Eco and Agritourism: A Green Island Is Turning Even Greener

now this looks like a green vacationEco- and agritourism are becoming the new global trends in vacationing and travel, and Puerto Rico is swiftly responding. In essence, ecotourism represents conscious and responsible traveling and vacationing focused on protection and improvement of natural environments, as well as on sustainability and well-being of local and indigenous people and their cultures. It is primarily vacationing with an educational component that is unique to each location and experience, and replaces “consuming vacations” that offer no more than a quick fix and escape from our everyday lives.

Many businesses in Puerto Rico and belonging islands are now responding to the increased global demand for healthier and more sustainable living as well as vacationing. Ecotourism embraces everything from organic gardening and farming, physical and spiritual wellness to green architecture, alternative energy sources, wastewater composting, and rainwater harvesting for intelligent recycling. Owners from small bed & breakfasts to luxury hotel chains have already recognized the ecological but also economical benefits that Ecotourism brings.

agritourism in Puerto Ricoagritourism by Living green with baby

Another form of ecotourism is agritourism, sometimes referred to as agroecotourism, aimed at agricultural and farming experiences. Many family- owned farms are now tapping into travelers’ interest in rural heritage and lifestyle; while farmers have an opportunity to generate extra income by hosting visitors, educating them and promoting traditionally as well as organically-grown farm products, visitors get a unique experience and close look into the “reality” of farming and a country life.

Ecotourism became an effective tool for bio-cultural conservation.

To best demonstrate the various effects of ecotourism on local life as well as economy, we cautiously selected three utterly distinctive locations and environments within the Puerto Rican archipelago.

Ecotourism in Rincon Puerto Rico

The first visit was a small town named Rincón (the Corner), located on the west coast of the main island, on the Caribbean Sea. Since the sixties, it has evolved and developed around surfing and became a globally known destination. What makes surfing so great here, is the presence of beaches with coral reefs, home to many endangered species such as elkhorn coral, sea turtles, a variety of reef fish to dolphins, and even humpback whales that come to Rincón to mate in the spring. Whales represent a high-end indicator of health of the ocean habitat and biodiversity. In 2004, with the initiative of local residents and the Surfrider Foundation, the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve was established to protect these reefs and marine life for future generations, and most local businesses responded by educating their clients about responsible visits to local beaches, waters and nature, and by promoting use of local produce to improve the environment. Besides great winter surfing, ecotourism is what attracts mainly families and groups to this “hidden corner”; where tourists can do anything from working with rescue horses on a local farm, snorkeling with tropical fish and sea turtles, whale-watching on sale boats, to hand-picking a great variety and abundance of local fruits straight from the trees. And trees also gave a home to new development of tree-houses which are becoming a popular alternative to beach hotels, as visitors are looking for more privacy and “back-to nature” vacationing.

Ecotourism by Living green with baby

Our second destination was the mountainous town of Adjuntas. Located in the central Midwest region, it is nicknamed “the Switzerland of Puerto Rico” for of its relatively chilly weather; or the “Sleeping Giant” after the shape of its major mountain. And since its subtropical climate is complemented with cool nights due to high elevations, the region has ideal conditions for growing many tropical plants as bananas, citruses, peaches, and especially coffee. Thanks to its high quality and distinctive flavor, coffee from Adjuntas is now making a strong mark on the World market; and coffee farming is becoming a central attraction for agritourism with visitors from the United States, Europe but also from South America and Japan. We visited the Hacienda La Florida coffee farm which spreads over about 220 acres of steep hills, where its protagonists Sandra and Israel González nurture about 28,000 coffee trees, all hand-planted and cared for. Besides coffee, they also grow a rich selection of tropical fruit trees, among them oranges, grapefruits, tangerines and the less known mamey, chironjas, pitahaya, tawa, starfruit, caimito, guava, breadfruit, acerolas as well as some exotic plants from Israel’s native Cuba, including zappotes.

ecotourism in Vieques

Our third stop was a small island in the Atlantic Ocean called Vieques, just off the east coast of the mainland. For sixty years, the majority of the island was closed off by the US Navy, and it remained almost entirely undeveloped for tourism; which makes it now so much more attractive, and it is rapidly becoming a popular destination, promoted as the untouched island with an “old world” rural charm and pristine deserted beaches. Since the Navy’s recent departure in 2003, the lands were turned over to the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Service and local authorities. Vieques is now a blooming– and soon to be booming–eco and agritourism destination. A distinct feature of this island is the presence of two pristine bioluminescent bays. One of them, called Mosquito Bay, has the highest concentration of this bioluminescent plankton in the entire world. Guided by a local legend Abe of Abe’s Snorkeling & Bio Bay Tours, we took kayaks out on a new-moon night, learned all the science about these glowing single-cell organisms and experienced their presence while swimming and diving with them in the water. These organisms generate light as they sense motion around them. As a result, visitors experience a surreal spectacle of natural glowing light, surrounding them with their every move, as they swim in the warm waters of the bay.
Several groups on the island are now promoting and developing properties entirely “off the grid”, mainly for residential and hospitality use. Katrina Webb, manager of the Bravo Beach Hotel, is ambitiously transforming this boutique-size hotel into a full-blown mini eco-resort; where everything from food and drink served to their visitors to supplies and products used in- house, is locally grown and produced. The existing pool is now being converted to a saline pool not requiring use of any chemicals, and in the near future the facility will be fully powered by solar technology. Next to the direct ecological impact, they promote interaction with the local community and anticipate hosting educational programs and international wellness retreats to further encourage these practices around the Globe.

Ecotourism came out of the late 1970s’ environmental movement. By early 1990s, it was already the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry, expanding globally between 20% and 34% annually; and in 2002 it represented a $77 billion market in the U.S alone. By 2004, ecotourism and nature tourism grew three times faster than the global tourism industry as a whole. According to Travel Weekly, sustainable tourism could grow to 25% of the world’s travel market by 2012, taking the value of the sector to approximately $473 billion a year.

Big tres Palmas day in Rincon Puerto Rico by Living green with babyResources:The International Ecotourism Society, Global Ecotourism Conference, Go To Puerto Rico

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Author:Katka Konecna-Rivera

Katka Konecna-Rivera, co-founder and host of Living Green with Baby, is an architect focused on sustainable design as well as a filmmaker, writer and personal wellness coach.

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