Ecotourism gaining popularity

Deep inside the limestone Gomantong Caves, Carol Patterson was in for a unique ecotourism experience.

Tourism professional Carol Patterson

Deep inside the limestone Gomantong Caves, Carol Patterson was in for a unique ecotourism experience.

A tour guide led the Calgary ecotourist consultant through the renowned Malaysian Borneo caves filled with thousands of swiftlet birds’ nests that locals turn into soup.

Patterson was keen to see the birds as she strolled along the wooden boardwalk, wet from all the bird and bat droppings known as guano. The floor beneath the platform was rife with guano.

“The guide was pointing out it was a real ecosystem and so I pointed my flashlight and saw what I thought were pretty red stones,” said Patterson, who shared some of her travel experiences at Ellis Bird Farm’s Bug Jamboree on Saturday.

“It turned out they were cockroaches. The whole floor was alive. . . I thought if I ever fell down, I’d be in therapy for years.”

When travellers see nature’s cycle of life close up, they can learn so much. The key is to make it appealing.

“That was one of the things I thought about in the caves was, ‘how are you going to make this appealing to the average adventure tourist?’”

Patterson, author of Reinventure: How Travel Adventure Can Change Your Life, is a big believer in travel adventures like the one she had in the caverns.

“A travel adventure is going out of your comfort zone,” said Patterson. “Getting off the beaten path is especially transformative for people. I wish we could subsidize young people so they could travel and see the world. It would totally reshape their world perspective.”

And increasingly, people are taking ecotourist trips where they can learn more about nature without damaging it.

Volunteer vacations are also becoming more and more popular.

“People want to feel connected with the community and they want to share their skills — especially as baby boomers reach retirement age,” she said.

Patterson said the Lacombe area Ellis Bird Farm, which runs a conservation program for mountain bluebirds, could take advantage of the growing ecotourism industry.

“You can get people coming to the farm and be a bird biologist for a week,” she said. “There are ways that younger people, older people, people from other countries can stay in the local community and learn more about birds, insects.”

The challenge for a number of small operations is funding, Patterson said.

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