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Adrienne Erin is an artist turned freelance writer who studied studio art and animation in a tiny town in central Ohio, but has worked in fields as diverse as career development, design, and public relations since. Now she resides in central Pennsylvania, but she takes the train or hops behind the wheel to visit nearby Philadelphia often. She blogs and ghost writes for a number of sites, but you can find some of her work on her personal blog, Pongra.

Her love of travel was ignited by her time spent studying art abroad in Paris, France. Since then, her travels have taken her across France, as far as the Czech Republic, and even to the site of the Chernobyl accident, not to mention more than a dozen US states. She is an avid road tripper, and has loved long distance driving since she first got behind the wheel of her car.

When she’s not on the go, she loves cooking, collage, and obsessing over vintage postcards. She frequently participates in mail exchanges and loves Skyping in French with her faraway friends. Please follow her on Twitter at @adrienneerin.

Ecotourism: Watch Out for Greenwashing

It’s seemingly impossible to go wrong when planning a vacation that revolves around ecotourism. Right? This environmentally conscious branch of tourism typically brings visitors to see pristine and undisturbed natural areas. Initially started as a way to avoid mass tourism options — and minimize one’s effects on the earth — ecotourism has entered into some murky waters in recent years.

The sun setting in Bocas del Toro, Panama, a popular ecotourism destination. (Photo credit: Ecocircuitos Panama)

The sun setting in Bocas del Toro, Panama, a popular ecotourism destination. (Photo credit: Ecocircuitos Panama)

Several tourism companies are now guilty of greenwashing their vacation options. This means that they’re taking their customers on “nature-friendly vacations” that are anything but. Luckily, proactive tourists can do their research prior to embarking on a trip of this sort or interacting with any wildlife; organizations like the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) implore that tourists do so. Below are five tips to guide you toward a truly eco-friendly experience.

1. Look, but Don’t Touch

There’s plenty of talk about leaving behind a footprint on the earth, but you should be conscious of your handprint, too. This mostly has to do with companies who allow guests to interact with animals, such as holding sea turtles or swimming with dolphins. Not only does this cause extreme anxiety in some animals, but it also could spread disease from animals to humans.

2. Don’t Eat What You’re Looking at, Either

Sea turtles swimming in a tank at the Cayman Turtle Farms. (Photo credit: Paul W Locke)

Sea turtles swimming in a tank at the Cayman Turtle Farms. (Photo credit: Paul W Locke)

It doesn’t make much sense, but many green-washed tourism companies are guilty of making meals out of the animals that they claim to protect. There is, of course, such a thing as responsible farming, but many of the animals in question at these resorts are endangered — there’s no way to responsibly eat something that’s in danger of extinction. The Cayman Turtle Farms, for example, says that its mission is to conserve and protect sea turtles, but they also sell their meat to local restaurants. This is not the type of business that true ecotourists would want to patronize.

3. Science First

Some companies claim to be eco-friendly, but their vacations revolve around entertainment more than education. Is it truly based in nature? For example, if your dream of visiting the rainforest involves paying into a company that has used forestry equipment to cut it down, look elsewhere. Make sure that your ecotourism company of choice spends the majority of time teaching through activities; there’s a big difference between swimming with dolphins in a manmade lagoon and watching for wild dolphins from a boat in the ocean. Find groups that offer something similar to the latter.

Dolphins jumping at Discovery Cove. (Photo credit: dkodigital on Flickr)

Dolphins jumping at Discovery Cove. (Photo credit: dkodigital on Flickr)

4. Learn From Others

If an ecotourism company is legitimate, a legitimate organization will vouch for them. Alternatively, if a company’s intentions are questionable, that will most likely be a voiced concern, too. Spend a little bit of time searching for these types of opinions on the Internet before you book a trip.

5. When in Doubt, Ask

The points above only scratch the surface when it comes to the ecotourism-versus-greenwashing debate. True ecotourists will speak to companies and travel agents to make sure that each activity is designed with the environment and the animals’ best interests in mind. If companies can’t answer your questions definitively, seek out another agency. There are plenty of eco-friendly trip options out there — and sites like Responsible Travel aggregate many of them in one place — so find an option that’s exactly what it says it is.

Luckily, the WSPA does plenty of work to encourage travel agents and vacation-planning agencies to guide their customers away from attractions that are not as earth-centric as they claim to be. Ultimately, though, it’s in your hands to plan a vacation that leaves the wildlife you experience just as you found it.

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