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What is Ecoctourism? What is a Soft Adventure?

The words "ecotourism" and "soft adventure" are freely used in promotional material, though their meaning isn't always clear. Some tour operators try to cash in on the appeal of ecotourism by using the word without necessarily offering the important components of an ecotour. Companies simply pick up on the word, which sounds trendy and good, and use it in their marketing. There's no global standard for use of the term, though some organizations have tried to set up such much-needed standards.

Ecotourism involves nature-sensitive travel that relates to environmental/ecological issues at specific areas, such as pre- serving rain forests in such far-flung countries as Brazil, Indonesia, and Nepal, or endangered species in the Amazon and Southeast Asia. Travelers get a chance to participate in some effort to preserve the natural environment and interact with local people.

Soft adventure is a less strenuous form of adventure travel. The two terms aren't necessarily related, though soft adventure travel can be part of an ecotourism trip. Examples of soft adventure are staying with primitive tribes in northern Thailand, observing sea turtles on Costa Rican beaches, scouting polar bears in northern Canada, etc. One may hike, bike, white-water raft or simply watch wildlife, all the while staying in hotels and camps with special amenities.

Soft adventure, in effect, is really striking a bargain between serious adventure and more traditional packages. It can be for anyone who likes the outdoors or who wants to see rural life, not just the familiar big city tourist destinations. One should be in good health but experience or a background in the particular activity is generally not needed. Some soft adventure trips can also combine the usual big cities with more off-beat destinations.

Doing without some comforts is often a characteristic of both types of travel. The degree of exertion needed to participate is another key issue that travelers should resolve before buying such a package. Ask how much walking or climbing will be necessary, and what sort of support vehicles will be available. While accommodations are usually clean with essential comforts, they also may be smaller and without all the services of large hotels. Find out if you'll have private baths and hot water, or even a room for yourself. Often a single supplement program isn't available.

Although people may want to explore on their own, understand that you'll be expected to eat and take part in activities on a group basis. Travelers should also realize that companies select pictures for their brochures that dramatize and enhance their offerings. However, animals and weather don't always perform on cue. One has to be open-minded about the realities of the adventure without relying on preconceived expectations.

With ecotourism, review the information on ecology/environmental issues included in brochures and other material. What special training will the tour guides have? Will any specialists or auth- orities on the subject or area accompany the group during the ex- perience? What kinds of opportunities will participants have to make donations to conservation efforts? What does the tour operator itself contribute to conservation projects in that area?

Other questions might relate to tour operator policies about taking natural materials such as rocks, plants and flowers from a destination without approval; what system for disposal of food and water, is used; and what guidelines are provided on viewing, photographing, tracking, and even touching wildlife.

Overall, travelers should ask any organization using the ecotourism label how they're specifically backing up the concept.

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