Ecotourism is one of the most popular segments of the travel industry today, growing at a rate of thirty percent more than other tourism. As more people become aware of and concerned with global warming and environmental damage, savvy travelers are increasingly looking for ways to incorporate green practices into their vacations.

At the same time, the economic downturn has also put a damper on many vacation plans. “Staycations” are becoming more common, as people look for ways to save money and travel closer to home. The state of Washington provides the ideal setting to satisfy both of these desires – a less expensive, more local vacation that helps sustain the world in which we live. Domestic eco-adventures within the U.S. leave a much smaller carbon footprint than international travel, foregoing eight to fourteen hour flights.

Ecotourism is travel that protects the environmental resources and supports the economic stability of the destination. “Uniting conservation, communities and sustainable travel, ecotourism offers market-linked long-term solutions to the most important challenges the world faces today,” says Ayako Ezaki, Director of Communications at The International Ecotourism Society. “By providing effective economic incentives for conserving and enhancing bio-cultural diversity, ecotourism helps protect the natural and cultural heritage of our beautiful planet.”

Washington is one of the most environmentally friendly states, and ecotourism activities from all-inclusive vacations to day adventure treks are plentiful. But it’s not just about responsibility and saving the planet. “Traveling green is just a much higher quality of experience,” says Jake Haupert, founder of EverGreen Escapes in Seattle. “When you can see and understand the ecology systems of the place, you can experience it much more fully. Having a deeper understanding and education of the world we inhabit resonates with guests of our outdoor escapes; clients ask our guides a ton of questions. The quality that goes along with sustainable travel is evident even in something as simple as the food we serve – local, organic food just tastes much better.”

EverGreen Escapes is an exclusive adventure tour company for responsible, curious and active travelers, crafting upscale nature, active and education-based experiences throughout the Northwestern U.S. & British Columbia, Canada. Opportunities include half, full and multi-day escapes, as well as exclusive private getaways and corporate retreats and teambuilding experiences. Haupert and his partner Dan Moore, who is also lead guide on the treks, started the company because they were huge fans of the way European outdoor treks were run, with highly qualified naturalist guides leading clients on day trips as well as multi-day vacations with a high level of luxury customer service.

“After a while, I realized that type of outdoor adventure just wasn’t being done here in the U.S.,” says Haupert, whose official title of CEO doesn’t stand for Chief Executive Officer but Chief Escape Officer. “We wanted to bring that same level of education and expertise to the Pacific Northwest. Our ratios are a maximum of ten guests to every guide, and we place our focus on the consistency of our customer service.” EverGreen guides, for example, include Master Birder Penny Rose who leads birding tours designed to give every guest the chance to see a diversity of species and discover something new about bird habitats, as well as ski instructor and triathlege Kim Hardman, and professional wildlife photographer Sunny Walter.

Imagine experiencing up close and personal two hundred-sixty foot waterfalls tumbling over granite cliffs into the emerald canyon below, or the geysers at Flaming Geyser State Park fed by underground coal seams, followed by a four mile rafting trip. Mount Rainier National Park is one of the best places in the state for eco-adventures. At over fourteen thousand feet, the mountain is an active volcano encased in over thirty-five square miles of snow and ice, surrounded by old growth forest and stunning wildflower meadows. Snowshoeing or hiking the Nisqually Vista trail offers spectacular views of lakes, waterfalls and river valleys connected to glaciers, as well as the opportunity to spot birds, marmots, coyotes, elk, deer, fox and black bear in their natural habitat.

Nearby Nisqually Wildlife Refuge is three thousand acres of salt and freshwater marshes, grasslands, and mixed forest habitats that provide nesting areas for migratory waterfowl, songbirds, raptors, and wading birds. With both a one mile boardwalk trail and a slightly more rigorous five mile trail, observation platforms and photo blinds, visitors of all capabilities can enjoy this outdoor adventure. The number and variety of islands in Washington also provide ample choices for green outdoor escapes. Taking a ferry to Whidbey Island, Vashon Island or the San Juans feels as if you're entering another world, where you may see a salmon leap and an eagle soar overhead, or hear the snort of a sea lion or the splash of an orca.

Seattleite Meilee Anderson went on an Olympic Peninsula Summit, Birds & Beach encounter with EverGreen Escapes. A self-professed “reformed couch potato,” Anderson never thought she would be hiking through snow on Hurricane Ridge, a mountain citadel of exceptionally jagged peaks, although she admits that she took her purse on the trek. “Seriously, what was I thinking?” she laughs. “I was accustomed to seeing a place on a website or reading a magazine, but not actually getting out in the big outdoors.” Anderson, who works at Seattle Southside tourism office, discovered EverGreen Escapes when researching an eco-friendly company to speak about at a trade show, and liked the company’s style so much that she left her city-girl comfort zone to venture on an eco-trip.

