A monthly column about gay and lesbian travel

Eco-Tourism

Rules for the Road Less Trampled

by Sasha Alyson


Eco-tourism has a growing appeal for gay travelers. Is it for you?

Above: Cultures intersect and interact as three children in remote Thailand, who live without running water, or electricity, inspect a gift from an overseas visitor.

 

Sasha Alyson, photo taken in the Tetons

The author: Sasha Alyson is the founder of Alyson Publications, the country's leading publisher of gay and lesbian books. He sold that company in 1995 to start Alyson Adventures, which specializes in active and adventure vacations for gay men and lesbians.


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Traveling to learn about and care for the environment, known as Eco-tourism, is the new frontier of gay travel on two fronts. It has taken gay people to many new places, while it also has created a new, progressive ethic for the tourism industry in general.

For many years, gay people avoided travel outside urban Meccas where we felt safe and comfortable. But in the past two decades, a few pioneers have introduced gay vacations, tours and accommodations throughout the world, including the most remote and exotic places. As we discover its wonders, we learn more about the environment, and become better stewards of its future. Like the gay rights movement, eco-tourism grew mainstream through underground and grassroots activism. Our response to its sudden acceptance is a celebration of our own liberty.

Sound political and preachy? Too granola for your taste? You say you tried an eco-vacation when you paid $500 for a mud bath at Canyon Ranch? Somewhere on the spectrum between the mud bath and a circuit party, there's a destination that could offer a fresh and fun experience. By following a few enlightened rules of thumb, you will return healthier, more confident, and a little wiser.

1. Know before you go. Being aware of a country's language(s), customs, and religions helps you make new friends. As we build bridges to other cultures, we create a more tolerant world in the only true way possible, friendship by friendship.

2. Leave only footprints, take only photos is the famous summary of this important rule for the responsible traveler. Remember to leave natural spaces in the same or better condition.

3. Give back. Support local artisans who make your destination unique. You can also cater to local businesses that share your concern for the environment.

4. Travel in the spirit of curiosity, humility and openness. Being an eco-traveler is not just where you go, and what you do: it's an attitude that you bring to the experience. You can have a great time by letting your natural sense of wonder guide you.

* * *

So what is an eco-vacation? The idea has become so popular that the Internet teems with eco-tourism sites. Marketers have used the buzzword to advertise even the common cruise, a cynical twist on an otherwise noble trend. For the record, real eco-vacations fall into three categories: those offering educational and conservation experiences, those offering natural adventures, and those offering both. Many eco-tour operators blend both conservation and adventure with an emphasis on group activity.

1) Mariah Wilderness Travel (800-462-7424) offers adventure travel and eco-travel trips for women in North and South America, from white-water rafting down the Colorado River to rainforest trekking in the Amazon. They also offer educational family vacation packages to non-traditional families, which include hot-air ballooning and story-telling for children.

2) Rancho Mirage Travel & Way To Go Costa Rica (800-369-1073) have partnered to bring you the beautiful rainforests of this gay-friendly Central American country. Truly unspoiled, you can wander over the beautiful beaches at Punta Uva, explore the active Arenal Volcano, and tour the rainforests with native conservationists to guide you.

3) Kalani Eco-Resort (800-800-6886) is the only coastal lodging facility within Hawaii's largest conservation area. Kalani provides wholesome cuisine, great accommodations, pool/spa, massage therapies, traditional culture and holistic seminars. Their web site articulates a special commitment to the gay community, including numerous conferences and special events.

4) Earthquest (800-542-7111) is a non-profit eco-tour operator with journeys throughout North, Central and South America. Among their most popular tours, travel to the Galapagos Islands, where the abundant diversity of unusual flora and fauna inspired Darwin's theory on natural selection. A quick phone call assured me that they are "friendly to all kinds of people."

This list is just the beginning. As this growing market testifies, there is a fascinating world over the rainbow; and it belongs to all of us. If you follow your natural curiosity, you could make it a better place to live…and bring back memories to last a lifetime.