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Ecotourism: Why I am headed to Hilton Head

16 Sep

One of my professional incarnations placed me in the role of magazine editor for a mainstream travel industry association. I was attracted to that position because of its three-fold offering of people, places and publishing: the extrovert in me loved meeting the people who made the travel industry go ‘round; the adventurer in me loved exploring new places and learning new things; and the editor in me loved being able to publish a monthly full-color magazine. In that role, I met an industry mentor who was like the Edward Abbey of ecotourism, and he started educating me about responsible forms of travel: ways of traveling that ensure there are environmental, social and economic benefits, what we call the “triple bottom line.”

There are many definitions of ecotourism, but it boils down to environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features, both past and present). It promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people in the areas visited. Most ecotourism is by its nature also sustainable, meaning it can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place.

Once I started learning about these forms of travel, I was no longer interested in supporting most mainstream types of travel because they were not taking into account the environmental and social aspects of the triple bottom line, only the economic aspects. So from then on, I dedicated myself to responsible travel. But first I had to learn the ropes, and I got involved with several organizations in order to complete that learning curve. One of these organizations is The International Ecotourism Society.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES as it is known in the travel industry), had its first North American focused conference in Bar Harbor, Maine, in September of 2005 and I went – flew there and rented a cottage and paid for my registration – all on my own dime (although my boss did give me the time off) knowing absolutely no one at the meeting. By the end of it I had met many of the movers and shakers in the sustainable travel industry, people who would become significant colleagues and friends for life.

Six years later, I’m headed to yet another Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference by TIES, this one in driving distance of Kentucky, which is a relief. As I did for the conference when it was held in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago, I have been working as a volunteer on the Advisory Committee, helping to plan the educational sessions and disseminate vital information to speakers. I will moderate/facilitate two sessions and be a panelist on one – and I am so psyched that all my professional responsibilities fall in the afternoon, which is when I am most revved up! Here is a taste of what my three days on Hilton Head Island will be like:

Day 1 Monday, Sept. 19, 3 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 1.1 Mainstream Goes Green: Many Shades of Green.

One of the speakers on this panel is Jerusha Greenwood, Assistant Professor in the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Administration department at California Polytechnic State University. I asked her how she got interested in her field.

“I became interested in tourism and natural resources when I was an undergrad at the University of Utah studying Environmental Studies. I was in a multidisciplinary class, and the geography professor who was teaching a session of the class started his lecture with a discussion about the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which had just been established by President Clinton. This immediately became a hot-button issue in Utah, and a number of the students in the class were vehemently against it. They felt like their land was being ‘stolen,’ that what the president had done was unfair, and that jobs and economic opportunity had been taken away from a pretty poor region of the state. The geography professor talked about all of the alternative opportunities that were going to become available to the region, primarily in the form of tourism and outdoor recreation. Until that day, I’d held a pretty simplistic view of the interactions between humans and the environment, but the controversy surrounding the establishment of that monument made me realize that these issues are actually very complex. I ended up studying the support for tourism development to the Grand Staircase monument among the residents living nearest to it in a context of sustainable tourism development for my masters thesis.” Read my interview with Jerusha to get a glimpse of the issues she will address at the conference.

Day 2 Tuesday, Sept. 20, 3:30 p.m. I’ll be a panelist on Get a Step Ahead: Student-Professional Networking Session.

This session will allow students going into sustainable tourism to ask some questions of those who’ve been in the field for some time. TIES interviewed me for a blog to promote this ESTC session, and asked me what significant changes I have seen take place in my profession since I chose it. My answer: “While it was rare to hear talk of sustainability or ecotourism in the mainstream travel industry a couple of decades ago, now this language is fairly commonplace. That is indicative of both a paradigm shift in mainstream travel moving to more green thinking and also a general adaptation of greener marketing terminology where actual sustainable practices that take into account the triple bottom line may not yet exist. Simultaneously, we have more and more focus on sustainability in learning institutions, and more young people graduating with degrees in sustainable and responsible forms of tourism. These future leaders are charged with helping to make the entire industry accountable and to ferret out and dispel the green-washing that still exists.” Read the complete interview here.

