How Green Are You?

There is more to eco-travel than visiting a pristine location. Here’s a guide to make the going greener.


The more travel companies slap the “eco” label on their products, the more savvy consumers should suspect many of those claims are simply hype. Travelers who want to be responsible can have a hard time knowing which companies are truly eco-friendly and which are just trying to profit from a new craze.

So how can you judge the real deal? Ecotourism bundles several principles:

  • it should not deface or degrade the environment;
  • it should respect the local culture; and
  • it should enhance the well-being of the people and communities involved.

Many travelers have added one more caveat:

  • an ecotourism trip should not contribute to global warming.

While the travel industry has begun to respond to the increased demand for eco-sensitive travel, ultimately, it’s up to us to push the industry to adopt more responsible practices. “Consumers have to be setting the agenda, playing a bigger part by voting with their wallets,” noted Fiona Jeffery, chairman of the World Travel Market, at its international event that attracted travel professionals from more than 200 countries last year. Her organization focuses on four key responsible tourism issues: carbon neutralization, water conservation, cultural and environmental respect, and poverty reduction.

The sacrifices required by eco-friendly travel are usually to cost and/or convenience. That may mean looking beyond the cheapest flight, hanging up your towels each night, or turning off the lights and the water when not in use, even though you aren’t paying for them. Says Jeffery: “It’s not good enough simply leaving responsible tourism concerns to the industry and hoping that the world’s travel and climate problems will go away. It is the future of their children and grandchildren we are talking about now. Are [tourists] going to jeopardize that for two or three reckless weeks of holiday with a company that has no interest in sustainable tourism, or indeed, the local communities that are so often exploited and ignored?”

Before your next journey, analyze its sustainability by asking yourself or your tour company these key questions:

Global Warming and Carbon Neutrality

  • Does your train, bus, plane, or car use an alternative fuel?
  • Have you calculated the amount of carbon generated by this trip and purchased carbon offsets from a reputable company to counter its impact?
  • Are you or your tour company part of an advocacy group that is pushing for cleaner fuels, higher-fuel-efficiency legislation, and carbon-use labeling?
  • Are you traveling as light as possible to reduce transportation weight?

Water Conservation

As water resources become increasingly scarce, eco-travelers should be extremely parsimonious with their water consumption, especially in dry environments. The European Environment Agency estimates that in the Mediterranean, a tourist may use over four times as much water as a local resident.

  • Is your hotel helping to increase access to portable water for local communities?
  • Is your hotel taking steps to ensure it isn’t depleting or contaminating the local water supply?
  • Does your hotel encourage guests to reuse towels, turn off water and lights, and protect the local environment?

Fair Trade Tourism

Alleviating poverty is one of the most positive potential aspects of tourism, but check to ensure that locals are truly getting a piece of the economic pie.

  • Does the company employ locals, rather than foreign workers?
  • Does the company include local businesses in the supply chain? (For instance, does the company use local produce for its food services?)
  • Is there revenue sharing with the local community?
  • Is your hotel owned by an international corporation or a local company?

Leave No Trace

Tourists go to destinations to experience a unique culture or environment, so it would seem obvious that tourists and businesses would protect those special places. The phrase “Leave No Trace,” popularized by the backpacker community, is now international outdoor shorthand for travelers who want to minimize their environmental impact. Those who practice this approach stay on animal or park trails to protect fragile soils; they carry out everything they bring to a destination, including empty containers and used toilet paper; and they use biodegradable soaps that won’t contaminate soil and water sources. The concept has broadened to encompass an attitude that values hiking over motorized vehicles and traveling with as invisible a footprint as possible—so that the destination stays as pristine for future visitors as if you were never there.

While most tourists stay in hotels, ride in motorized transportation and don’t bring in their own food, the philosophy of “Leave no Trace” merges nicely with those who want to take a greener approach to travel.

  • Is your hotel minimizing pollution by adapting green energy, green building and green practices, when possible?
  • Does the facility use biodegradable cleaning techniques and offer biodegradable guest products?
  • Does your tour company offer walking, hiking, kayaking, canoeing and bicycling excursions?
  • Is fishing catch-and-release?
  • Do the restaurants follow the seafood guidelines offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program or another sustainable seafood advocate?
  • Does the chef use organic, seasonal, local produce and meats, when possible?
  • Do tour guides avoid disturbing animals such as dolphin pods and bird flocks?
  • Does your resort and/or tour company feed or otherwise alter the natural lifecycle of local animals?
  • Does your hotel and/or tour company provide ways to support the local culture?
  • Will your visit, or the facilities used to host your visit, damage the local environment or threaten local species?

Travel has long been one of the great joys of the world. The more we practice responsible travel, the more likely our children’s children will be able to share in that joy.

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

User Comments

Good article Great questions posed here; we need more pieces like this so that travelers with good intentions don't do more harm to the environment by signing up for a tour with a company vthat's about gimmicks

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