Ecotourism in the USA (& Where You Should Go Next)

Ecotourism in the USA (& Where You Should Go Next)

By Hannah Poaros-McDermott

When we think of the USA, we think of Los Angeles, New York, Starbucks, baseball, apple pies, hot dogs and twinkies. Across the country’s 50 states, there are countless city skylines, no less than 63 national parks, and almost every type of landscape you can imagine—great lakes, great mountains, great rivers, great plains. Do we need to say more?

Whether we dream of hiking in Yosemite National Park, completing a road trip along Route 66, or seeing the Statue of Liberty up close, there’s something, or somewhere in America, that appeals to us all.

But, ecotourism is one thing that the USA is not known for. And that’s not because ecotourism doesn’t exist there, because it does. It’s because ecotourism is usually associated with remote, untouched areas like Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, Madagascar, and Kenya. The USA, has large urban areas, iconic cities, tall skyscrapers, and a booming economy. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that they have endangered species, beautiful scenery and special communities that need to be reserved too. Ecotourism isn’t always an obvious choice when travelling America, but let us tell you, it is very, very present.

Scattered between these bustling urban hubs are vast stretches of American wilderness. As ecotourists, these are where we’d head to first. In this article, we’ll explain how you can support ecotourism in the USA. 

How Can You Support Ecotourism in the USA?

First, we better tell you what the hell ecotourism is and why we love it so much. With eco in its name, you can guess that ecotourism is all about nature. To be precise, the appreciation and conservation of it. Ecotourism is a small division of tourism that seeks to minimize the industry's negative impact on the environment, wildlife, and local communities. The World Tourism Organization explains it like this:

  1. “All nature-based forms of tourism in which the main motivation of the tourists is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in the natural areas.
  2. It contains educational and interpretation features.
  3. It is generally, but not exclusively organised by specialised tour operators for small groups. Service provider partners at the destinations tend to be small, locally owned businesses.
  4. It minimises negative impacts upon the natural and socio-cultural environment. 
  5. It supports the maintenance of natural areas which are used as ecotourism attracts by:
  6. Generating economic benefits for host communities, organisations and authorities managing natural areas with conservation purposes;
  7. Providing alternative employment and income opportunities for local communities;
  8. Increasing awareness towards the conservation of natural and cultural assets, both among locals and tourists.” (UNWTO, 2002)

As you can see, ecotourism is the only way we, as outdoor enthusiasts, should be getting our nature fix when travelling. There are so many benefits to this type of tourism. Read about all of them in our No-Bullshit Benefits of Ecotourism blog. Participating in ecotourism activities means we can appreciate our natural surroundings without causing harm.

So, how can you be an ecotourist in the USA? Here are some helpful tips.

You can:

  • Visit natural areas instead of urban centres, and contribute to the conservation of those areas. 
  • Go off-the-grid and stay in unique eco-friendly accommodations.
  • Engage with, and learn about, the local culture and history of your chosen destination.
  • Purchase items from local and indigenous artists and makers, but also get to know their culture.
  • Book wildlife trips with small, locally owned tour operators.
  • Dine at farm-to-table restaurants, visit farms and farmer’s markets.
  • Responsibly interact with wildlife by viewing them from a distance.

 footprints in the orange dirt of utah

Ecotourism Companies in the United States

Naturally, you’ll find ecotourism companies dotted throughout the USA. But, given the size of the country, and the number of tourism options that are available to you, you’ll have to do a little bit of research to find them. You won’t come across as many state-of-the-art eco-lodges as you would in other ecotourism destinations, so the focus in the USA is on ecotourism tour operators.

As a general rule of thumb, guided activities in rugged areas—river rafting, sea kayaking, canyon hiking, scuba diving, snorkelling, bird watching, mountain trekking—are usually run by ecotourism companies. 

There are also travel companies, like Natural Habitat Adventures, that organize multi-day expeditions in ecotourism destinations. The company describes their small-group trips as “conservation travel” and “carbon neutral travel” and work to reduce waste, develop philanthropic initiatives, and assist conservation efforts. Travellers can choose from a range of multi-day USA itineraries. Notable trips include their Florida Nature Safari, Wild Alaska Grizzly Encounter, and Yellowstone Wolf Photo Quest Adventure. 

Businesses have to meet specific requirements before they can describe themselves as ecotourism operators. The International Ecotourism Society has created a concise list of principles. In essence, organizations must minimize their social and physical impact, increase cultural and environmental awareness, create local employment and financial opportunities, generate income for conservation areas, work in harmony with Indigenous communities, and offer educational experiences.

(FYI: many companies, including large hotel chains, are now implementing sustainable practices in their daily operations, but that does not mean they are part of the ecotourism movement.)

What Are Some Popular Ecotourism Destinations in the USA?

Narrowing down your options when it comes to planning a USA vacation is no easy task. However, where ecotourism is concerned, these would be our top picks.

Hawaii

What’s not to love about the islands of Hawaii? Palm trees, white (and black) sand beaches, fragile ecosystems, warm temperatures, active volcanoes, colourful coral reefs, sweeping coastlines. Sounds like the exact definition of an ecotourism destination, if you ask us. Being one of the most isolated places on the earth, the Hawaiian Islands are home to over 400 endangered plant and animal species. That makes it pretty damn special, and pretty damn vulnerable. It’s not a surprise then, that the islands’ inhabitants are big on protecting their ocean, taking care of their land, and preserving their culture.

It doesn’t matter which island you are travelling to—Oahu, Maui, Kauai, the Island of Hawaii, Molokai or Lanai—the ecotourism opportunities are endless (there’s way too many to list here). Visit a working coffee plantation. Learn about native plants at the botanical gardens. Walk through taro fields on a farm tour. 

