The travel industry has come a long way from the days when a more responsible style of tourism was represented in the mantra of the 1980s socks-and-sandals eco-traveller: “Take only memories, leave only footprints”.
Nowadays, sustainable travel is mainstream. Key in the words ‘responsible’, ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ plus ‘holiday’ into any search engine, and you’ll be met with thousands of results, from remote eco lodges and boutique hideaways to city centre hotels and adventure holidays.
That’s not just because there are more niche operators in the market, but because mainstream accommodation owners and tour operators are increasingly keen to demonstrate how their businesses are minimising their impact on the environment, and how travelling with them can have positive local, cultural and economic ramifications.
Here we reveal our top 10 tips for going green while travelling:
01 Choose low-carbon travel
Most forms of motorised transport emit carbon, but it’s easy to make greener choices, thanks to the variety of low-emission, hybrid and electric vehicles now available. If you’re hiring a car, look out for vehicles that have lower carbon emissions and higher fuel-efficiency ratings, such as those in the Hertz ‘Green Collection’ or ‘Green Cars’ by Avis and Europcar. Better still, share the space; the more people in the car, the more environmentally efficient your journey.
For mass transport, travelling by bus is usually the greenest way to travel, followed by the train and ferry.
02 Stay green
If a hotel owner is environmentally aware, it’s increasingly likely they’ll provide a higher quality stay, too. As well as the classic low-impact eco lodges and glampsites of treehouses, domes and yurts, there are many upmarket places to stay that have impressive eco credentials.
Look out for those that have been certified by a recognised eco-labelling scheme, such as the Green Tourism Business Scheme in the UK, the European Eco Label and Green Key in Europe, LEED in the US and Travelife worldwide. They send out trained auditors to assess a company’s green credentials, based on a range of criteria, from energy efficiency to waste management.
In addition, look out for the new ‘GreenLeaders’ badge on TripAdvisor listings. This gives detailed information on the hotel’s eco initiatives.
03 Join the sharing economy
If you want to get to the cultural heart of your destination, there are few more direct ways than staying in someone’s home. Living with, or like, a local means you’re more likely to experience the city as they do — shopping in local shops, eating in small, independent restaurants or supper clubs, and making friends in the local community rather than simply ticking off the big sights.
04 Find produce with provenance
How easy is it to book a self-catering cottage and then do a quick, plastic-bag laden supermarket sweep en route, or on your first morning? Next time, why not order from a local online grocer and support local producers. Try Local Food Direct in Somerset, Norfolk Food Heroes and Cornish Food Market for starters.
If you’re eating out, look for restaurants that have been vetted by the Sustainable Restaurant Association, whether you’re after an all-organic experience or a menu that’s local and seasonal. The Marine Conservation Society has also produced a handy guide to sustainable seafood, with advice on avoiding endangered fish, such as bluefin tuna — visit fishonline.org.
05 Use local guides
Few people are better qualified to show you around a neighbourhood than someone who lives there. That applies as much to the Steppes of Asia and the dry savannah of East Africa as it does to downtown Manhattan.
Employing local guides is also a great way to ensure your holiday gives something back to the local community and it usually makes for a far more enriching experience. After all, the most inspiring person to take you on safari is likely to be a local guide whose ancestors have lived on the land for years, and no one understands the intricacies of wildlife better than local conservationists.
06 Book an ethical tour operator
Most reputable operators include some sort of ‘responsible travel’ policy, but it’s worth looking behind the marketing spin to see if the business is genuinely doing what it can to ensure your holiday puts something back into the destination.
Contributing to a philanthropic scheme can be very effective, but try also to choose companies that ensure that the trips themselves are low-impact and which feature locally owned hotels and homegrown guides.
A good place to start your research is the Ethical Tour Operators Group. The Association for Independent Tour Operators also offers an excellent rundown of operators’ community projects and initiatives.
07 Go Slow Travelling
Taking the train or bus within a country allows you to travel like a local and appreciate places en route that you’d otherwise miss if you took an internal flight. Exit through the main rail or bus station concourse and, instead of being bombarded with duty free and currency exchange, there’ll be buskers and bike racks.
Low-impact activities, such as canoeing and horse-riding, can also enable you to reach places you couldn’t otherwise get to. The best bits of the Norfolk Broads can only reached by boat; similarly, the best way to explore the islands off the west coast of Scotland or Thailand’s hidden lagoons is from the seat of a kayak.
Volunteering can be a rewarding way to see the world. But while the true impact of short-term voluntourism (where you just do a few hours of volunteering while on holiday) is controversial, taking part in longer term projects where you live and work with local people on scientific, conservation or development projects can have far-reaching benefits to the places you visit.
It’s an unregulated industry, so choose carefully. Tourism Concern’s Ethical Volunteering Group includes a range of credible organisations dedicated to maximising beneficial developmental impacts while ensuring volunteers have a worthwhile experience — such as the award-winning Blue Ventures, which places volunteers with marine research teams in the field, working closely with local communities.
09 Clean Up
If you want to give something back but don’t have the time for a long-term volunteering expedition, take part in one of the many voluntary initiatives that help clean up the fallout from tourism.
According to UK sustainable tourism charity The Travel Foundation, which is helping to co-ordinate beach clean-ups worldwide (makeholidaysgreener.org.uk), “There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating in our oceans. From cigarette ends and shopping bags, to crisp packets and bottles, the waste is unsightly and causes damage to marine wildlife.”
The Conservation Volunteers works with a network of 2,000 community groups to reclaim green spaces in the UK, while there are several options for voluntary clean-ups in Europe. Respect the Mountains arranges litter-picking days across the continent, while non-profit group Mountain Riders co-ordinates similar events specifically in the French mountains. In Switzerland, the Summit Foundation is working with volunteers to clear rubbish left during the winter ski season from mountain trails.
10 Provide feedback
Given the widespread use of the language of sustainability in tourism marketing, separating the green from the greenwash can be a minefield. It may seem trivial, but reporting back on review sites, such as TripAdvisor, or via social media, can provide invaluable information to help other sustainable travellers make more informed choices.
Richard Hammond is the founder of Greentraveller.co.uk.
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