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Natural Awakenings National

Eco-Travel: Take the High Road: How to make a difference on your trip

Mar 01, 2007 08:33PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Whether we call it green travel, eco-travel or eco tourism, the experience of traveling with a social or environmental conscience offers us limitless opportunities for meaningful life experiences and personal growth. It’s also a growing trend. Recently, the American Hotel & Lodging Association identified 43 million “environmentally minded domestic travelers” who sought significant cultural interchange and new ways to help the planet while traveling.

The opportunities are as varied as the people who seek them. We can elect to color our travel green via geo-tourism, responsible tourism, sustainable tourism or community-based tourism. We can even choose to take a trip as a traveling philanthropist or goodwill ambassador.

Travel on Purpose

In The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, author Phil Cousineau reveals the rewards awaiting those who travel “with a sense of purpose.” In his book, more than 100 vignettes from Cousineau’s lifetime of pilgrimage show how simple acts of intention and attention can “transform even a sleepwalking trip into a soulful journey.”

Cousineau says that physical, emotional and spiritual rewards come when we practice even a few principles of “responsible stewardship.” Conscious travelers get a visceral kick out of patronizing businesses that conserve resources, shun overdevelopment, and apply limits and management techniques designed to sustain natural habitats, heritage sites, local culture and scenic appeal.

Such an approach goes well beyond nature travel. It seeks to add to the well being of both residents and visitors. Geo-tourism in particular seeks to sustain and enhance a unique “sense of place”—the mix of unspoken character, environment, culture, aesthetics and heritage that distinguish a location.

A Nigerian folk-saying holds that “The day on which one starts out is not the time to start one’s preparations.” Cognoscenti agree that taking the time to learn about a destination before embarking makes the journey more memorable.

Being open to unexpected delights on the journey is another way to get the most out of our travels. In the words of 20th century American poet Muriel Rukeyser, “The Universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Rukeyser understands that we often build our liveliest memories from golden nuggets of conversational pleasantries, offbeat remarks and casual exchanges with those we meet on our trips.

Expansive Horizons

The form of eco-tourism dubbed community-based tourism is the fairly recent brain-child of and Conservation International. These journeys afford travelers meaty opportunities to interact with the community life of remote tribes and villages. Both visitors and locals can benefit from an experience that helps to break down perceived boundaries between peoples, cultures and lifestyles. These community-centric programs also spark and help fund local employment, education, earth-friendly development, and conservation initiatives.

Conservation International currently works in more than 40 countries, helping indigenous peoples to establish economically viable practices that are less harmful to their natural environment. As an online travel agent, offers holidays that are designed to benefit local people and their environment. “The market for more responsible holidays is growing quickly,” observes Justin Francis of “Our business has doubled in each of the past three years.”

Eco-wise travelers understand that taking trains, buses and bicycles instead of cars and planes can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Statistics show that air travel alone contributes as much as five percent of total global emissions. Even a typical domestic flight releases 1,700 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per passenger into the atmosphere. Something as simple as taking public transportation to and from airports, at home and abroad, can help to cut the load.

Today, more travelers also are purchasing carbon offsets through organizations like Climate Care, which direct offset fees into renewable energy projects aimed to neutralize, or offset, traveler’s current use of polluting fossil fuel. For example, a cross country domestic roundtrip flight from Miami to Los Angeles carries a $15 carbon offset fee. Voluntarily paying this helps the planet and enables us to travel guilt-free.

Once we know what to look for, we discover many ways to make our travel less hurtful and more helpful.

Be Aware

If eco-travel appeals to you, it helps to be savvy about potential misuse of the term, and misleading marketing.
“Much of what’s touted as eco, sustainable or responsible travel is no more than spruced up conventional tourism with a public relations spin,” says Claire Hendrie, customer services manager for Green Globe Asia Pacific and Green Globe International. “It helps to read the small print, do your homework, ask questions, and look for certification and approval seals from recognizable organizations such as Green Globe.”

The trend toward spending travel dollars consciously is catching on in many countries. In its recent report on travel trends in the UK, Responsible reports that where there is an “ethical alternative,” demand for responsible travel can zoom ahead of conventional avenues by as much as 500 percent. Vacation planners worldwide are waking up to the fact that patronizing hotels and airlines with an environmental agenda is casting a vote for change. Travelers have it in their power to revolutionize the industry by using “green” hotels that implement water- and energy- saving measures and reduce solid waste. Additionally, guests can tell the housekeeping staff that changing towels and sheets daily is unnecessary. Turning off the lights, TV, and air conditioners in a room when exiting also conserves energy, as does leaving behind unopened bottles of amenities, or taking opened bottles home to finish off and recycle.

