24 June 2006

Real eco-tourism

By Rupert Read

The word 'eco-tourism' probably brings to mind holidays in exotic locations, but holidays with a difference – holidays with a conscience. Tourism which tries not to despoil the local environment, and which focuses on bringing the tourist closer to nature, rather than sticking them in some air-conditioned hotel room in front of a sterile beach. So far, so good. But why need eco-tourism, so-defined, take place far from our own shores? Can't there be home-grown eco-tourism, too?

Earlier this June, I enjoyed a weekend away, camping with some friends, in north Norfolk. Our journey to the sea was fairly low-impact, several of us piled into one vehicle, travelling just 25 miles. We ate good – mostly local – food. We swam, talked, and laughed, and had a fine time of it.
On the Sunday morning, a walk on the beach, in the sun. There, we lucked upon a true ecological treat. We happened upon a posse of seals, swimming, splashing, and coming astoundingly close in to the sand. They gazed at us for minutes on end, as we did at them. It was absolutely magical. I waded into the sea, not caring that my rolled-up trousers were getting soaked, and had a kind of meeting with one of the seals, a younger one, particularly curious and playful. This seal would bark, and snort, and dive – and it let me get to within one metre of touching its nose… An experience I shall never forget.

It brought to mind an event further back in the past, when I visited the turtle coast of Oman. There too, my girlfriend and I had the very good fortune to wade and swim with the huge sea turtles that spend much of the year in those waters. Another great, great experience.

While on that Omani coast, we visited an official eco-tourist resort to see the famous spectacle of these long-lived giants nesting and laying eggs, at night. This experience was not so great. There were far too many of us tourists, and the guides didn't act firmly enough to prevent us from swarming around the laying turtles, disturbing them in a way that actually at times endangered them, and their very fragile young. My girlfriend and I became enraged by how selfish many of the visitors were being, in for instance taking flash photos of the mother turtles, which we had been expressly forbidden to do (because light at night disorientates the hatching baby turtles, and as a result can prevent them from finding their way to the sea). The most appalling moment came when one tourist actually placed their foot on one of the just-hatched baby turtles, to facilitate a photo (again, using a prohibited flash camera) being taken of it!

We left in disgust, and several others left with us. Nature, we felt, was not a spectacle to be gawped at, for money, in ways that actually put in question the survival of the very creatures that we were there to see…

At that 'eco-tourist' resort in Oman, something wrong was allowed to happen, for money. By contrast, our experience when we simply sought out turtles swimming for ourselves, was wonderful.

But in retrospect, even that doesn't seem to me really a satisfactory kind of eco-tourism. Real eco-tourism should involve being kind to the ecosystem – to our planetary life-support-system – as a whole. And we had travelled to Oman by air – the most environmentally destructive form of transportation that there is.

Since then, I have signed up at the Flight Pledge website, joining the new conscientious objectors: those who refuse to fly for pleasure, and keep their flying to an absolute minimum. For true eco-tourism surely involves travelling as short a distance as possible, and by as ecological a means as is feasible. If I were going to the Middle East again for pleasure, I would go by train; for instance, you can travel by train almost all the way to Petra, the astonishing ancient rose-red city that I visited in Jordan, a few years back.

Just as the fad for fast food is being replaced by the desire for good slow food, so slow travel should replace the mania for speed that is so devastating our planetary ecosystem, at present. Here, in East Anglia, there are incalculable natural riches… And so I return to the wonderful wildlife that I had the privilege of being with recently, off our north Norfolk coast. Real eco-tourism is doing things like hanging out with those gorgeous intelligent seals…

This column is dedicated to the memory of Freda Lupton, 1909-2006: East Anglian born and bred; a true lover of the countryside and all its wild creatures; and my beloved grandmother.