There are a lot of classifications which do not apply to me: hippie, enviro, hipster, trendy, and beatnik are just a few. While you won’t find me snacking on granola in the nearest park sporting a pair of Birkenstocks anytime soon, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about minimizing the impact I have on the world around me. This is especially of concern while on the road, but there are several ways to minimize our travel impact.
1. Carbon footprint – This is one of the most problematic aspects involved with green travel. Unless you walk to your vacation spot, then you’re going to create a carbon footprint and, in the case of longhaul flights, the footprint may be the size of Sasquatch. The best option is one I have made fun of in the past, purchasing carbon offset credits.
This really is for the committed green traveler and is a sure fire way to assuage your first world guilt. The offsets offer financial support to projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases in the short- or long-term. Personally, I’m a little dubious and my jaded view is that we’re making someone very rich through the offsets rather than affecting real change. But, as I said, other than becoming a hermit, this is the only option available to travelers who want to mitigate their carbon impact on the world.
2. Hotels – An area where travel decisions CAN have a real impact on the environment are hotels. Last year I had the opportunity to stay at one of the most eco-friendly, sustainable properties in the world – the Tres Rios Resort in the Riviera Maya, Mexico. The attention to green planning is impressive and can be found in everything from the water supply to how elevators are powered. More importantly, it is clear that the staff are all equally committed to the same sustainable goals as the owners, which is key. To find a hotel that will meet your high environmental standards, it is important to research and ask questions. It is highly unlikely that you’ll be able to find properties as responsible as the Tres Rios around the world, but there are varying degrees of sustainable forethought.
- Ignore the token nods to green travel, like foregoing housekeeping service. This may have a slight impact, but is not really doing that much to help the environment. Rather, it’s an attempt to help the hotel’s public image.
- Ask about their water and energy supplies. Do they have a way to reuse water, rather than just consuming vast quantities from the general supply? How do they reduce energy consumption: low flow showers/toilets, enviro-friendly lighting, alternative energy sources?
- Be sure to call and ask the hotel personally about their green initiatives. If you’re met with silence, it’s time to move on. A property with a real commitment to sustainability will be able to recite its accomplishments instantly.
3. Food – Food is one of the most important aspects to travel, not just for sustenance, but for offering a unique glimpse into the region and culture of the travel destination. It’s also a potential pitfall for the serious green traveler. It starts at the hotel, and their own food practices. Do they recycle and compost? Where does their food come from? I spoke with the food and beverage manager for a large, multinational hotel chain on Oahu, Hawaii about their food sources. He told me that until a few years ago, almost all of their food came from the mainland; a tremendous waste of resources. Recent legislation in Hawaii though made it easier for hotels to use local farms, which has revolutionized the way they manage food. Now a majority of their food products come from Hawaii, which is good for the guests (better food), good for the local farmers and good for the planet.
- When looking for food around town, follow the hotel’s example and go local. Eschew large, international restaurants and instead seek out the small locally owned and operated establishments. While it’s more responsible, the experience will also be much more enjoyable.
- If you are feel peckish, ignore the Mars bar and go for fresh fruit or pastries from a local bakery. Once again, you’re helping the community but you’re also helping yourself.
4. Sightseeing – This category overlaps with the realm of responsible tourism, with a focus on cultural impact as well as environmental. From the green perspective, avoid large motor coach groups both for your sanity as well as respect for the environment. Instead look for individual tours or small groups to join for day trips or week long adventures. Also be sure to use and patronize local tour guides or companies, and try to add unconventional sightseeing stops on your trip. While it may be tempting to stop at a large tourist mega-store (not for me, but for some people) instead look for small shops or stalls with products made by people who live in the region. I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that most of the “local arts and crafts” found in the popular souks actually had “Made in China” stickers affixed to them a few hours earlier. Also make an effort to meet people who live in the area and learn more about them and their lives. This isn’t as hard as one would think; talking about oneself is a universally adored hobby.
It may not always be possible to be a sustainable, green traveler, but with some small tweaks in your travel routine, it is possible to be a little more responsible as you trek around the world.
What are your green travel tips?