When it comes to purchasing vacations, we can effect social change by choosing travel and tour companies that practice the most recent form of ethical travel, known as travelers’ philanthropy. Here, travel businesses pledge a percent of profits and/or goods and services to support local schools, health clinics and orphanages in host countries.

Restful Alternatives

If, like Dorothy from Kansas, you believe that “there’s no place like home,” you may find that the best vacation is the one spent leisurely around the house, or exploring neighborhood delights. Ignoring the “to do” list and striking out for nearby destinations and local attractions can be both energizing and surprisingly nurturing. Costs are often reasonable, and there’s no re-entry jetlag or recuperating from different time zones before heading back to work.

Sometimes, a quick getaway for a weekend’s respite can be more refreshing than a vacation far from home. Opting for the low-impact lodging of a green spa, or an area bed and breakfast that adheres to the best practices of green travel, can be elegant, ethical fun.

Of course, regardless of where or how often we choose to travel, true eco-tourism always begins at home. Before dashing off to any adventure, we can remember to lower the AC/heat and hot water thermostats, unplug appliances, and turn off the icemaker. Upon arriving at our destination, the first rule of responsible travel continues to apply: “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.”

Along the way we discover the larger picture of our place in the world, and gain respect for those with whom we share it. And we can change our behavior as tourists, so that we leave with new awareness, fond memories, a clear conscience, and appreciation for the words of writer Aldous Huxley, who said, “I wanted to change the world, but I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.”


Traveler Services
Green alternative to AAA. One percent of revenue is donated to environmental cleanup. Hybrid owners get a 20 percent savings.
Publishes Healthy Highways traveler’s guide to eating healthy in any of 1,900 healthy eateries and natural food stores in the U.S. Offers state maps and directions.
Customizes safari itineraries for socially responsible travelers.
Eco-friendly and socially responsible spas offering holistic services.
Lists organizations useful in planning eco-holidays.
New Internet magazine and community offers insightful information on travel destinations plus education on tourism issues.
Cutting edge travel companies team up to support projects in areas they visit.
Focuses solely on economic development. Provides a framework for human rights and just economics.
Small-group outdoor adventure travel ventures off the beaten track to the heart of a destination. Visitors meet the locals who call a place home.
Well-known travel groups offer insightful tours to places like the Australian bush or alternative spring breaks to Brazil.
Vegetarian/vegan/eco travel agency.
Covers sustainable travel and tourism. Worldwide benchmarking and certification for Green Globe destinations, resorts, accommodations, tours and rental cars. Has Green Travel Planner.
Directory of properties whose managers institute programs that conserve resources.
Healthy vacations in paradise for individuals interested in a healthier, more vibrant lifestyle.
Eco-tourism operators and information.
Responsible travel, ecotourism, adventure and family holidays more than 200 carefully screened tour companies and hundreds of accommodations.
Green lodging for the health conscious and chemically sensitive.
Addresses the needs of tourism providers, tourism consumers and local residents.
Promotes responsible travel and ecotourism, supports sustainable development and helps travelers and travel providers protect the cultures and environments visited.
The Ethical Travel Guide: Your Passport to Alternative Holidays Lists 300 places to visit and stay in 60 countries. Handy 10-point Avoid Guilt Trips guide helps travelers make a stand for what they believe in.
Specializes in dive and adventure travel to intriguing and appealing destinations.
UnTours provides a deeper way of experiencing Europe.
International cooperative system of family hosts and travelers are helping to build world peace and understanding through opportunities for contact among people of diverse cultures.
Information on how to travel with minimal impact. All providers and sponsors here are committed to supporting sustainable tourism.

Environmental Services
Website calculates carbon emissions and invests in carbon offset projects.
Makes carbon offsets simple.

Educational Resources
Conducts responsible tourism workshops. Offers educational materials for students traveling abroad.
This global network of practitioners, institutions and individuals are helping to integrate environmental and socially responsible principles into everyday practice.
Rounds up domestic and international destinations, partners, and best practices information on the why, how and what of green travel.
Links people with green travel resources and ideas to minimize their ecological impact and manage social impacts while traveling.
Information on GeoTourism and sustainable tourism.

Rethinking Tourism & EcoTravel
Deborah McLaren, director of Indigenous Tourism Rights International, gives a worldwide overview of the tourism industry and alternative travel in her book.
An emerging voluntary movement of civic-minded travelers and travel businesses gives financial resources, time and talent to further the well-being of their host communities.

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