You don’t have to leave the United States and its contiguous neighbors, Canada and Mexico, to find cutting-edge ecotourism destinations. North America offers a range of environmentally responsible destinations, from sub-Arctic territories to tropical beaches. So why are they so hard to find?
In Africa, Australia, or South America, you’ll encounter a host of eco-lodges that practice low-impact tourism involving indigenous people. Yet within U.S. boundaries, ecotourism on that scale is scarce.
This is partly because environmentally responsible tourism has its genesis in developing nations, explains Martha Honey, executive director of the International Ecotourism Society. “Ecotourism’s roots go back to Latin America and Africa during the 1970s, with worldwide awareness of the cutting of rainforests and poaching of animals such as rhinos and elephants,” she says. “U.S. ecotourism has been hampered because we don’t have a centralized government organization such as a national tourism board. It’s grown up here in a more disparate way—community by community—but ecotourism is here.”
Eco-lodge landscape architect Hitesh Mehta, who works for ESDA, a Ft. Lauderdale, Florida-based planning firm, has another theory. “Americans are wonderful ecotourists,” he says. “They love traveling, staying in environmentally responsible places, and meeting local people—and they’re willing to pay for those experiences. However, when it comes to development of eco-lodges, America has an abysmal record.” The problem, he opines, lies with development and investment companies that demand quick financial returns rather than the higher initial capital and longer-term paybacks of ecotourism.
“Tourism is, essentially and inescapably, environmentally destructive,” says Brian Mullis, president of Sustainable Travel International. He notes that according to British “footprinting” company Best Foot Forward, a round-trip traveler flying from London to Brazil uses twice the annual carbon emissions of an average African and half the average annual carbon emissions per person globally.
That’s why Natural Home & Garden advocates travel a bit closer to home. And, we suggest you choose your destination according to these principles:
- It’s built using environmentally sound methods and/or operates with alternative energy sources.
- It minimizes human impact on natural habitats and promotes resource conservation.
- It sustains the well-being of local people and/or indigenous communities.
- It helps raise visitors’ environmental and cultural awareness.
The following North American ecotourism destinations will delight environmentally and socially conscious travelers. Most of these aren’t perfect—and a few don’t hit all aspects of ecotourism—but as they’re continually supported by eco-travelers, they’re sure to evolve.
Ecotourism in the United States
El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa
Taos, New Mexico
This adobe-style luxury resort at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains features globally themed suites or casitas that blend into the surroundings.
How it’s built: Structures created from an adobe-like material made of recycled fly ash. At the core is the Living Machine, a greenhouse-like system in which plants, fish, and other organisms treat water for reuse.
Alternative energy: Photovoltaic solar cells power the Living Machine; parts of the resort are geothermally heated and cooled.
Conservation practices: Composting, recycling, rainwater collection; pool treated with eco-friendly chlorine substitute; waste water treated and reused for irrigation.
Benefits to local people: At times, water from the Living Machine is returned to the city of Taos. The owner founded a local school.
Educational programs: Tours of the Living Machine.
Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast
This hundred-year-old farmhouse-turned-B&B is set amid an extensive organic garden south of Madison. A secondary property—a woodsy retreat cabin—is two hours’ drive north.
How it’s built: Restoration done with salvaged materials, sustainably harvested wood, recycled tile, no-VOC paints and sealers. A solar straw bale greenhouse provides food year-round.
Alternative energy: Wind and solar; wood-stove heating.
Conservation practices: Organic and natural cotton linens, composting, local and home-grown foods, eco-cleaners.
Benefits to environment: Trees for Travel certificates (see page 21) for guests document that trees were planted to offset the CO2 from their auto trip.
Educational programs: Tours of farm and alternative technologies.
Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge
Visitors take a water taxi to these off-the-grid coastal cabins that accommodate eight guests in Kachemak Bay State Park. This elegantly rustic place has a “leave no trace” philosophy, spectacular views, and hiking, fishing, and wildlife watching.
How it’s built: Handmade cabins from milled local driftwood.
Alternative energy: Hydroelectric power from a stream; wind-power backup.
Conservation practices: Recycling, organic vegetable garden.
Benefits to local ecosystems: Plans to get the area declared a mountain goat sanctuary.
Educational programs: Nature walks to tidal flats and alpine valleys.
Papoose Creek Lodge
Not far from Yellowstone, Papoose Creek Lodge accommodates sixteen guests on its fifty-acre property, bordered by the 25,000-acre Sun Ranch. The resort offers horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, and cultural attractions.
How it’s built: Two guest cabins were built from reclaimed snow-fence wood; two 1880s-era buildings have been refurbished.