“The best part of the adventure was being so inspired – and empowered,” Anderson says. “It’s a whole new world to go beyond a cubicle and feel the wind on your face, hear the roar of the surf, and touch these amazing places. I think it’s incredibly important now more than ever to choose wisely on how we spend our two most important assets: time and money. Often I hear people say, ‘Someday I want to go visit…’ But the hard fact is there are no guarantees ‘someday’ will be there. Someday is now. For me, I want experiences with positive impacts on me and the environment. How can you care about protecting the environment unless you get out in it and experience it first hand?” Anderson asks.

That question is the one that Haupert and Moore ask themselves – and strive to answer for their customers. “You can’t love what you don’t know, and people won’t protect what they don’t love,” says Moore, who is originally from Minneapolis and plays guitar in a Seattle band in his off time. “A tour with me is about the overall experience, not just the bits of information you’ll learn.”

He and Haupert take environmental sustainability very seriously, using only biodiesel vehicles for their tours and operating in nature with a minimal waste, leave no trace philosophy. The two are just as picky about other businesses that they partner with, insisting that lodges and other companies meet their green standards for the environment, as well as social responsibility in terms of fair wages and employee treatment. “It doesn’t work with our values to partner with hotels that aren’t sustainable,” explains Haupert. “As we grow and the more successful we become, the more leverage we have to reward partners who do it the right way, and to show them that it also makes good business sense.”

But the guys try not to pass that seriousness on to their clients, striving for fun and educational adventures instead of preaching to people. Listening to Meilee Anderson, it seems they succeed. “The guides entertained and educated us,” she says. “The food was outstanding, and the cool bio-diesel powered Mercedes vans made our group feel like we were living the highlife. We noticed frequent envious stares from people throughout our adventure.”

Another Washington outfitter that incorporates principles of sustainability into its business model is Yellow Bear Journeys. Based in Olympia, Yellow Bear aims to reconnect everyday people with nature in gentle ways that allow enjoyment without being overwhelmed, and is different than other trekkers in that they incorporate a spiritual component with their activities. Most of their eco-journeys are low-key, involving bus rides and leisurely strolls on the beach or through the rainforest. The rich, life-giving ecosystems of ocean beaches and rainforests are ideal environments to refresh those beleaguered by a modern lifestyle that's disconnected from nature, perhaps leaving a nagging suspicion they’ve lost touch with their truest self and purpose.

Each journey is designed around three elements – a tour or workshop, a celebration meal to share what has been experienced, and an awakening. Dale Stubbart, who designs and leads the Yellow Bear journeys, arrived at this model through his own experience. After a twenty-year career as a computer consultant in Colorado, Stubbart moved to Washington where he fell in love with the area and the Native American legend of the Spirit Bear. "I had several ideas of what I really wanted to do in life but nothing seemed to gel," says Stubbart. "All I knew for certain was that I wanted to work more with the environment and with peace."

Soul-searching and life coaching led him to the outdoor journeys that bring him, and he hopes his guests, in tune with both nature and their own inner peace. "The purpose of our journeys is to reconnect people with nature and help them become more fully awake to all that life can be on this incredible planet. The hallmark of the awakening is that it brings joy to the person who experiences it."

Such eco-adventures close to home are incredible opportunities to have fun, learn more about the immediate environment we live in, and be kinder to the planet. “Travel impact has actually increased because of more air travel and luxury items such as big-screen TVs that require more power,” says Steve Gersman of Calyx, Sustainable Hotel & Tourism Consultants who count EverGreen Escapes as one of their clients. “Eco travel is fun because it reconnects people with the natural world to which we are inextricably bound and with which we evolved biologically. Eco travel is active, it's healthier, and the natural world, particularly in Washington, is quite diverse. There are a multitude of ecosystem types right here in the state.”

But Gersman points out that tourism companies that simply put ecotourism in their marketing or “greenwash” their practices aren’t necessarily providing a service that’s better for the environment. “Unless you are traveling with a company like EverGreen Escapes that provides tools to make the sustainable connection with the beauty they are experiencing, protection of that beauty is falling by the wayside. It's critically important for all tourism businesses to adopt sustainability practices because no industry is more vulnerable to poor environmental conditions than tourism.”

How can the average person make certain the company they choose is committed to sustainability? As with anything, the key is not to take anything at face value but ask a lot of questions about the business practices. Gersman recommends looking for third-party-certified products on site or certification from a ratings system such as GreenSeal or LEED. Haupert insists that such practices shouldn’t be a mystery to consumers, but be fully transparent.

“Sustainability is not a trend, it’s not a place in time right now,” Haupert reminds us. “It’s an ongoing, long-term philosophy and practice.”