Lion Flamingo


Eco-Tourism, Geeko-Tourism
In which travel writer Rick Hudson looks at where eco-tourism is heading, and wonders where it's going to end.

Back in the good old days, when people took their vacations in stationwagons, and car radios were an optional extra, the best our parents could hope for in a holiday was a pleasant time at the community pool. Things were simpler then. Mom met up with a crowd of other moms, where they discussed their husbands, kids and knitting patterns. Dad got together with other dads, where they discussed the weather, hockey, and where to buy good pipe tobacco. It was a golden era, when the air was clean and sex was dirty, when Mom could say "I don't want to hear any more about it," and Dad could say "Some day you'll thank me," without the kids breaking into hysterics.

Times have changed, and while the nuclear family has undergone a radical vasectomy, so too have holidays. Have you noticed? Once upon a time we went to the same place every year, where they served the same food as last year (some of it even tasted like it was last year's), and we met the same people who'd been in the same cabin for what seemed like forever.

No longer. Now, everyone's off to places you've never heard of, couldn't spell if you had, and wouldn't want to have the shots for, if you did. I blame it on the Boomers, of course. Why not? We blame everything else on them. The previous generation fought the length and breadth of Europe, so the Boomers could be free to worry about Global Warming. The result? Eco-tourists are now globally ubiquitous, paddling up Sarawak rivers in dugout canoes, or tramping through rainforests in Costa Rica. And bringing with them that curse of the Western World, COMPETITION.

African daisies
Plants don't move, don't bite.
It started out innocently enough. Back in the sixties, when the word 'ecology' was as new as the word 'Vietnam', some fringe folks decided they didn't want to stay at hotels, goggling the bodies in the pool and drinking way too many Manhattans, like their parents did. Instead, they headed off to those weird places with the unpronounceable names, to SEE STUFF. And when they came back, they had an eco-aura about them. THEY hadn't wasted their two weeks on some pathetic beach in Mexico. THEY had followed a guide through tick-infested swampland and SEEN the three-toed mud rat!

Oh, the damage was quickly done. Honest citizens who'd never dreamed of going further than Miami for their vacation, were suddenly seized by the competitive eco-urge. As the seventies and Wayne Gretzky emerged, the eco-stakes were raised. Now, nobody who was anybody could hold their head up at the office water cooler unless they'd seen the three-toed mud rat, the bushy-tailed singing lemur, and half a dozen other endangered species too.

The pressure was on. Comfort was compromised. Holidays became epics of physical effort --- camping in torrential rain hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare Indonesian rhinoceros, or the lesser spotted kangaroo. And as the competition intensified, the weaker of the (human) species searched desperately for a loophole. Why not? This was supposed to be a holiday, remember?

And a loophole they found. Instead of spending a fortnight freezing in an igloo, spotting ten species of arctic mammals, they found they could go to Ecuador and see a hundred species of birds instead. Hey, now we were cooking with gas! Birds were eco-species too. No one could fault THAT.

Eco-tourism was on a roll, as we headed into the Reaganomics of the eighties. Besides, birding was supply-side economics at its best. As a fringe benefit, you could eat a civilized dinner and sleep in a decent bed at night. No wonder bird watching was suddenly the fastest growing hobby in North America. Everyone loved it.

Alas, nothing's static. As the nineties arrived, a new and subtle variation to the "We-saw-107-species-of-birds-on-our-Africa-trip!" ploy entered the lexicon. You see, the problem with birds is they get up at some unworldly hour before dawn, prance around until it's light, and then hide in the shrubbery for the rest of the day. This poses a challenge to the average birder, not unlike that of the amateur fisherman.

Asian orchids
Plants can dazzle too.
Do you really want to get up at 4 a.m., climb into an open jeep, drive miles through swarms of insects that stick in your teeth, and end up at some windswept pond, all before you've grasped a jumbo Starbucks? This is, I keep reminding you, supposed to be a HOLIDAY. No, birding was too demanding.

There had to be a better way of staying on the eco-cutting edge, and in the late 1990s it came as a brilliant breakthrough --- plant spotting! There are enormous advantages to spending a holiday ticking off a list of flora over, say, a similar list of fauna. First, plants don't move, so they can be observed at whatever damn time it suits you, not them. Second, there are way more plants on the planet than birds, so you can claim to see 500 erica species, for example, without batting an eyelid, when you'd be lucky to spot 50 birds or 5 mammals. Third, plants come in large and related FAMILIES, so once you've learned to recognize a few of them, the rest are dead easy to identify. (Try that when classifying larks.)

Finally, and this is the kicker, if you don't know what the plant is, no problem --- steal a leaf, smuggle it past that paranoid immigration crowd at the border, and show it to your favorite gardening aunt, nursery horticulturist, or botany professor. Life just got a whole lot easier.

And when it's all over, roll it and smoke it. Try doing that with eagle feathers or yak hair. Hey, maybe this trend will go somewhere.

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