World Legacy Awards

Nominate Next Year's Winners: Applications for the next World Legacy Awards must be filed by November 21. To nominate an enterprise or destination and to learn more about the awards, see www.wlaward.org.

Read About This Year's Winners: These three help to keep great places unspoiled—in Africa, Italy, and Thailand.

In January of this year, at National Geographic's Washington, D.C., headquarters, Queen Noor of Jordan presented the first World Legacy Awards in sustainable tourism—a joint program of Traveler and Conservation International. Each winner in the three categories below works to protect the natural and cultural quality of the places we visit, supports local communities, and gives us lasting travel memories.

>>Nature Travel
Southern Africa—Wilderness Safaris

"To me, there is no more uplifting, inspirational, or educational form of travel than a safari," Colin Bell, founder of Wilderness Safaris, tells me. So I'm learning in northern Namibia at the company's Skeleton Coast Camp, a 600,000-acre reserve, one of 37 eco-friendly Wilderness Safari camps in seven African countries. The experience is more than just touring Earth's oldest desert (55 million years) with sand dunes that vibrate and hum under the chilly Atlantic winds. It's more than tracking springbok and desert elephant; more than combing beaches flecked with garnet, agate, and diamond; more even than visiting the nomadic Himba to witness their centuries-old way of life. It's complete immersion in the large, fantastic world of the desert.

When I ask if any industrial use threatens this land, our amiable guide, Douw Steyn, says, "Yes. It's widely used in the tourist trade." He shows us a gravel plain lacerated by the truck tires of joyriding tourists, saying the tracks will take a century or more to disappear. Southern Africa-based Wilderness Safaris, by contrast, has built its reputation on minimizing tourism damage and maximizing its benefits to both people and nature.

At the Mombo Camp in Botswana's Okavango Delta, for instance, my gin and tonic came with a slide show on the Wilderness-backed rhino reintroduction program here. Poachers eradicated rhinos here in the early 1980s, but now 21 white rhinos nibble about. On a walking safari at Jao Camp, also in the Okavango, local guide Frank Mashebe thrilled guests by unlocking the secrets of—of all things—termite mounds. (They have an air-conditioning system, for instance). Wilderness Safaris won its award partly because it hires, trains, and promotes talented locals like Mashebe. At Botswana's Savuti Camp, another skilled guide, Benson Siyawareva, tracked down the rare African wild dog, or "painted wolf." Only 5,000 or so still roam, but he finds a pack of
16—the gift of conservation.

"Our conservation ethic and community-based tourism model have resulted in threatened land becoming protected," Bell tells me. "And our Children in the Wilderness project, which has given week-long safaris to a thousand underprivileged African children, should help create the next generation of African conservationists." —George W. Stone

See www.wilderness-safaris.com; in the U.S., book via safari specialists such as Connecticut-based Classic Africa, 888 227 8311 (U.S. and Canada).

>>Heritage Tourism
Italy—ATG Oxford (U.K.)

The path winds through forests of beech and chestnut. Monks, shepherds, mercenaries, and saffron traders have passed this way for millennia. The path turns and suddenly, like great theater, the trees part to reveal a medieval abbey of honey-colored limestone, astonishing as a mirage in these isolated woods. The group gives a collective sigh of delight, wonder, and a pinch of relief. It's been a challenging walk. "Welcome to Sant'Eutizio, pilgrims," says Daniel Adamson, the group leader.

This is just one of many eureka moments we've enjoyed over the last week. We have opened the doors of a deserted church to find Renaissance frescoes glowing within, and chatted with the art historian as she restores one. We've savored lavish picnic banquets that appear like conjuring tricks beneath ancient porticoes or in shady olive groves. We have knelt in mountain meadows and learned to tell female orchids from male orchids. And so we have come to know a stretch of remote central Italy with vividness and intimacy few visitors experience.

