Green Tourism

(Globe & Mail) Travel guidebooks are asking their readers not to fly, hotels are building compost bins, car-rental companies are adding hybrids to their fleets, ski hills are building wind generators and switching to biodiesel, and airlines are offering customers the chance to buy carbon offsets.

As public concern over global warming grows, travel companies are scrambling to embrace environmentally responsible practices to satisfy the growing number of tourists who are making travel choices weighed on a green scale.

The current green-travel movement evolved out of several trends – ecotourism, sustainable tourism, nature tourism – that emerged well before Kyoto became more than just another travel destination.

Ecotourism and nature tourism are growing at three times the rate of traditional tourism, according to the International Ecotourism Society. The World Travel Organization estimates that ecotourism captures 7 per cent of the international market.

Here are some options to help you stay on the green side of life:

Fly Less

Travel can have an enormous environmental cost. International air travel releases more than 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually – about the same as 158 million cars driving 14,000 kilometres annually. Controversial British writer George Monbiot has said that taking responsibility for climate change means avoiding air travel.

Because takeoff and landing require more fuel than cruising, a series of short-haul flights can cause more damage than a non-stop flight over the same distance. “Basically that means the best option for a shorter-haul flight is an alternate form of transportation,” says Zoë Chafe, a research associate at the Worldwatch Institute and a contributor to WorldChanging, an online publication.

The publishers of Rough Guides and Lonely Planet are asking readers to think twice before they travel. “Fly less, stay longer” has become the Rough Guides mantra. Their guidebooks now offer tips for fighting climate change, such as reducing air travel and opting for night flights.

“We travel by land when our schedule allows it,” Richard Gregory says in an e-mail from Don Khong, an island in the Si Phan Don region of southern Laos. Gregory, 34, and Joanne Minns, 35, have been travelling through Asia and Australia since they left Montreal last summer. The couple recently opted to make a 160-kilometre trip from the Thai border to Siem Reap, Cambodia, by bus. It took six hours. “Travelling by land ends up costing about one-quarter of the price of flying, but you have to have the time,” he writes.

Offset your trip

When travelling by land or water isn’t an option, Chafe recommends offsetting the carbon emissions produced by the flight. Zerofootprint (http://www.zerofootprint.net), Offsetters (http://www.offsetters.ca), My Climate (http://www.myclimate.org) and Atmosfair (http://www.atmosfair.de) are among the many vendors to choose from. Zerofootprint, a Toronto-based not-for-profit program, announced in May that it had teamed up with Air Canada to offer passengers the chance to purchase carbon offsets for their trip when buying tickets online. By their calculations, a flight from Montreal to London generates the equivalent of 3.13 tonnes of carbon dioxide, about the same as driving a 2005 Honda Civic 20,000 kilometres.

Except for 10 per cent covering overhead, “all of the money goes toward a tree-planting initiative near Vancouver,” says Deborah Kaplan, Zerofootprint’s executive director. The program is restoring forest on degraded land. Hundreds of offsets were sold in the first three weeks of the Air Canada program.

Canadians are evidently willing to pay for their travel sins. The Conference Board of Canada reports that seven out of 10 Canadians said they were willing to pay $10 for every $1,000 in airfare on government-approved forms of green energy in Canada.

Merliee Hughes, 29, bought offsets from Offsetters last year when she travelled from Vancouver to London. “If I were to be truly environmental, I would do more local travelling and skip the foreign travel altogether,” she says. “But I happen to love foreign travel and I hope that buying carbon offsets is minimizing the damage that I will do.”

Still, many travellers aren’t so sure. “I’ve thought about buying them, but I just don’t know enough about them to invest wisely,” Australian Malinda Wink writes in an e-mail from Sanliurfa, Turkey.

The David Suzuki Foundation offers some advice: invest with companies that offer “additionality” – projects that wouldn’t have happened without your money. There is also Gold Standard, a Swiss non-profit foundation that invests in energy-efficiency and renewable-energy carbon-offset projects (but not tree planting) that have been verified by an independent third party.

Ask questions

To confuse matters, many not-so-green businesses are jumping on the bandwagon for economic benefit, duping good-hearted tourists with their murky promises. Separating the green from the green-washed can be a challenge.

There are stories of wilderness ecolodges accessible only by helicopter, tour guides who buzz wildlife with motorboats, and developers who evict indigenous communities to set up sustainable tourism sites. The best way to avoid green washing is to look for tours and lodging certified by a reputable program such as Green Globe 21, Blue Flag International and Costa Rica’s Certification for Sustainable Travel.

Unlike timber products, which have the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure the wood has come from a well-managed forest, the tourism industry lacks a common set of standards. The Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (http://www.stscouncil.org) could be the beacon in this green fog. Led by the Rainforest Alliance and the International Ecotourism Society, the proposed council will accredit the certification programs, providing a global mark that travellers can trust everywhere in the world.

And a little more than a year ago, the Rainforest Alliance launched Eco-Index Sustainable Tourism (eco-indextourism.org), a database of tourism businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean that have earned a stamp of approval from an ecotourism certification program or reputable environmental group.

Other safe bets are established conservation groups such as WWF-Canada (http://www.wwf.ca) and the Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org) that offer trips to natural areas. Working with the tour company Horizon & Co., WWF-Canada has developed three-to-11-day ecotours to draw attention to some of its conservation programs.

Lisa di Piera, senior manager of major gifts at WWF-Canada, visited the marshes and mangroves of Cuba’s Zapata Wetlands and snorkelled in search of endangered hawksbill turtles on one such trip in April, 2005. “While we didn’t see turtles that day, we were out with one of the professors from the university and got the inside scoop on what was happening there from local professionals,” she says.

When done right, green travel can be good for communities and the planet. As a program leader at Global Routes, a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization that sends high school and college students abroad to do community service, Shanna Brownstein searched carefully for the perfect travel reward for her group at the end of their service.

“We always tried to stay in places that were eco-friendly and tied to the local community,” she says. That search strategy led her to Los Pueblos Mancomunados, an ecotourism project in the Sierra Norte mountain range near Oaxaca, Mexico.

On that trip, Brownstein, now 28 and a graduate student in public administration at Columbia University in New York, and her group hiked from village to village through the tropical forests and slept in sustainable lodges outfitted with composting toilets. Their guides came from the communities and could tell the teenagers about the local flora and environment while they hiked.

“All of the money stayed in the community … and I liked the idea of these communities maintaining their cultural identity and the environment,” Brownstein says.

She was successful because she asked the right questions. Los Pueblos Mancomunados met the key criteria for eco-friendly tourism: it offered environmental protection and community benefits, and it provided the chance to connect with the region and the people.

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