"When was the last time you bit into a cactus?"
It's an odd question to hear in Florida, so it's certainly grabbed my attention – and that of the 20-odd other visitors, children and adults, crowded around guide Mari Hanley at the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, home to a plethora of migratory bird species as well as dolphins, manatees and other wildlife.
An east-west barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel is renowned for shelling – that is, the collecting of seashells. The activity is so popular here that hotels offer outdoor shell-washing stations to protect indoor plumbing, and the island hosts not just a shell museum but an internationally attended annual shell show, too.
And while the shells are plentiful – hundreds of thousands land on the shores daily, according to the visitors' bureau – a focus on conservation prompted local governments to ban live shelling, first on Sanibel in 1995 and then across Lee County in 2002. Which is one reason Hanley is keen to keep her audience engaged: Along with explaining the mechanics of seahorse reproduction and how spiky, cactus-like spines protect some ocean species from being eaten, she teaches us how to differentiate live and uninhabited shells, and demonstrates how to put the former back where we found them, feet first so they can stay mobile.
Sanibel is far from the only destination eager to guide its visitors into a more ecofriendly travel experience. According to a 2013 survey by TripAdvisor of more than 35,000 consumers and businesses from 26 countries, 79 per cent of travellers consider it important that their accommodations implement green practices.
And with Canadians spending billions in their top four sun destinations of Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica each year alone, travellers have huge opportunities to make a positive impact during their winter getaways.
"No one wants to go to a polluted beach," says Kelly Bricker, professor and chair of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at the University of Utah, and chair of the International Ecotourism Society. "Tourism is the one industry that depends on places that are healthy and thriving and where the people are healthy and thriving as well."
Bricker is quick to highlight the interconnectedness of community and environmental sustainability, and points out that travel is a powerful tool to direct dollars toward positive development on the ground. Paying cash for a day tour with a small, locally owned business, for instance, means your money is going straight into the community to pay for fuel, clothing, groceries and even education, providing regional employment rather than profit for investors.
Income from tourism, she adds, can also give locals a good reason to prioritize conservation. Beachside resorts, for example, are often built by ripping out coastal mangrove forests in favour of endless sand and unobstructed views. These mangroves, however, are an essential part of the ecosystem, according to conservation group the Mangrove Action Project. They prevent soil erosion, filter underground streams before the waters reach coral reefs, provide habitat for turtles, birds and other wildlife, and work as major carbon sinks. Tourists can help mitigate this potentially catastrophic deforestation by vocally supporting destinations and businesses that support ecological diversity. "The nature of the industry [means it] has an intense interest in enhancing the well-being of local people that manage and care for these places," Bricker says. "If they're not part of the equation, why would they care?"
Take Mexico's Mayan Riviera, which runs south from Cancun along the Caribbean coast. Tourist demand in the region – including a large proportion of the more than 1.5 million Canadian visitors to Mexico annually – has helped turn it from a once sleepy region of fishing villages and overgrown Mayan ruins into a hotbed of development and employment, resulting in a great deal of not only deforestation, but degradation of the offshore coral reef. But visitors can help promote more sustainable development by going on a nature tour of the nearby Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve (rather than golfing on a course that probably should never have been built, environmentally speaking), choosing small-scale, sustainable accommodations or simply by shifting travel plans to a less-visited region of the country.
Another common way to promote environmental issues is to encourage travellers to sign up for activities that put conservation front and centre. Cocoa Island by Como in the Maldives, for instance, launched a coral propagation project last year that's helping to develop and protect the coral reef around the resort, much of which was severely damaged due to unusually warm ocean waters during an El Nino in 1998. Now, a system of coral frames, built by local craftspeople, work as an artificial reef. Anyone can sponsor a frame of coral (from $150 U.S.) and keep up with its progress online; resort guests can even help plant theirs and go on a guided snorkel tour to see the progress. "The reception from guests has been overwhelmingly positive," says Nathanial Stephenson, Cocoa Island's resident marine biologist, adding that a range of fish species have already colonized the frames installed so far. "Guests have been fascinated to learn how their donation improves the health of the coral reef ecosystem."
Coral is also the theme of an impending yoga retreat with B.C. instructor Eoin Finn in the Florida Keys. His Ocean Karma Project (Dec. 5 to 7 in Key Largo) offers free yoga classes to participants in exchange for their volunteering to help transplant coral with the Coral Restoration Foundation. A surfer, Finn, was inspired by his intimacy with the ocean and understanding of how factors such as increasing water temperatures put it in peril. "It's one thing to go on a yoga retreat," he says. "But to actually make a positive impact to the environment and have a purpose and sense of fulfilment is a whole other element."
If planting coral isn't in the cards, simply being mindful of resource consumption when you're at that all-inclusive has value. "We have an opportunity to make a conscious choice about what to support and what's helping the planet thrive," Bricker says. "Every traveller can make a difference."
GREEN TRAVEL TIPS
Go without sunscreen when you can by wearing a UV-protection shirt on land or a rash guard (designed for water sports) while snorkelling or swimming. When sunscreen is a must, pick a reef-friendly mineral-based option such as Canadian-made Consonant's The Perfect Sunscreen (consonantskincare.com) and Green Beaver Sunscreen Spray (well.ca).
Reduce your carbon footprint
Minimize air travel by booking one-way flights rather than connections when possible, packing a lighter suitcase and, at your destination, choosing public transportation over private taxis and car rentals. Consider a longer, more in-depth stay in one location rather than hopping from place to place.
Think local when you shop and eat
Be mindful not only that imported food products and souvenirs tend to have a larger carbon footprint, but that picking locally grown and produced items helps keep money in the community you're visiting, too.
Respect the environment
Follow posted guidelines in ecologically sensitive areas by keeping your distance from wildlife (you really don't need to touch that sea turtle) and by staying on hiking trails. Fresh water is a scarce resource in much of the world; limit showers, baths and laundry, and don't take more food and drink than you actually need.
Spend your dollars wisely
Look for hotels and tour operators with a sustainability mindset, and let businesses know that you value environmental initiatives. Sign up for a free traveller membership to TIES (ecotourism.org) to stay up to date on global initiatives and use their member database to find operators specializing in ecotourism.