All this thanks to ATG Oxford, a company that organizes walking tours in little-known parts of Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. Founded in Oxford, England, in 1979, ATG (Alternative Travel Group) leads handfuls of guests along age-old pilgrim paths, farm tracks, and hunting trails, seeking authentic experiences that package tourists can only dream of. ATG helps to preserve the landscapes through which its customers travel. It limits group size to minimize environmental impact. It maintains footpaths and recycles everything. Its ATG Charitable Trust funds cultural and environmental projects along the company's many routes. Several highlights of our journey, including the fifth-century path to Sant'Eutizio and the Renaissance frescoes in the abandoned church of Gavelli, were rescued by the ATG Trust. Such initiatives to safeguard lesser known treasures for visitors and local people alike earned ATG Oxford its World Legacy Award.

In the end, the company's initiatives are about people. By specializing in destinations that tour buses and trains don't reach, ATG spends 65 percent of its revenue in small communities otherwise deprived of tourist dollars and sometimes threatened with extinction. As a result, the villagers in each hilltop town we visit give us warm welcomes and greet Adamson like a long-lost son. We eat in their trattorias, sampling fresh produce from their fields and superb wines from their vineyards. (ATG knows how to combine cultural and environmental sensitivity with the glories of the good life.) We sleep in secluded hotels that feel like homesteads. Gradually we come to know the people as well as their land. —Tom Mueller

See www.atg-oxford.co.uk; phone +44 1865 315678.

>>Destination Stewardship
Thailand—Koh Yao Noi, REST

Cruising Phang-nga Bay with a sun-browned Thai fisherman, Dusit Buttree, it's hard to believe that we're just an hour from some of the biggest mass-tourism destinations in Thailand. Unlike nearby Phuket, with its souvenir vendors and go-go bars, Buttree's home island of Koh Yao Noi retains its fishing villages and mangrove forests. Gibbons still haunt the outlying islands here, sea eagles soar in the skies, and the seas yield enough fish to give Buttree's family a stable income.

It nearly wasn't this way. Just over a decade ago, trawlers from the mainland were illegally overfishing these waters, and mass tourism from Phuket threatened to disrupt the cultural traditions of Koh Yao Noi's 4,500 mostly Muslim residents. Afraid of being overwhelmed by outsiders, villagers sought the help of the Responsible Ecological Social Tours project (REST), a Bangkok-based group that works with locals to develop community-based tourism, promote conservation, and develop a sustainable economy. REST encouraged the Koh Yao Noi villagers to organize tour programs, host visitors in their homes, and share with them their traditional way of life. Buttree isn't just taking me on a tour of Phang-nga Bay, after all—he's also fishing for his day's keep. He can host tourists on his own terms, while I can experience a slice of Thai life in a way that no beach resort could provide.

What's more, the REST arrangement has instilled Koh Yao Noi villagers with a sense of confidence and grassroots power that benefits the community long after tourists have gone home. "We welcome our visitors like cousins," Buttree tells me as he hauls in his nets. "When they go home, our village has a face to the rest of Thailand and the rest of the world. That helps us resist those who want to overfish our waters and develop our island for their own interests." Thanks to its empowered community, Koh Yao Noi should be able to offer visitors an authentic Thai travel experience for years to come.

That night, we return to Buttree's stilted wood house, where his wife, Busaba, prepares a sumptuous dinner of blue crab, red snapper, and lobsterlike mantis shrimp. As I dig in, I tell Buttree this is the freshest seafood I've ever eaten. I should know: I watched him catch it. —Rolf Potts

REST runs tours (www.ecotour.in.th); or take one of the daily boats to Koh Yao Noi from the Bang Rong Pier on Phuket's northeast coast.

Honorable Mentions

Nature Travel: Tiamo Resort, a safari-style ecolodge on Andros Island, Bahamas, offers guests its own quiet beach, snorkeling, bird-watching, fishing, and fine food and drink (www.tiamoresorts.com).

Heritage Tourism: Battle Harbour, Labrador, takes summer visitors to the 1770s-era wharves and buildings of this once great fishery, which tell a rich, if cautionary, tale (www.battleharbour.com).

Destination Stewardship: In the Rio Bravo area, Programme for Belize helps residents protect and present to visitors a world of rain forest wonders, folk traditions, and Maya ruins (www.pfbelize.org).

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