Alternative energy: None
Conservation practices: Eco-cleaners, organic cotton bathrobes, recycling, local products.
Benefits to local ecosystems: Wildlife-friendly fencing; 40 percent of acreage open for wintering elk. Studies on coexisting with elk herds and wolves and trout creek conservation.
Educational programs: Experts address locals and visitors on valley conservation; staff naturalist and environmental specialist.
Yosemite National Park
Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
America’s National Parks protect some of the nation’s greatest natural treasures, but they also suffer from destructive tourism. Yosemite gets so many visitors—almost 4 million annually—that the Yosemite Valley has traffic jams and air pollution. So what’s it doing on Natural Home’s list? We just couldn’t write off the National Park system, which though beleaguered and underfunded, is getting into the ecotourism game.
About the size of Rhode Island, Yosemite is 95 percent wilderness. The remaining 5 percent (Yosemite Valley) is the domain of cars, RVs, hotels, gift shops, and campsites. To counteract the damage, the park enhanced its traffic-reducing shuttle system with eighteen hybrid buses, removed the parking lot at Lower Yosemite Falls, and is greening its concessions and guest services.
Ahwahnee Resort Hotel
How it’s built: A national historic landmark, the Ahwahnee was built in 1927.
Alternative energy: None
Conservation practices: Compact fluorescent bulbs in public areas, nontoxic cleaning products, waste recycling, water and energy savings programs, organic fertilizers and integrated pest management, native-plant landscaping.
Ecotourism in Canada
Clayoquot Wilderness Resort
Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia
Accessible by float plane or boat, this summer-only Vancouver Island resort offers luxurious accommodations in canvas tents situated in the rainforest along the Bedwell River.
How it’s built: Tents and other buildings are on raised cedar platforms to minimize impact on the land.
Alternative energy: Wind- and solar-powered electricity.
Conservation practices: Composting toilets, gravity-powered water lines, organic garden and greenhouse.
Benefits to local ecosystems: Raptor rehabilitation project, bear mapping, and restoring salmon-spawning habitat.
Educational programs: First Nations interpretive trail on a nearby island.
Cree Village Ecolodge
Moose Factory Island, Ontario
Owned by the MoCreebec Council of the Cree Nation, this twenty-room island eco-lodge is accessible by air or train/boat. Visitors participate in whale sighting, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, river trips, and cultural tours.
How it’s built: Designed according to Cree values with an A-frame replica of a traditional winter dwelling.
Alternative energy: Currently on the grid, but equipped for future wind and solar.
Conservation practices: Efficient insulation and triple-glazed windows. Organic carpets and bedding, linens, and pillows; composting toilets. Organic herb garden and composting.
Benefits to local people: Employs locals, most of whom are aboriginal.
Educational programs: Canoe trips; Cree craft and cooking demonstrations.
Forest House Eco-Lodge
Air Ronge, Saskatchewan
Three quaint wilderness eco-cabins in northern Saskatchewan’s boreal forest and lake country are set amidst some of the world’s best canoe country.
How it’s built: Combination log/wood-frame cabins made of materials rescued from landfills and selectively harvested trees.
Alternative energy: Solar with backup generator, woodstove heating.
Conservation practices: Organic garden, composting, graywater systems, recycling program.
Benefits to regional ecosystems: The owners are fighting to protect the area from logging.
Educational programs: Nature walks; staff ethnobotanist.
Ecotourism in Mexico
Baja California Sur
This remote eco-lodge, perched unobtrusively on ten acres of volcanic hills overlooking the Sea of Cortez, offers hiking, horseback riding, and a white-sand beach.
How it’s built: Sand and clay adobe bricks, woven palm-frond roofs (palapas), volcanic stone walkways and terraces.
Alternative energy: 100 percent solar powered.
Conservation practices: Some graywater reuse, fluorescent lights, organic garden.
Benefits to local people and ecosystems: Employs only local villagers. The owners provide no-interest loans for area families to develop home solar systems.
Educational programs: Local guides teach about medicinal herbs, sea and animal life.
Costa Alegre, Jalisco
Sixty miles south of Puerto Vallarta, the “Unknown Hotel,” nestled between the Sierra Madre mountains and the Pacific, is perfect for bird watching, windsurfing, sailing, kayaking, and mountain biking.
How it’s built: Palapa roofs shade the indigenous-style bungalows, called palafitos, built on stilts near the water.
Alternative energy: Solar power and lamps.
Conservation practices: “Bio-digester” sewage system, biodegradable cleaning products and in-room amenities.
Benefits to local people and ecosystems: Actively promotes sea turtle program.
Educational programs: From June through January guests can join the staff biologist in helping turtle hatchlings scramble to the sea.