The International Ecotourism Society, the world’s oldest and largest ecotourism organization, defines ecotourism as: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the wellbeing of local people.” Budget Travel recently cited Puerto Rico as one of the top eco-friendly destinations in the world, specifically for El Yunque rainforest and its 28,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness. Serious eco-travelers can sign up for eco-trips to El Yunque with Earth Watch, the world’s largest environmental volunteer nonprofit organization.
On the grand scale of the world, Puerto Rico is a small tropical island, 35 miles wide and 100 miles long. It is in everyone’s best interest to preserve and protect every square inch of it. Our tourism industry has long recognized that taking care of our environment makes good sense—and it is good business. The Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association began its Green Hotels program more than a dozen years ago to give recognition to properties that adhere to an exacting list of eco-friendly principles. The recently opened 503-room Sheraton Puerto Rico Convention Center Hotel & Casino is scheduled to become the first LEED-Certified hotel in the Caribbean and the brand new St. Regis Bahía Beach has already been designated as a Certified Gold Audubon International Signature Sanctuary.
Puerto Rico participates in the international Blue Flag program. To qualify, a beach has to comply with a set of very strict standards in terms of water quality, safety and services, environmental education and management. There are currently seven Blue Flag beaches on the island: Boquerón Beach in Cabo Rojo, Carolina Beach, Escambrón in San Juan, Punta Salinas in Toa Baja, La Monserrate in Luquillo, Seven Seas in Fajardo and Playa Pelícano on Caja de Muerto in Ponce. These public beaches are under the care of the Puerto Rico National Parks Company, a government agency whose purpose is to administer, protect and conserve areas of high ecological value and to raise consciousness of the importance of protecting the environment. Two marinas in Fajardo are also certified Blue Flag: Puerto Chico and Puerto del Rey.
Many private pro-environmental efforts deserve special attention. The Casa Bacardi Visitors Center in Cataño, for example, recently unveiled the first industrial-scale wind project on the island. Its turbines power the Center, which attracts a quarter of a million visitors annually. Bacardi, the world’s largest rum producer, pioneered here such innovations as anaerobic digester technology to treat wastewater. Micro-organisms degrade waste materials creating methane, a natural biogas that is fed into boilers that help power the distillery—saving roughly half the energy required to run the plant.
Bacardi even recycles bubbles! Carbon dioxide created during the fermentation process is recovered and sent to third parties, mostly for use in carbonated beverages. “Puerto Rico relies on fossil fuels for virtually all its energy, so we hope other companies will follow this great leadership by Bacardi to use wind energy and other renewable-energy sources,” said Puerto Rico Gov. Luis G. Fortuño in a recently published interview.
Scores of businesses have used “eco” in their names and rightfully so as they were pioneers in the conservation of their unique natural settings. Among the first was Río Grande Plantation, a 40-acre eco-resort at the foot of the rainforest that opened in 1966. The very livelihood of the many nature and adventure companies listed in this issue depends on offering their clients an unforgettable experience in nature—from canopy tours, hiking, rappelling, and ziplining to horseback riding and kayak trips to any of our three bioluminescent bays.
The granddaddy of eco-tourism destinations on the island is, of course, El Yunque. A nature preserve originally set aside by the King of Spain in 1876, today it is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. It is visited by more than a million people a year, who hike its 24 miles of recreational trails, climb its lookout towers, bask in its waterfalls, and experience its four distinct types of forests. El Portal Rain Forest Center is an ideal introduction to the forest, with interactive exhibits, films, and a fascinating account of the rescue of the nearly extinct Puerto Rican Parrot. El Yunque is arguably the only great natural wonder of the world that is accessible in less than an hour from a major city—like having a rainforest in your attic! El Yunque is a finalist for recognition as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. You (and your friends) are invited to cast your vote at www.new7wonders.com.