Traveling With Purpose

Ecotourism Connects Nevada With the World

Serra dos Órgãos National Park in Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil

By Brian Sodoma

Mention the word “ecotourism” and you’ll likely hear many different definitions. In the hospitality business, you’ll hear statements about water-saving, eco-friendly appliances, and a diminishing carbon footprint. But there’s a lot more to explore with the term. It involves those who travel light and are conscientious about how much or little they consume as visitors in other places. Then, there’s the adventure traveler, the backpacker, hiker, even thrill-seeking outdoorsman, who probably prefers sleeping in a tent. These all fall under the ecotourism umbrella. And let’s not forget the “voluntourists,” those travelers who take trips that are not vacations, but instead an opportunity to study and help an environmentally disadvantaged situation.

“Ecotourism is, at its most basic, sustainable natural travel that benefits the communities in which the travel takes place,” explained Jon Bruno, executive director of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), an association comprised of lodge owners, academics, tour operators, travelers, and other professionals associated with ecotourism. “When we first created the generally accepted definition, we knew it would grow, but that is the heart.”

Bruno says ecotourism is one of the fastest growing segments in tourism, and its growth is shaping how people think about and choose their travel experiences.

According to one TIES report, 93 percent of Condé Nast Traveler readers say travel companies should be responsible for protecting the environment. Another 58 percent say their hotel choice is influenced by the support the hotel gives to its local community. In the U.S., visitors seeking nature-based, culture, or adventure travel number more than 10 million, according to TIES. And in another Condé Nast reader’s poll, 47 percent say they are interested in volunteer vacations; 98 percent of those who had volunteered on vacation said they were satisfied with the experience.

Here’s a look at how ecotourism plays out in the Silver State and how it encourages relationships with those abroad who share that common bond of wanting to understand and improve natural environments.

Nevada and its curious visitors

For the 43 million people who fly into Las Vegas every year, events on the Strip are usually the primary motivator. But we may be surprised at how much visitors desire to tune out the entertainment noise and venture out into nature. More than 10 percent of visitors often opt for a scenic drive or outdoor experience as well, according to visitor profile research from Travel Nevada.

“I was last in Las Vegas in October of 2017, a few months ago, and having been outside of the major casino/tourist areas, I was struck by the beauty. I guess I’ve been there 10 times, and each time I walk and enjoy the spectacle, but my mind is always on the beautiful natural landscape, and the experiences I’ve had in the ‘real’ Vegas,” Bruno said.

Mauricia Baca, executive director for the nonprofit Get Outdoors Nevada, formerly Outside Las Vegas, says that while her group’s primary focus is to get the word out to local children and families about the wonders of Nevada, she loves to see how curious tourists have become about the desert environment.

“First of all, I think there’s an intense interest in the Western experience. There’s lot of iconic imagery here and it’s all conveniently located to an airport,” she said. “At the same time, you have things like Death Valley. A lot of people don’t know that tourism peaks there in the summertime…You have a lot of these visitors, especially from Europe, who are just fascinated by the experience of that intense heat.”

Southern Nevada, in particular, is also a bird-watcher’s paradise, Baca says. Locally, between the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, Mount Charleston, Great Basin National Park, Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, among others, bird-watchers gorge on the breadth of avian wildlife available to them.

“These visitors often have these lists of species and they want to be able to check them off those lists,” Baca said.

Adam Bautz, founder of Outdoor Travel Tours in Las Vegas, guides visiting hikers and locals through the Valley of Fire for day-long excursions. Originally from the East Coast, Bautz has been a local travel guide for eight years and Valley of Fire, the state’s largest state park, located about an hour northeast of the city, is his niche. Bautz offers “off-trail hiking” experiences where travelers can experience intriguing slot canyons, Aztec petroglyphs, and other natural history not seen from trails. The guide also sees his share of international visitors curious about the desert.

“I’d say about 98 percent of my tours are booked from outside of the state or country,” he adds. “I’ve met people from Israel, Germany, Sweden, Pakistan, you name it…These people tend to be looking for memories, not material things.”

Purposeful travel

Voluntourism, or travel that involves volunteer work while studying and helping local communities, is another branch of ecotourism. Baca says these efforts are alive and well in Nevada as much as they are in other areas of the world that are dealing with water, environmental, and other crises.

Last year, her group organized 79 volunteer events, with a total of more than 6,000 volunteer hours worked. But she’s often surprised how a clean-up effort on a hiking trail in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, for example, can involve hearing several different languages.

“Foreigners really want to see our trail systems…We get emails from all over the world about them,” she said.

Further, graffiti clean-ups, fish and wildlife tree trimming projects, and even maintaining fences near protected natural springs court their share of volunteering business travelers, too.

“We see a lot of…people who come here for corporate events. They reach out as part of their corporate social responsibility and want to give back,” she says. “We also see large groups of volunteers who are part of convention groups that come in looking for places to go…It’s interesting how people do those service trips and challenge themselves…It’s a way to get out and get to know people and places.”

Nature’s raw side, public land

John T. Humphrey, a Carson Valley wildlife photographer and tour guide, conducts tours to the eastern edge of the Carson Valley, to an area known as Fish Springs. There, Humphrey’s classroom opens up with the Sierra Nevadas as a backdrop and wild horses of varying colors and builds cautiously welcoming him and his guests.

A nature photographer who has logged thousands of hours at Yellowstone National Park, Humphrey is sought by those interested in taking a peek at nature’s truly wild side in northern Nevada and who usually want to capture it through a lens. He teaches visitors how to behave around horses, keep their distance, and even get the animals to position themselves for a shot, even though he admits he’s never been closer than 30 feet from one of the wild horses roaming the Carson Valley.

Like Bautz and Baca, Humphrey guides locals, Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, Korean tourists, and plenty more.

“I get bucket list people. Once we get to a spot where we see them (the horses), some will just lean back against the truck and you can see the tears coming down their face,” he says.

Humphrey may be less an advocate for the horses themselves and more one for their home, or the land they roam. He’s also a voice in the area known for telling travelers, locals, and even BLM employees researching the area, to allow nature to run its own course, even if nature appears cruel and unwelcoming to these animals. Currently, there are about 60 horses in the area. Some are threatened by local mountain lions, injuries, and areas where food may be less abundant.

“Some will make up stories and say there just isn’t enough food. That’s not true,” he says.

The number of horses fluctuates between 60 and 80 and you may see a carcass from time to time while looking for a stallion bounding through the wild.

“It’s nature’s way. It should stay that way. That’s the raw part of it,” he says. “Some people understand and realize and appreciate this…This needs to happen to keep the numbers down and have enough food and water for all of them.”

Brian Beffort, director of the Toiyabe chapter of the Sierra Club, is another advocate for Nevada land, particularly maintaining federal control of monuments and other protected areas. He sees tourist interest in Nevada’s nature as a statement of support and opportunity to educate on critical issues they may not understand.

Gold Butte National Monument, for example, is currently under review by the federal government for possible changes that would allow more public and possibly industrial access to it, a potential threat to the monument.

“We all own these amazing lands and are ours to go out and explore and I don’t think people want to get rid of that,” he says.

Beffort supports any traveler’s decision to get away from the material greatness capitalism offers. It’s necessary to prevent the condition author Richard Louv coined as “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods. His theory is that a disconnection from nature encourages a wide range of behavioral problems among children and adults.

“I think some people don’t realize that if you don’t think about these things too deeply, you don’t see their significance.”

Outdoor Travel Tours with tourists from Massachusetts in Valley of Fire

Outside Las Vegas Foundation, WMSCG Clean up at Flamingo Arroyo Trail

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