The jeep jolted along a rough dirt track in a stark terrain of mesquite and cactus while the late afternoon sun painted the rolling red landscape into even brighter crimson hues. Rounding a corner, we were surprised by a normally-dry pond, which was now brimming with water thanks to a recent rain. The still water reflected the surrounding dogwood trees and hills in perfect upside-down symmetry. It was as though we had chanced upon a timeless painting by one of the masters.
My wife, Allyson, and I were on a jeep tour in the high desert southwest of Sedona, Arizona. We were not alone, for North America has fallen in love with this red-rock country and over four million visitors are drawn here each year. In selecting Sedona as the most beautiful place in America, USA Weekend said: Sedona "looks like nowhere else. ... The area's telegenic canyons, wind-shaped buttes and dramatic sandstone towers embody the rugged character of the west. ... People come for inspiration and renewal."
Set in the middle of this distinctive landscape is the city of Sedona, whose population has risen rapidly, even attracting celebrities like Sharon Stone and Nicholas Cage. Much of Sedona's charm arises from a vibrant community of artists. Their handiwork is displayed in many elegant galleries and numerous statues and sculptures grace the streetscape. A highlight is the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, an elegant complex built in Spanish colonial style with smart adobe galleries, shops and restaurants. Meandering through the courtyards past fountains and graceful sycamore trees is like stepping back in time. Sedona also has a reputation as a spiritual Mecca and vortexes of energy are said to flow from many of the distinctive hills that bear names like Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, Snoopy and Coffeepot.
But tourism success also brings challenges. The crush of humanity and the rich life style demanded by tourists place an enormous burden on resources and the environment. The aquifer supplying Sedona's water, for example, is rapidly being depleted. The city has sprawled for endless miles requiring an enormous network of roads and utilities. And the numerous resorts and restaurants consume energy voraciously and spew out garbage ceaselessly. To complicate matters, Sedona has no public transport and no municipal recycling.
With the travel industry growing steadily, Sedona has a desperate need for thoughtful, caring tourism, one that protects the natural environment and culture while expanding visitors' enjoyment of the local setting and history.
In 2003 Sedona took the innovative initiative of opening the Institute of EcoTourism, which promises to become a model for tourist locales around the globe. In addition to providing environmental leadership to the community, it is a fascinating attraction itself. On entering the Institute my eye was drawn by an electric bicycle plugged into a lobby outlet. "That's our company vehicle," explained a smiling Jonathan Duncan, the Executive Director. As I was to learn, this outside-the-box thinking is a trademark of the Institute. Even the building is unique. Attractive and equipped with solar panels, recycled wallboard and carpet, high-efficiency lighting and more, it is the first private facility in Arizona to receive the prestigious "Green Building" certification.
The Institute is an important catalyst and resource to help both visitors and hosts to become more environmentally friendly. It has, for example, developed a comprehensive green program for the Los Abrigados Resort including recycling and energy and water conservation. Through seminars and training sessions, it has convinced several other hotels to take similar action, and the program is gaining momentum.
The Institute strives to increase visitors' knowledge and, thus, enjoyment of the plants, wildlife and ecosystems they encounter. This is achieved through a variety of attractive displays, a theatre, training programs and adventure outings.
One of the displays, which showcased Native history and culture, reminded me of our visit to Palatki Ruins the previous day. We clambered up to the ruins of dwellings set into the side of a sheer red cliff that was smooth and sculpted from the wind. This was once the home of the Sinagua, who lived and farmed here from about 1100 to 1300. Under a cool overhang, we marveled at pictographs: waving lines, stick figures and odd shapes, some dating back 12,000 years.
But there was also a sombre tone for we were parked next to six other jeep tours. "This is nothing," muttered our guide, "in high season I've seen over 40 jeeps at the most popular sites." Such overcrowding damages plants and the desert habitat and leads to litter that can travel for tens of kilometres on the tempestuous desert winds. "We are making progress in getting the tourism industry to minimize their impact on this delicate desert environment," explained Duncan. "We are building a network with the tourism companies, who cooperate on a voluntary basis."
After leaving the Institute, I hiked to the top of a wind-eroded butte and sat amongst the yucca plants and cypress trees savouring the dry aromatic air and the grand view. Gazing over the city spread before me like a postcard, I was pleased that ecotourism is gaining a toehold in Sedona.
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's
Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.
Hans Tammemagi: Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona panorama, reflections in a pond, Jeep tours abound, cliff side ruins at Palatki, ancient pictographs at Palatki
If you go
A four-season destination, Sedona is 190 km north of Phoenix, 175 km south of the Grand Canyon.
Arizona information: www.ArizonaGuide.com
Sedona information: www.visitsedona.com;
Institute of EcoTourism: www.ioet.org
Jeep & horseback tours: www.adayinthewest.com
About ecotourism: www.ecotourism.org;
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/