The phrase 'eco-tourism' often brings to mind vacations in the Amazon, or photo safaris in Kenya or trips to the Galapagos Islands. But many Americans are looking for nature in their own backyard.
It's early afternoon, on a warm day in the North Georgia Mountains. David MacKusick and Carol Isaac MacKusick are sitting on an outside terrace, more than 7 meters off the ground.
They've just arrived at the Len Foote Hike Inn, a state-run lodge that guests can only reach by foot, and the couple is relaxing after their eight-kilometer hike.
David: "I think we come here because it's fun to be able to hike in somewhere. Just like the Hike Inn, you get to hike on the trail, and um, spend the night somewhere so you don't have to schlep the whole tent and sleeping bag and sleep with the gnats and whatnot, and then hike on back out."
Carol: "I mean, we like to backpack, we do like to camp, we like to tent camp and things like that. But this is a little bit different. It's certainly more than I would do at home. And so it's interesting to see that people can actually survive this way. Sort of like summer camp for grown-ups, that's what I think!"
The Hike Inn has only 20 rooms, and there's often a waiting list for reservations. In 2003, the Inn welcomed just over 6,000 guests. Many visitors come here simply to get away from the stresses of everyday life.
But according to General Manager Eric Graves, guests also appreciate the Hike Inn's message of conservation, and protecting the environment.
"We use a lot of conservation methods here," explained Eric Graves. "Part of it is our composting toilet systems that conserve water. It saves us over 100,000 gallons of water a year. We also compost our food waste. We also have our guests look at conserving waste while they're here. We have them pack all their trash back out with them. We also have a Clean Plate Plan. They're expected to eat everything they put on their plate. And after dinner, we see how they did with their food waste. And it's just trying to get that take-home message to, look at the resources you're using and try to conserve them. And not waste just because you do have it."
The Hike Inn is just one beneficiary of the growing interest in eco-tourism, which is defined as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."
It's certainly helping the economic well being of Georgia residents, more than 11,000 of whom are employed in the nature-based tourism industry. More than a million visitors to the state in 2002 took part in nature-based tourist activities - such as hiking, camping and bird watching pumping close to $750 million into the economy.
For the past three decades, Wilderness Southeast has taken many of those tourists into the wilder areas of the Georgia coastline. Joyce Murlless, executive director of the educational, non-profit group, says that nature-based tourism makes sense, financially and environmentally.
"Good eco-tourism not only teaches people, and gives them a good perspective, but it also protects the resource and it also adds to the local economy," said Joyce Murlless. "I think of proper eco-tourism as a totally renewable economic resource for the region, as well as something that will maintain the natural resource on which it depends. "
Back at the Hike Inn, Eric Graves leads the daily tour of the grounds, showing his guests the Inn's electric solar panels, and its water collection system. The tour then goes inside, into a room that holds several large, covered wooden boxes.
"This is our compost or worm room," he said. "It's where we're getting rid of a lot of our waste here at the inn. Food and paper waste is about half the trash we produce in this country. It's probably closer to 80 percent of the waste we produce here at the inn."
The compost produced by the red wiggler worms then goes to fertilize the Inn's gardens.
Richard Judy, a volunteer member of the Hike Inn's board, says the recreational and educational aspects of the Inn go hand-in-hand. "Oh I think they're absolutely compatible," he said. "I think it's perfectly okay for people to come up here for an escape weekend. And many people do. But whether they realize it or not, they leave here as slightly different people, because they have seen and learned and picked up some knowledge about the environment, and about man existing in his environment. Whether they like it or not, they end up with it."
That's a sentiment echoed by Joy Campbell, one of the owners of "Okefenokee Adventures." Several years ago, the group partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lead tours into the vast Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Ms. Campbell says more people are coming out to see for themselves the wonders of the Okefenokee, the cypress islands, the sandhill cranes and basking alligators and turtles. Some come for only an hour, some for days at a time. But no matter how long they stay, she says, the fact that they're visiting the refuge at all is important. "I would really like to see more people getting out into nature," said Joy Cambell. "People ask, why do we have to have places like the Okefenokee? Why do we need to have places preserved out in nature? My hope is that people get out they get out of their cities, they get out of their suburbs, and they get out and learn to really appreciate what's out there, what's out in what we call the real world. And they understand that it's important for our survival. But if you don't get people out there to see it, to feel it, to smell it, to taste it, to really experience it, then they won't really understand in their hearts that it's worth saving."
More people are getting out into nature, according to industry and government reports. And as nature-based tourism and recreation grows, its advocates hope it will prompt more questions and concerns about the environment, and greater efforts to preserve the world's remaining wild spaces.