5 Ways to Find an Authentic Ecotour

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Robb Kendrick / Aurora / Getty

View of mountains and rice field under a cloudy sky, Madagascar, Africa.

As an environment writer, I have always been doubtful of the value of "ecotourism." It seemed harmless at best, a scam at worst — a way to assuage the guilty conscience of travelers spending thousands of dollars to jet off to exotic locales. It was never clear to me, for instance, whether ecotravel was really any different from normal travel, except maybe for the involvement of more elephants and fewer cocktails on the beach. (And not even that, necessarily.)

It would seem also that travel by itself negates any possibility of eco-benefit, since flying burns so much carbon; a round-trip from New York to Nairobi, one popular ecotourism destination, creates nearly nine tons of carbon dioxide per person. Not to mention that the national parks, nature sanctuaries and remote wildlife reserves that draw most ecotravelers can be damaged by the foot traffic, to say nothing of the development that comes with tourism.

But, in any case, it appears I was alone in my skepticism — ecotourism is growing three times faster than travel on the whole.

Finally, last September, I went on an eco-trip of my own (on assignment for this magazine) to Madagascar, the utterly unique and fascinating island off the southeast coast of Africa. Madagascar has wildlife that is found nowhere else on Earth and a prodigious variety of climates and vegetation that makes it virtually a planet unto itself. Ecology is what defines Madagascar — and what I discovered there, among other things, is that ecotourism when properly managed is not only not a scam, but a boon to conservation.

The village of Andasibe, about three hours' drive from the capital of Antananarivo, borders the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, a pristine rainforest that remains one of the crown jewels of Madagascar's denuded landscape. The park is full of the rare animals that Madagascar is famous for — the panda-like indiri lemur, Parson's chameleons that blend into the trees, the greater bamboo lemurs, perhaps the rarest primate on the planet. One of the local guides, Marie Razafindrasolo, led me on a tour of the forest, spotting animals that I would never have noticed myself.

Razafindrasolo is one guide in the many networks of local guides that are springing up in Andasibe and increasingly throughout Madagascar. The government is dedicated to tripling the size of its national park system, which directly supports the economic livelihood of the people who live near them — in Madagascar, the government shares half the revenue from parks with local communities. That revenue, of course, depends on ecotourism, which in turn depends on the conservation of wildlife — if there are no more lemurs left to see, then no one will come to see them.

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