Wallcreeper, American Bald Eagle, Lammergeier, Siberian Rubythroat, Scarlet Ibis, Oilbird...some birds have the power to conjure up the tropical ideal of the Caribbean, the rainforests of Venezuela, the peaks of the Pyrenees or the lakes of North America. But should we, as responsible naturalists, be travelling around the globe to tick off some endangered parrot or flycatcher? Are we part of the problem or part of the solution?
Bald Eagle, United States (Photo: Chris Darby)
When I first started birding abroad I used to stay at large, corporately run hotel chains in Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. There were two things that appealed to me. The first was that I could get the holiday at a remarkably low price, and the second was that they were situated near to prime birding habitat for some very sought-after species. I rarely paid any time to thinking about the hotel company, the staff, the energy supply or the food. I needed the holiday cheap and that meant putting on one side the radical notion of eco-tourism. It was just too expensive — and in many ways it still is.
As I have travelled around, and returned to the same locations for repeat visits, I have been disturbed to see some of the hotel chains I supported in the 1990s quietly bulldozing the very sites I birdwatched in to make way for new high-rise holidays. This is no more apparent than in Cyprus. On my first visit I stayed in a hotel complex built by a well-known Cypriot developer. The next year the same developer dynamited my favourite hillside for raptor-watching to make way for a massive new complex! I was shocked.
On my first visit to Florida I stayed in a new series of villas, a huge brand-new complex where aircon was on 24–7 and lights were all 100 watt, with parking for three cars. I didn't know when I booked it, but this prime piece of real estate had been built on a series of ancient lemon and orange groves that once were home to a huge variety of warblers. Just two years before our holiday, passionate British birders were prowling around the groves seeking out migrant American Redstarts and Painted Buntings — but now the groves were gone and rows of four-bedroom detached holiday villas extended as far as the eye could see.
Painted Bunting, United States (Photo: Steve Arlow)
Recounting this story I remember speaking to a friend at church who said: "well, if you feel so strongly about it, why don't you just stay in the UK?" It's a good question and one I have thought long and hard about. But there are some good reasons not to stay in the UK. There's the obvious: it gets cold, dark, damp and gloomy from November to February, you've got to wait 20 years on average to see a Wallcreeper and I am an avid lister — I love seeing new species, new places and new countries. No, seriously — there are good reasons to travel. If you have kids it gives them (and the parents) a much wider appreciation of what happens beyond our borders. It helps us all to see a country as not just a place on the TV, but as somewhere with real people, real lives and real struggles. It helps us to put together a fuller picture of how tourism can both destroy and benefit a country.
So what's the solution? Should we all stay in the UK and bury our heads in the sand? Should we go abroad and add to the risk of climate change whilst inadvertently destroying local habitats by staying in four-star faceless blocks of concrete? Is there a happy medium?
I love Cyprus. I have cried for lost places where I used to see Cyprus Warblers and Black Francolin; I have fumed when I saw the Orthodox Church hand in hand with an unscrupulous property company developing a hotel in the heart of what should be a National Park. I have raged as "my" migration spot now contains 400 empty holiday homes owned by a Russian oligarch. But it has not stopped me going. On my last trip I saved up a little more money and switched from a big ugly resort to the Natura Beach Hotel in Polis. This little gem of a place has its own carefully managed beach alive with breeding turtles in spring. It has Cyprus Warbler in the garden scrub and Black Francolin that wake you every morning from the hillside behind the hotel. The food is often locally sourced, the staff and management are locals, and the focus is one of local sustainability despite the pressures all around.
So what is right? I think a happy medium is very much the best approach. So here are ten suggestions to make for some good, conscience-cleansing birding holidays.
- Local holidays. Focus on the holidays in the UK each year. Aim to support holidays and holiday companies that are all about supporting local people. We enjoy the Bed and Breakfast scene, especially if it means supporting our farming community.
- Longer between foreign breaks. Save up a little more money, and instead of an annual trip to Costa del Destructione, take a holiday every two to three years to a hotel with a little more interest in local culture, local people and local wildlife. Or take your vacation with a reputable tour company such as Ornitholidays or Naturetrek. Or do a combination of a tailor-made break using only locally run hotels and guides, such as Simply Morocco. Alternatively, look online for Responsible Travel (responsibletravel.com): this is a website dedicated to helping you find the right destination.
- Local people. Ask the difficult questions whilst researching: does the hotel employ local people or is it run, owned and managed by local people? There are many smaller independent hotels that struggle to compete with the likes of Days Inn, Marriott's, Hilton, etc., and yet with a bit of research they are out there and normally well worth the extra effort. Don't do the cheap packages to large resorts without a very good reason!
- Local guides. Ornitholidays is a great example of a company that prides itself on using local guides. This has several advantages: it encourages local people to think about their own environment, it brings direct income into the local community and it ensures that the knowledge of an area is accurate and informative.
- Local food. It is now possible to enquire in detail about the food in hotels. Again, it is largely the smaller independents that can afford to source locally, or in a few cases even supplement with home-grown produce.
- Local energy. If you are unconvinced by carbon offsetting to EasyJet or BA, why not calculate your "carbon footprint" and offset through a local energy project or local food-growing project? Your cash will go further by delivering it directly to a reputable local charity than to a big conglomerate with high admin overheads. Or offset to a smaller climate-based company, where money goes straight to projects for local people, such as Climate Stewards.
- Eyes open! My wife and I will continue to travel. Some within A Rocha take the view that travel outside of the UK is really questionable. Whilst I respect that view I prefer the idea of travelling with your eyes wide open. Only book holidays where you can see how the employees are looked after, that the hotel wasn't built on a former nature reserve, and that the food isn't imported from halfway around the globe to your sunny island.
- Ears open! Read and listen to the testimony of others. Don't shut your ears to criticism about a hotel or resort. A bad review often reflects underlying unhappiness amongst staff, and in some cases even corruption. Bad reviews are often also a sign that the environment as well as the guests have been treated with contempt.
- Hearts open! Whilst many travellers tell you to watch who you give your money to, it is also worth thinking about where you are and those around you. A few years ago in the Dominican Republic we watched a little Haitian kid begging for money outside a nature reserve. The stream of visitors all ignored him, until one birding couple from the UK arrived and gave him a pair of sandals. This little act spoke volumes to us, and inspires me still.
- Enjoy! With our busy lifestyles, don't forget to have a good time... If you forget to enjoy yourself, you'll come back feeling worse than when you left!
Holidays abroad can be incredibly rewarding, but they are all about choices; and each choice, however small, may have a profound effect on someone somewhere who may cross our paths just once.
PS off to France in spring — anyone know a good site for Wallcreeper above the Cote d'Azur?
Andy Lester works as Conservation Director for the wildlife charity A Rocha UK (ARUK). He is married with four children, a keen birder since the age of 9 and long-term supporter of BirdGuides. His greatest desire? To see a Wallcreeper (closely followed by more serious things!).
A Rocha is an international Christian wildlife conservation organisation which works in 20 countries, including the UK. The first project was the establishment of a field-studies centre in Portugal, during the 1980s, which still welcomes local and overseas residential visitors. See www.arocha.org.