or animals, such as ivory, tortoise shell, animal skins and feathers. Also, a nice touch is to purchase souvenirs from local artists to keep cultural traditions alive.
Expand this idea and dine in locally-owned restaurants, and choose locally-owned and operated lodges, hotels, tour guides, taxis, buses and car rental agencies.
Eco-friends and neighbors
Support conservation-oriented organizations already working to preserve the environment and select responsible tour operators and guides who contribute financially to conservation and preservation efforts.
Also, choose destinations that are not over-crowded or over-developed and encourage organizations to subscribe to environmental guidelines.
It's a small world after all
Traveling with the world in mind provides a more satisfying travel experience. Challenge yourself to learn about the places and people you visit and, while visiting, help sustain their fragile environments, economies and cultures.
Some travel agents specialize specifically in this type of travel and are a major asset in planning your special trip.
Through increased awareness and an earnest desire to help protect natural and cultural resources for the good of the planet and for the generations yet to explore, you can trek to the four corners with a positive impact and responsibly enjoy every step of your way.
It will make the travel experience that much sweeter and the memories that much richer.
Geraldine Blanchard is a travel consultant with Global Tours and Travel at 559 W. Eau Gallie Blvd. Melbourne. She can be reached at (321) 676-6040 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information, visit www.globaltours.com.