In Israel, the enormously active and inventive Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, or SPNI (www.spni.org), sponsors projects that protect the environment and promote awareness of threats to the natural beauty of the county, the urban landscape, and the ecological balance of the region. SPNI offers a program of superb walks, hikes, tours, 1-day to weeklong trips, and lectures about issues of conservation. Most tours are in Hebrew, but this is a very English-friendly organization with an English-language affiliate, the American friends of SPNI (www.aspni.org).
Bustan Ha Shalom (Orchard of Peace; www.bustan.org) is a partnership of Jewish and Arab Israeli eco-builders, architects, conservationists, and farmers working together on sustainable community action, largely on behalf of Israel's formerly nomadic, Bedouin community. Among its many activities, the organization is concerned with conserving the traditional Bedouin way of life, encouraging the production and sale of traditional Bedouin crafts, and protecting the civil and political rights of Bedouin; it hosts volunteer projects such as tutoring, and building straw bale medical centers, homes, and playgrounds for Bedouin settlements.
The Jewish Coalition for Service (www.jewishservice.org/vol_israel.html) can plug you into many projects in Israel, including Bustan's 10-week Green Apprenticeship Program (you don't have to be Jewish).
Israel has a number of collective and cooperative (kibbutz and moshav) communities that practice organic farming, recycling, and host programs in eco-tourism. Kibbutz Lotan, in the dramatic Arava Valley (Southern Negev), is a kibbutz founded in the 1980s by American immigrants to Israel who have taken the lead in showing Israelis how to create environmentally gentle, sustainable desert communities, organic farming, and exciting architecture based on natural and recycled materials. Lotan, together with neighboring kibbutzim Yahel and Ketura, has set up programs of desert eco-study, eco-hikes, birding, meditation, relaxation, and massage that are truly excellent, especially in tandem with the chance to live in and observe these communities. Succah in the Desert, in the central Negev highlands just outside Mitzpe Ramon, is one of the few eco-accommodations in Israel -- it is very simple but has charm and mystique. Also in Mitzpe Ramon, the Isrotel Ramon Inn is one of Israel's few environmentally friendly major hotels. The organic farming community of Klil, near the northwestern border of Israel, does not have overnight accommodations for tourists, but is filled with artists and craftspeople who have built unusual homes and studios. It also hosts a ceramics workshop that helps preserve and encourage the artistry of traditional Ethiopian Jewish potters.
In Jordan, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (www.rscn.org.jo) maintains a careful network of nature reserves and a sustainable tourism base among the tribal people of the magnificent, wild Dana Nature Reserve.
Sustainable tourism is conscientious travel. It means being careful with the environments you explore and respecting the communities you visit. Two overlapping components of sustainable travel are eco-tourism and ethical tourism. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines eco-tourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. TIES suggests that eco-tourists follow these principles:
- Minimize environmental impact.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation and for local people.
- Raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climates.
- Support international human rights and labor agreements.
You can find some eco-friendly travel tips and statistics, as well as touring companies and associations -- listed by destination under "Travel Choice" -- at the TIES website, www.ecotourism.org. Also check out Ecotravel.com, which lets you search for sustainable touring companies in several categories (water based, land based, spiritually oriented, and so on).
While much of the focus of eco-tourism is about reducing impacts on the natural environment, ethical tourism concentrates on ways to preserve and enhance local economies and communities, regardless of location. You can embrace ethical tourism by staying at a locally owned hotel or shopping at a store that employs local workers and sells locally produced goods.
Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices, and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world.
In the U.K., Tourism Concern (www.tourismconcern.org.uk) works to reduce social and environmental problems connected to tourism. The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO; www.aito.co.uk) is a group of specialist operators leading the field in making holidays sustainable.
Volunteer travel has become increasingly popular among those who want to venture beyond the standard group-tour experience to learn languages, interact with locals, and make a positive difference while on vacation. Volunteer travel usually doesn't require special skills -- just a willingness to work hard -- and programs vary in length from a few days to a number of weeks. Some programs provide free housing and food, but many require volunteers to pay for travel expenses, which can add up quickly.
For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org. Specific volunteer options in Israel are listed above, and under "Special-Interest Trips," below.
Before you commit to a volunteer program, it's important to make sure any money you're giving is truly going back to the local community, and that the work you'll be doing will be a good fit for you. Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a helpful list of questions to ask to determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program.
The Dolphin Reef in Eilat is a beach where humans can swim only as far as a net -- from which they can watch wild dolphins frolicking in the open sea. The Dolphin Reef takes swimmers beyond the net in carefully escorted groups, without boats or propeller vehicles. The dolphins, in the open sea, are free to approach or not -- depending on their mood. Compared to other "swim with dolphins" programs I've seen in other countries, Eilat's Dolphin Reef seems protective of the dolphin's freedom and unobtrusive. For information on animal-friendly issues throughout the world, visit the Tread Lightly website at www.treadlightly.org. For information about the ethics of swimming with dolphins, visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society website at www.wdcs.org.
A relatively new organization in Israel has begun to issue the Tav Chevrati Seal of Social Justice to restaurants that treat workers fairly and provide careful, personal assistance to customers with disabilities. In Jerusalem, restaurants listed in this book that have received the Tav Chevrati Seal include Keshet, in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; Joy Grill, Coffee Mill, and 1868 Café in the German Colony; Eldad Vesayhoo, Aroma, Babette's Waffles, Darna, Dr Lek's Ice Cream, Eucalyptus, Marakiyah, Village Green, Little Jerusalem at Ticho House, La Guta, Moshiko's Falafel and Shwarma, and Chakra in Downtown Jerusalem; and Orna and Ella, and Gordon Inn Pub in Tel Aviv.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.