These experiences allow ecotourists to engage with the local people and appreciate the natural environment while leaving a minimal negative impact. So put down that hotel cocktail, apply your reef-safe sunscreen, and say aloha to Hawaii’s natural beauty.

Alaska

Alaska, literally meaning “great land,” is an ecotourism hotspot. And there’s no question about how great it is. This picture-perfect state needs no introduction—its expansive wilderness, icy glaciers, and snow-tipped mountains speak for themselves. Not to mention Alaska’s big five: moose, grizzly bears, dall sheep, caribou, and gray wolves. Seeing these animals in their natural habitats is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As dorky as you might think  binoculars are, you’re gonna want to bring some for this trip.

Gaze upon Denali Mountain (at 20,310 ft, it’s North America’s highest peak) in Denali National Park, cruise through the extraordinary Kenai Fjord in Kenai Fjords National Park, and stay at award-winning Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge in Kachemak Bay State Park. Then discover Alaska’s five Native cultures through educational programs at a museum or cultural centre.

If guided tours are your jam, then Alaska Wildland Adventures offers small-group multi-day journeys through Alaska’s stunning scenery, stopping at wilderness lodges along the way, and offering thrilling activities like hiking, kayaking, and rafting. The company even has a method, called the Greenworks program, for evaluating their impact on the environment, so they can continually seek to reduce any harm their activities may have on the natural world. Alaska Outdoors and Gondwana Ecotours are two other tour companies with the same commitment to sustainability. 

woman hiking in the snowy mountains of colorado

Colorado

Colorado is constantly recognized for its environmental conservation and sustainable tourism efforts. In 2018, the Colorado tourism office’s findings were that “travelers across the country chose Colorado as the top-ranked destination for protecting and preserving its natural resources.” With four national parks, 28 ski and snowboard resorts, 42 state parks, 24 major rivers, and 58 extremely high (over 14,000 ft) mountain peaks, it’s no wonder the state inspires environmental stewardship.  

So what can you do in Colorado? Discover impressive sandstone formations at the Garden of the Gods. Immerse yourself in the region’s indigenous cultures on a tour with Indigenous Roots. Drive, hike, or bike to see the changing landscapes of the Rocky Mountain National Park—your entrance fee helps protect the spectacular meadows, forests, lakes, glaciers, and alpine tundras, for years to come.

Virginia

Virginia is a haven for bird-watchers. The Virginia Bird and Wildlife trail network features 65 trail loops across the Coastal, Piedmont, and Mountain regions. Travel through forests, mountains, salt marshes, and seashores. It’s easy to find your favourite bird, reptile, or mammal at these diverse outdoor sites—from bald eagles to butterflies, turtles to deer, lizards to bears, there are hundreds of species waiting for you. 

If you’re looking to make a splash, then Virginia Water Trails (presented by the Coastal Virginia Ecotourism Alliance) is the way to go. You can connect with local eco-guides and paddle down the state’s beautiful coastal waterways. 

Oh, and don’t miss Montfair Resort Farm, nestled beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains. The family-owned eco-lodge has been entertaining guests in its lakeside cottages for over 50 years.

All of the above attractions are part of Virginia Green Travel Alliance, the state’s sustainable tourism certification program. The alliance encourages organizations to self-certify as being environmentally friendly. So when you’re researching Virginia ecotourism operators, this is a superb place to start.

California

Over in sunny California, Half Moon Bay has developed the state’s first ecotourism visitor program in a bid to generate a sustainable tourism economy. Nature-loving sightseers can grab a copy of the area’s double-sided ecotourism map to assist them in their search for eco-friendly activities, farm stays, wineries, beaches, parks, and more. 

And while you’re in the golden state, you might as well visit one of the nine national parks. Famous for its gushing waterfalls and deep valleys, Yosemite National Park is the perfect place to take some time out—and about 4 million people each year agree with us. The park has implemented many sustainable practices, encouraging visitors to respect the natural world and the wildlife that lives there. Ecotourists can also support local small businesses by purchasing locally sourced goods and food at the national park’s kiosks. 

Ecotourism in 2020 vs. Ecotourism in 2021

When the Covid-19 pandemic first started, no one knew how devastating the impact would be or for how long it would last. We still don’t. In 2020, freedom of travel was taken away from us. Many countries closed their borders, shutting their doors to millions of tourists. And, in the early months of 2021, many of those borders remain shut. While this has involuntarily reduced our carbon footprints (yay), it has had a detrimental effect on ecotourism destinations. With no international visitors, businesses in this sector have suffered a huge financial loss. 

However, there is hope for the future. With many of us forced to stay indoors over the last ten months, the desire for a huge gulp of fresh air is now very very real. At the Global Wellness Summit in November 2020, experts predicted that outdoor activities, green travel, nature retreats and wilderness experiences will be on the rise in 2021 as people seek to improve their mental and physical well-being. What excellent news for ecotourism providers! Guiding individuals through peaceful natural environments is what they do best.

Choosing Ecotourism and Being a Wakeful Traveler

Of course, we have only scraped the surface of the United States’ ecotourism industry in this article—there are several other states, like Montana and Oregon, that also offer incredible ecotourism experiences. Inspired? Ready to start planning your next holiday? Grab a Wakeful Travel Journal so you can document all your exciting adventures easily, no matter where they take you.

As Wakeful Travellers, ecotourism is the type of responsible travel that we adore. We’re all about being ethical, sustainable, and mindful. We want to know that what we see today, will be there tomorrow.

Now… won’t you join us?

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