Holistic Travel: Eco-Savvy Ways to See the World

What Is Eco-Tourism

Ask any seasoned traveler for an example of an "eco-friendly" destination and nine times out of ten he'll point you in the direction of Costa Rica. The tiny Central American country has become the poster child of the eco-tourism movement—and with good reason. Around 25 percent of the country resides in protected parkland, its domestic airline Nature Air was the world's first zero-emissions airline, and in February, the Costa Rican government announced a plan, which includes the tourism sector, to become the world's first carbon neutral country.

Unless you've been living in a cave for the last decade, you're aware of the ascendancy of environmental issues in the global consciousness. Al Gore is more a media personality than a politician and green is the in-vogue color, and it has nothing to do with fashion trends or paint pallets at the hardware store.

"Greenness," if you will, has even permeated the realm of leisure and travel. People are now legitimately interested in being responsible, or "eco-friendly," travelers. But what exactly is eco-friendly travel?

Despite what lesser-committed hotel chains might tell you, being eco-friendly takes a little more than re-hanging your hotel-room towel so the housekeeper knows you'll use it again.

"Eco-friendly travel is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of the local people," explains Dave Sollitt, executive director of the International Ecotourism Society. Sollitt feels that the essence of eco-friendly travel is about finding the balance between human presence and human impact.

Finding that balance starts with education, and that goes beyond searching out a beachfront four-star hotel that's in the right price range. Being eco-friendly means asking eco-questions.

"The responsibility really falls on the consumer," says Brian Mullis, president of Sustainable Travel International, a non-profit organization that's developing an environment-friendly certification process for tourism providers.

"Ask the hotel you're looking at if they have a sustainability policy. Ask them how they are supporting conservation. Ask them if they are attempting to decrease and manage waste. These are basic questions they should easily be able to answer. If they can't answer them, then that's a message you need to pay attention to."

And while Costa Rica has been in the eco game since 1970, it's no longer carrying the eco-friendly flag on its own. From country-wide government initiatives to boat tour operators in the Galapagos Islands, and trekking outfitters in Laos to eco-conscious resort developers like the new Laredo Bay Resort on the Sea of Cortez, eco-friendly practices are being embraced and implemented across all levels of tourism. Even the decidedly corporate U.S.-based Marriott hotel chain is walking the walk.

"In general the United States has been slower to embrace eco-friendly practices," says Mullis. "But Marriott has been very progressive in taking a holistic approach to their operations, and looking at the impact of things like electricity consumption and waste management."

Ultimately, however, it is the demand generated by conscientious consumers that has caused the tourism industry to change so much so quickly. According to a survey conducted by the on-line travel company Orbitz, 67 percent of Americans say the eco-friendliness of a destination is important to them, while 63 percent said they would pay more to rent a hybrid vehicle or stay at a "green" hotel.

"This isn't just a fad. People are coming around to the notion that we really need to protect the earth's beautiful places," says Sollitt. "They are saying to themselves, I really enjoyed my experience and I want my children and my children's children to have a chance to have that same experience."

Published: 31 Aug 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »