Green Travel Made Easy

Ten easy ways to be a better traveler
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Green Travel Made Easy
Picking up trash on the beach in Cornwall, England  (James Hardy/PhotoAlto Agency RF/Getty Images)

Let's hear it for green travel: The movement has graduated from the domain of thatched huts and composting toilets to infiltrate virtually every facet of the vacation experience. Rental-car companies now stock Priuses, high-rise hotels have slapped solar panels on their roofs, and resort towns like Aspen are working to become carbon-neutral by building renewable energy sources.

But whatever you call it—responsible journeys, ecotourism, sustainable travel—going green isn't just about recycling and hanging up your towels at the hotel. Green travel also promotes cultural preservation and contributes to healthy local economies. Still, according to a survey done by the U.S. Travel Association and Ypartnership, less than one in ten American travelers are willing to pay even 5 percent more for travel services committed to the environment. Why?

"I think it seems like a challenge for the consumer to be a discerning buyer," says Ayako Ezaki, communications director for the International Ecotourism Society. But with more companies going green and more organizations and websites that point travelers in the right direction, doing the right thing has never been easier. It doesn't take much to have a positive impact. Get started with these ten tips.

1. Find a destination you want to help.

The old truism "money talks" applies to travel, too: When travelers choose destinations, they support the people who live there.

"People don't realize that the little things are what adds up," says Robert Reid, the U.S. editor for Lonely Planet. "And sometimes by just choosing to go to a place, you're still helping." Reid, for example, went to Florida's Gulf Coast soon after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He found that many towns and cities were hit harder by the drop in tourism than by the tar balls themselves—and that he received a profound welcome as one of the few visitors.

Though it's not always wise to fly to the heart of a disaster-hit area, the mere presence of travelers—and their cash—can aid the long recovery process. Also consider visiting communities that are working to launch sustainable tourism projects rather than always opting for tried-and-true destinations. Organizations like Sustainable Travel International, Conservation International, the International Ecotourism Society, and United Kingdom-based Responsible Travel offer resources that inform travelers of up-and-coming locales where their support could make a difference.

2. Ask questions.

It can seem overwhelming to sift through the glut of tour operators and hotels that slap those three magic letters—"e-c-o"—in front of their names. But it's not hard to discern those who are legitimate. It starts with a few simple, open-ended questions.

"Each of us is a small-scale activist," says Hitesh Mehta, a prominent eco-lodge designer and author of Authentic Ecolodges. "Whenever you are looking for a place to stay, ask a few questions, like: ‘Do you have a recycling system?'; ‘How are you conserving water?'; and ‘How are local communities benefiting from the money I'm giving you guys?' " That doesn't just go for hotels and lodges, but for guides and tour operators as well.

There are no tried-and-true right answers: You may hear about water-saving low-flow fixtures, organic gardens, solar panels, supporting local schools, or other initiatives. The important part is that there is an effort—and in asking, you're showing the business that those efforts are important to customers.

3. Learn something new.

Green travel and sustainable tourism can be as easy and rewarding as learning to salsa dance. Taking a class while traveling—be it weaving, language, or dancing—funnels money into local economies and sends a message to residents that their traditions and language have value that is worth preserving.

"There are travelers who are curious about the world and travelers who are curious about themselves," says M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy. "If you keep your curiosity up, you will be a better traveler, you'll come back with a richer experience, and you'll increase your chances of having a positive impact."

4. Eat smarter (and we don't mean tofu).

A good rule of thumb for eating abroad is to have what the locals are having. In other words, don't ask for chicken parm when your hosts are slurping beef pho. Not only will you get a better sense of the culinary culture, you'll avoid consuming costly imports. Another good general rule is to avoid eating critters that are threatened or endangered—shark-fin soup and exotic bush meat in Africa are no-nos—and to try to eat locally grown items when possible. When canoeing through the Amazon, for example, you'll probably be downing a lot of chicha (a fermented sweet-potato drink).

"Eat low on the food chain," adds The Nature Conservancy's Sanjayan. "Anything that can eat you probably wouldn't be good. Keep things like sharks and animals that have a slow reproductive cycle, like bottom fish that live for 40 or 50 years, off your dinner plate." Organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Marine Stewardship Council publish lists of fish that are suitable to eat. Sustainable Table offers more general guidelines on eating sustainably. Most important, no one expects you to be an expert—when in doubt, ask.

5. Buy better souvenirs.

There is no shortage of mass-manufactured souvenirs and T-shirts even at spots that are the tiniest speck on the tourist map. But travelers who seek out locally made items often find unique souvenirs at better values—and in purchasing them encourage local crafts.

"You'll often meet the artist and know that money is going to go into the local economy," says Brian Mullis, CEO of Sustainable Travel International. Mullis suggests looking for items made of readily available local materials or even recycled items, but to avoid rare wood and animal products. Though in some countries bargaining is a sport in which to engage, try to avoid too-aggressive haggling.

Published: 14 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 6 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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