Day 3 Wednesday, Sept 21, 1:30 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 3.4 Win-Win Partnerships: Connect Locally; Grow Globally.

Ethan Gelber, one of the speakers for this session, is the chief communications officer for the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world and a great example of driving business through local and global partnerships. I asked him how he got into the role.

“Although it wasn’t until a few years ago – at about the same time as the proliferation of niche travel labels (ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable tourism, local travel etc.) – that I accepted being branded as a certain kind of traveler, I have always approached a voyage as something more than a holiday. Along the way, in addition to confirming a commitment to communicating with people across cultures, I discovered many facets of the travel industry. In the late 1980s I helped establish, manage and run trips for Blue Marble Travel, a European bicycle tour operator. In the late 1990s, I led a nine-month ‘Internet educational adventure’ called BikeAbout – the Mediterranean, billed as the first ‘wired,’ human-powered (bicycle), land-bound circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea. In the naughties, including a couple of years with the French Government Tourism Office, I pursued my passion for ‘alternative’ travel and writing about it, including as a Lonely Planet author. I have lived on four continents and journeyed (often extensively, often by bike) in 77 countries, all without a diminished sense of wonder at the beautiful complexity, but also fragility of the world.” My interview will give you a preview of the stories he’ll relate at ESTC!

What’s cooking… in MY Kitchen?

21 Aug

While summer is still sizzling, I want to share with you some of my latest local recipes. But wait – before your mouth starts watering – it’s not what you think!

Although I totally appreciate food as an art form – and absolutely admire my friends who try their culinary skill at exotic dishes, artisanal recipes and ethnic cuisine – I might as well just come out and say it (for those of you who don’t already know): I don’t like to cook.

I basically just want to write.

MY kitchen is made up of words.

But food and words are not mutually exclusive. In fact, one of my favorite recent creations was written from an interview I did with local Kentucky chef and restaurant owner, Ouita Michel. I could relate to her comment, “For me as a chef, using locally produced foods gives everything that we are doing a sense of authenticity. At each of our establishments, we are expressing what Kentucky is today through the use of Kentucky artists and Kentucky farm goods and preserving old Kentucky locations.” In the travel industry, this is what we call “sense of place,” and it is critical to the authenticity of tourism product.

I wrote the piece for Business Lexington, the Kentucky Bluegrass region’s local business journal. Back in May, Editor-in-chief Tom Martin asked me to do some coverage of travel industry trends and sustainability issues, as well as profiles of interesting local figures as appropriate to fit each weekly issue’s theme. Here are some more of my articles from the past four months:

Aug. 19, 2011 interview with fine artist, musician and film maker Patrick McNeese

July 22, 2011 interview with Lexmark’s sustainability director John Gagel

July 8, 2011 overview of sustainable restaurant scene in Lexington

July 8, 2011 Lexington residents share favorite places to eat

June 24, 2011 overview of tourism trends today and tomorrow

June 24, 2011 overview of Lexington’s hospitality industry

May 27, 2011 tourism as an economic factor affecting sustainability

May 27, 2011 three ways businesses can be more sustainable

And so, while I may not love to cook, when it comes to mixing up ideas, flavoring them with just the right words, and baking it all into a delightfully tasty creation, I’m as talented as any chef. A blank Word document is to me what a clean kitchen must be to a culinary artist, a tabula rasa ready to become the palette for the next tantalizing masterpiece.

Memo to Anthem: There is nothing wrong with my breasts

22 Jun

I am a single, self-employed healthy and active child-free 47-year-old woman who is very frustrated with our country’s healthcare system.

For the past three years, I have had a COBRA plan that expired in early May; at the highest the monthly rate was close to $600, a great deal of money for someone who takes no medicines, has no health issues and is not employed full-time by a corporation. Before this plan ran out, I attempted to obtain through the same company, Anthem, a high-deductible plan with a low monthly payment of around $120.

