Like other parts of the travel industry, eco-tourism was hammered by the global recession —but it's on the comeback trail, as operators expand beyond the traditional high-end core market.
While luxury has been a hallmark of this niche market, as in other industries, the growing interest in sustainability means a wider clientele.
"Eco-tourism is such a broad and often misleading term, which can encompass everything from a conservation-based adventure travel program to vacations in high-end luxury hotels that use recycled toilet paper and avoid washing towels every day," says Jason Halal, manager of Sierra Club Outings. "One thing is for sure — travel companies and services are all beefing up their eco credentials in order to attract the rising number of customers seeking a ‘green’ experience.”
Though industry-wide sales data are unavailable, the U.S. Commerce Department tracks some travelers.
“The share of travelers who participated in an environmental/ecological excursion has picked up,” says Ron Erdmann, Director of Research at the Office of Travel & Tourism Industries.
Annual surveys of Americans headed abroad show eco-travelers accounted for 5.8 percent of the traffic in 2009, up from 5.6 percent in the previous year, but down from 6.3 percent in 2007.
This industry is about much more than luxury bungalows or tents in pristine locations with carbon neutral operations.
“Sustainability is at the forefront of our business model because of customer demand," says GAP Adventures CEO, Bruce Poon Tip.
Tip says revenue grew 42 percent between 2008-2010, despite the global downturn, surpassing $150 million.
He attributes the growth to the company’s ability to add a younger demographic to its core market of 30- to 50-year-olds. For instance, Gap Adventures offers “Yolo” for “You Only Live Once” Tours. For 12 days, 18- to 30-somethings go to remote locations at a cost of $1,000-$1,500.
GAP Adventure tours use small-scale lodging, local transportation, and locally owned businesses, because the goal is to stimulate local economies.
"A true sustainability model is about engaging local communities and the traveler, and delivers on the needs of both," says Tip, who cites a 2010 United Nations Environment Programme report that only $5 of every $100 spent on vacation remains in the country. "This obviously is a massive problem. We try to keep tourism dollars in the home country.”
Costa Rica remains the market giant.
According to the Costa Rica Tourism Board, ICT, approximately 49 percent of 2 million visitors who flew into Costa Rica in 2010 participated in eco-tourism activities during their stay. Ecotourism revenue was close to $1 billion.
“Tourism is one of the main economic drivers for Costa Rica," says Maria Amalia Revelo, Deputy Manager and Marketing Director for the Costa Rica Tourism Board.
“We protect 1,000 acres,” says Nazme Abouomar, manager at Lapa Rios, a so-called ecolodge and wildlife preserve in the country.
One of the most successful Eco Lodges in Costa Rica, Lapa Rios was named by National Geographic as one of the most earth-friendly retreats and holds a “5-Leaf” rating — the highest sustainability certificate from theCertification for Sustainable Tourism Program. Depending on the season, a room at Lapa Rios ranges from $210 to $600 per night.
“We are the hotel with the highest occupancy in the area, the Osa Peninsula," says Abouomar. "We were hurt by the recession. Three and four years ago, we had 99 percent occupancy; now we’re picking up at between 55 and 66 percent.”
Another mainstream option is the Sierra Club, whose eco-trip business was hit hard by the recession.
The organization offers trips ranging from wilderness backpacking to lodge-based adventures. Prices start from $325 for a service trip to $8,345 for a cruise to Iceland, Norway, and Greenland fjords. Over half of the trips are below $1,000. Destinations include the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Nepal, Bhutan and Patagonia, Chile.
"The last year and a half saw an improvement in domestic trip sign-ups and there's even been a slight uptick in international, which I would attribute to a growing sense of improvement in the economy," says Tony Rango, director of the club’s national outings program.
The Sierra Club has 331 trips booked for this year, more than the partial-crisis year of 2008.
“We rebounded quite a bit in 2010, and we're looking pretty good in 2011," says manager Jason Halal.
Those in the market for high-end sustainability can try the safari service Roar Africa, known for environmentally responsible luxury travel.
CEO Deborah Calmeyer says her clients often spend up to $30,000 per person to have a customized, environmentally friendly African adventure.
“We have doubled our business year on year since opening in 2005," says Calmeyer. "While many people held back on travel and the eco-tourism industry struggled, our revenues doubled between 2009 and 2010.”
Calmeyer declined to reveal revenue and trip data.
Roar Africa partners with Singita Game Reserves in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Singita is a tourism operation whose purpose is to conserve the land and its resident wildlife. Among other operations, it runs an antipoaching program.
Like other sectors of the travel industry, eco-tourism has attracted a big name or two.
AOL founder Steve Case began work on Cacique, a $800 million, 650-acre resort in Costa Rica, but the project was sidelined by the global recession.
The resort has a new option for the sustainability crowd. In addition to the 270 guest rooms, there are plans for 300 private homes.
Case worked with the Costa Rican government to establish a recycling and solid waste management program to neutralize the impact of the resort on the environment. Cacique’s design features on-site treatment facilities to re-use wastewater and plans to purchase its electrical power from renewable sources.
That may be more than enough for some, especially those simply looking for a feel-good trip.
"More and more travelers want to have a positive impact associated with their tourist dollars," says Brian Mullis, CEO of Sustainable Travel International.