From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, Take Photos Leave Footprints

The Rise of Eco-Tourism and Conservation Vacations

By Scott Dicken

The Rise of Eco-Tourism and Conservation Vacations

If you’re like me, by early January Christmas pudding is merely a fond memory, and I guiltily admit to friends that I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution yet, particularly one I will endeavor to keep. Yet, this year I’m feeling inspired by a recent trip to Zimbabwe.

Picture this: a newborn rhino, barely 3-months old, shelters from the mid-day sun in its mother’s shadow as we sit, gazing in awe, a mere handful of feet away. Everything is silent other than the consistent staccato of camera shutters; everyone angling for the perfect photo that will no doubt later adorn social media feeds, including my own. This is what a classic African safari is all about – and the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve on the outskirts of Victoria Falls Town, Zimbabwe, provided us with ample such encounters. But for most of us on the trip, our stay is about more than just capturing envy-inducing holiday snaps. “I chose to volunteer on a conservation project to learn as much as possible about wildlife, conservation and local culture,” says my fellow volunteer, Greg Salter from the UK. “But this baby rhino is definitely an added bonus.”

By prioritizing vacations that give back to the environment and communities they impact, my fellow travelers are echoing a fast-growing sustainability-focused, eco-tourism trend. Resolution worthy? You bet.

What is Eco-Tourism?

Ecotourism, largely thought of as a subset of the broader sustainable tourism industry, is defined by the International Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”.

That broad definition encompasses everything from directly funding conversation programs to harnessing the tourism industry to build environmental awareness while minimizing negative social impact. It’s that wide-ranging scope that is proving attractive to tourists across the globe, a fact that is reflected by 87% of global travelers saying that they want to travel sustainably, according to a 2018 Sustainable Travel Report released by

While most consumers naturally think of eco-friendly accommodation options when they hear the phrase ‘eco-tourism’, an increasing number of tourists are making more comprehensive and impactful wildlife and environmental conservation projects a core component of their annual vacation schedule.

It was this concept I hoped to explore during my month-long stay on the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve.

The Nakavango Conservation Program

The focus of my visit to Zimbabwe was to participate in the Reserve’s Nakavango Conservation Program. We had the opportunity to learn about, and make personal contributions to, ‘behind the scenes’ conservation and game reserve management activities, wildlife research, and community development initiatives, including:

  • Participating in conservation and environmental lectures and daily game drives with the Program’s expert wildlife guides and Reserve Manager which educate participants about the fragile ecosystem and its interconnectivity from a conservation perspective;
  • Studying the dynamic of wildlife within the Reserve by conducting game transects through the Reserve to record valuable and necessary research data about wildlife populations and movements;
  • Supporting local communities and primary schools with a range of sustainability-focused activities such as school feeding programs;
  • Undertaking vital reserve road maintenance activities that offer valuable support in the Reserve’s efforts to protect its endangered black rhino population from poaching, preserve ecosystems, and prevent brush fires from spreading;
  • Building check dams that assist in the management of soil erosion during the annual rains; and
  • Removing alien vegetation that’s recognized as a national threat due to its prevention of native species from thriving.

The Nakavango program has been consistently rated as one of the world’s top wildlife conservation volunteer programs by International Volunteer HQ. With program durations ranging from just 2 weeks up to 3 months, it’s something that can hold appeal to even the most vacation-starved of DC wonks. Rosie Smith, another of the program’s volunteers, describes the program as “the perfect choice for anyone, from their teens to their twilight years, with only two weeks to spare because of life commitments but with a desire to learn as much as possible and make a real contribution”.

The Program’s goals fit neatly within the burgeoning eco-tourism conservation market. “Nakavango gives you the chance to encounter Africa’s iconic wildlife, while actively participating in its conservation” says Nakavango Operations Manager, Justine McGregor. “Through our work, we want to preserve Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve and develop the nearby Woodlands Village. Our aim is to teach volunteers about the importance of supporting the world’s fragile wildernesses and the communities who rely on them. By giving volunteers a hands-on experience, we hope to inspire their love of our small corner of the world and its people, while embarking on the adventure of a lifetime!”

Interested to Learn More?

The increasing demand for eco-tourism and, more specifically, conservation vacations has led to a daunting surge in consumer options. If you find yourself interested in exploring short-term conservation programs, be they wildlife or culture focused, my advice is to begin by exploring providers such as International Volunteer HQ, Global Vision International, or The Great Projects. Much like internet search engines, services such as these provide useful aggregation tools – bringing conservation programs from across the globe into one searchable repository and taking much of the back-breaking research away from consumers. After finding a suitable program, my advice would be to try and book directly with that program locally to ensure that every dollar you spend goes to the conservation project of your choice and bypasses the fee-taking middle-man.

If you want to learn more specifically about the Nakavango Conservation Program, then make sure to visit or the Zimbabwe page of New Years resolution – nailed it.

About the Author: Born in the UK, Scott has lived in the DC area on and off for the last 15 years. He is the writer, photographer, and owner of the travel website, where he shares his passion for global travel through destination guides, travel hacks and photography tips.

The Take Photos Leave Footprints Visit to Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve was a sponsored visit paid for, in part, by the Nakavango Conservation program. All views are those of the author.

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