When I applied for this – using as a liaison a Blue Cross Blue Shield agent in Louisville, KY, who I located via an 800 number – I had to be responsible for my medical chart getting faxed to the agent, who then saw that it got to an underwriter in California. After a couple of weeks, this underwriter denied me the desired coverage and instead offered me a plan for over $500 a month because, they said erroneously, I had “lumps in both breasts and needed a mammogram.” If they had read my medical chart carefully, they would have seen that I had just had a mammogram that was perfectly normal and have had no issues related to my breasts. My breasts are perfectly fine.

Needless to say, I did not want this new $500 plan, so I rejected it and decided to appeal the company’s denial with the help of my would-be agent. My doctor had to write a letter to the underwriter stating that the reason for denial of coverage was completely inapplicable to me and should have no bearing on my ability to get the plan I wanted. She told me it was ridiculous for them to say my breasts had any issues when the first thing in my chart is the most recent mammogram report: completely normal. For the process to be expedited, the letter needed to get from my doctor to my agent and then to the underwriter; I was told that if the doctor sent it directly to the underwriter, the wait for approval could be months. All this while, I had to manage this communication happening in a timely fashion, overseeing the chain of correspondence between my doctor, the underwriter and my agent at Blue Cross. I got the letter faxed… and waited. For a couple of weeks there was no word.

Then suddenly last week, without getting another chance to accept or reject a plan, without any word from my liaison “agent,” Anthem sends me a bill for two months, this one (June) and the previous one (May) during which I had no coverage because of their delay in stating that I had health issues that were not in my medical records. The rate is higher than I had wanted, but not so high that I would reject the plan – or so they assumed. They also sent me a new plastic i.d. card and a ton of information about a healthcare savings account I am supposed to make deposits to and withdrawals from. I have not authorized or accepted any of this. Additionally, I told my agent at the beginning of the process that I did not want any paper products and needed everything sent to me electronically. Now I have a disgusting pile of inscrutable print booklets cluttering my desk – enough reading material for an entire summer.

What perturbs me most is that I am being billed for something I did not accept or reject yet, and also am being asked to pay for a month in which I was not covered at all. Obviously nothing bad happened to me during that month, so I don’t need coverage for that month, but this is all being done under the sacrosanct principle that there should be no “lapse in coverage” or else I will be rejected out-of-hand for having a “pre-existing condition.” So what this means is that millions of people every day are paying for months of “coverage” that the insurance company really didn’t have to cover them for. Is this fear-based system of “care” condonable?

Yesterday a friend related to me a story about a middle-aged man in North Carolina who robbed a bank of $1 so he would be arrested and taken to a jail where he would at least receive decent health care for his medical issues. Has America come to this?

I work for myself and cannot afford a $500-600-a-month health insurance plan. I am tempted to have no plan at all because I am so disappointed that our country pays thousands of people to skim medical charts, pick out a few choice words related to some random body part and string them together with the express intent to intimidate even healthy consumers into paying more than they should for insurance. If this doesn’t work, because the person sees through this scam and manages the communications required for an appeal, the company does not even professionally offer the person a plan, but bills them directly for it after a “reasonable” delay, requiring them to pay for months in which there has been no provision of any service whatsoever – all this when the client was trying their best to get timely coverage.

I know many middle aged people out there like me who are relatively healthy, self employed, and go without medical coverage of any kind. It feels like this is the future for me too because I do not want to play this sick healthcare game, which I feel should be declared illegal. I would love to hear from anyone who has similar experiences and thoughts to share; who can pull away the dark curtain of confusion and somehow shine a good light on this process; who will tell me with impunity that I just need to bite the bullet and be happy I have a plan; or maybe even offer an alternative solution. I am especially interested in hearing from those who have moved away from conventional medicine toward homeopathy and naturopathy.

The artwork for this entry is provided by Kathleen Farago May, who lives in Canada but spent part of her life dealing with the US healthcare system. Her choice was to spend much of that time without healthcare coverage. She educated herself in alternative and natural healing and maintained her health holistically. Instead of lining the pockets of the insurance companies to ensure that ailments could be treated as they appeared, she found that being proactive in prevention was of greater value for her dollar and for her life. Learn more about Kathleen and her work here or click here for a price guide and her email address.