6 Conservation Vacation Destinations Where Wildlife and Families Both Win
There is mud everywhere on this little girl. Mud on her head, mud on her back, mud oozing between her toes. As she plops herself into the heart of a deep, gloopy, puddle of dirt, there's a sloppy rainfall of chocolate-colored droplets that elicit grunts of delight. The girl I'm watching luckily isn't my daughter, but a rescued 3-year-old elephant living in pachyderm delight at Thailand's Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp. This 2-ton toddler is having the time of her life in the muddy depths, and I have a front row seat of her sloppy hijinks from my Jungle Bubble room, an eco-friendly, transparent dome that's one of the newest conservation accommodations in the world.
Although my location watching rescued Asian elephants frolic in the jungle is unique, the desire to find off-the-beaten-track and immersive eco vacations for families is a popular trend that keeps growing as our knowledge of environmental impact increases. It's no surprise that many parents are choosing eco-friendly destinations and resorts that fall into the categories of safe, sustainable, and ethical for Spring Break and beyond, often heading off grid a bit for social distancing, cleaner environments, and to support local economies.
What's a Conservation Vacation?
In a recent survey, 93 percent of Vacasa survey respondents said they're interested in eco-friendly travel, specifically with a cultural focus and a desire to avoid over-tourism and human impact on the environment; in another poll, 48 percent of travelers stated that climate change will have a significant influence on what destinations they choose in the next 5 to 10 years (up from just 8 percent in 2018.)
Sustainable travel, however, is more than just accommodations and transportation. Conservation vacations take into account travel experiences that educate and challenge visitors to rethink everyday habits and to develop greener practices when they return home. The benefits of eco-encounters like these are three-fold: animals live in peace in a natural environment, awareness and money is raised to continue conservation efforts and help local communities, and, for parents, the immersive experiences are childhood gold.
California mom Jessica B. says her son "was transformed" after his time with the elephants at the Golden Triangle, "visibly more relaxed and happy." And now that they're back at home, he's been focused on raising money for eco causes and volunteering to help with conservation activities. A win/win if ever we've heard one.
6 Conservation Vacations Great for Kids
Ready to book your first (or next) conservation vacation as a family? Starting with visiting the elephants in the Golden Triangle, here are a few great options in North and South America. For more information on conservation travel, Impact Travel Alliance and Sustainable Travel International offer detailed insights into sustainable travel.
Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp, Thailand
The elephants at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp aren't wild, although you wouldn't know at first from watching them frolic in the dense jungle or throwing trunkfuls of water at each other in the Mekong River. However, half of the more than 7,000 elephants that live in Thailand are captive, the result of generations used as beasts of burden in the logging industry until it was outlawed in 1989. After that, elephants became attractions, giving rides in the heat of urban Bangkok (picture multiple elephants being prodded through Times Square) and working under ill conditions in circuses. This all changed when conservation groups such as The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) found ways to move these elephants back into wild areas.
The result: I'm walking with 20 of the happiest elephants you've ever seen, many of them so used to humans that as part of Walking With Giants activities you can actually pet and hand feed the massive pachyderms under the guidance of trained mahouts, local elephant experts who depend on tourism to support their communities (note that there's no riding here, ever).
Bald Head Island, North Carolina
More than 10,000 acres of 12,000-acre Bald Head Island (BHI) is permanently protected marshes, tidal creek, and ancient maritime forest overseen by the Bald Head Island Conservancy. For family vacationers, it means the opportunity to take incredible kayak or paddleboard trips through the marsh while looking for birds (BHI is an Audubon Important Bird Area) or taking nature walks through the pristine maritime forest. The conservancy also offers programming for families and kids of all ages including Turtle Walks as pat of their Sea Turtle Protection Program. Walks typically start in early June and run nightly through August; if you're lucky, you may get to witness one of these giant creatures crawling onto the beach, digging her nest, laying her eggs, and making her way silently back to the ocean. There are no hotels on BHI, just home rentals, so you can skip big brand boxes and focus on your family in a beach house rental.
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Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama
A decade after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, Alabama's Gulf Shores and coastal communities are thriving. Families will discover 32 miles of sugar-white sand beaches, the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and exciting eco-friendly adventures at the 6,150-acre Gulf State Park. Expert naturalists lead free guided walks where visitors learn about marine wildlife, the Gulf's unique biodiversity, and the park's impressive conservation efforts. Families can learn about the habitat of the bottlenose dolphin and other local wildlife while paddling a two-person kayak along Bon Secour Bay during a Dolphins and Wildlife Kayak Tour. And the Alabama Gulf Coast is just the ninth Ambassadors of the Environment program world-wide, with an educational camp developed to inspire young people to take stewardship of our planet through lessons in nature and culture.
Quasar Expeditions, Galapagos Islands
As much an education as a vacation, what kids learn on Quasar Expeditions 7-day cruises through the Galapagos about the environment, wildlife, and sustainability will stay with them for the rest of their lives. And although the marine conservation area off the coast of Ecuador might not sound kid friendly, Quasar's small ship Family Cruises (just 32 passengers max) were voted number two in Travel + Leisure's Top Family Cruise Lines in the World (sailing in right after Disney). What makes them such a good fit for the kids? Quasar's immersive trips include child-friendly naturalists, kid-friendly cooking classes, and children's menus, and movie and game nights, among other family-friendly highlights. And of course there are the safe encounters with the endemic wildlife that have enthralled visitors since Darwin and earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status: tortoises, iguanas, sea lions, myriad birds, and a prism of sealife under the waves that will thrill and delight every member of the family.
Atlantis, Paradise Island (Nassau, Bahamas)
Being conservation minded doesn't mean having to say "no" if your kids want a resort with all the vacation bells and whistles. Atlantis promotes its Atlantis Blue Project Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to saving sea species and their habitats throughout The Bahamas and Caribbean. The Foundation receives its funding through guest participation in Atlantis' marine interactions and experiences. Take the Behind the Blue backstage tour to get an inside look at the work they do 365 days a year at the on-site education center, animal-rehab hospital where sea creatures are rehabilitated with the ultimate goal of releasing them back to the wild. Atlantis also facilitated the regrowth of a 1-million-acre protected reef area off the west coast of Andros Island—the largest protected area in The Bahamas.
Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo
A world leader in sustainability, Costa Rica offers eco-travel experiences that educate and challenge visitors to rethink everyday habits and to develop greener practices when they return home. Located in the stunning Guanacaste region of Costa Rica (generally quite easy to get to from most major cities in the US), Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo is the perfect setting for a family eco-vacation. The destination offers easy access to four World Heritage sites, and Andaz has partnered with Creciendo Juntos (Growing Together), a local organization that supports education and health projects in nearby communities. Every week, the resort offers a volunteer activity, ranging from visiting a local community to paint a mural, to bringing backpacks to a local school, or helping a school with its infrastructure. The resort has also partnered with the Area de Conservación Guanacaste, a network of protected areas and a World Heritage site in Guanacaste Province and offers weekly opportunities for guests to give back to the environment, including local beach cleanups and tree planting activities.