You want to book an ecofriendly holiday, but so many travel brochures literally gloss over those thorny issues of environmental impact and 'giving something back'… Lots of hotels bill themselves as 'eco' when in practice the only green thing about them is the sign out the front.
So how do you tell the difference between the good guys and the greenwash? How do you ensure that your travel dollar contributes to assisting and sustaining the community you're visiting?
A good starting point is to check out an organisation's environmental policy. Tour operators, hotels and lodges that are genuine in their approach to responsible tourism will generally have a written policy covering their environmental impact, employment and cultural policy. Usually it will be posted on their website, but they should be able to show it to you in some written form. If they don’t, ask them why – by their response, you’ll be able to make a judgement call.
From here, the best way to separate green from greenwash is to ask a lot of questions. Here are some of the key questions to ask when choosing a tour operator or ecofriendly accommodation:
- What do they see are the key environmental issues facing them and how are they dealing with them? For example, how does their recycling work? How do they minimise the impact of their tours on walking trails and villages and wilderness areas? How do they avoid overcrowding?
- Do they employ local guides and leaders? Many international tour operators still primarily use Western leaders. In some countries, such as Thailand, this is actually illegal. While there are situations where a Westerner’s expertise can’t be sourced locally, in most cases, you’ll get a far better insight into the places you’re visiting if you’re shown around by someone who was born there and knows it like the back of their hand.
- What training opportunities do they provide for their staff, at all levels? Are guides trained in responsible tourism practices, eg approaching wildlife and camp-site etiquette? Are they able to interpret the landscape and culture effectively for their clients?
- Does the company limit the size of its groups to minimise impact and maximise interaction with the host community?
- Has the company been invited to visit the villages, or build the hotel by the local people themselves? Are the locals happy to have them there?
- Do they have a 'green' purchasing policy? What proportion of their produce, building materials, services etc are sourced from the immediate local area? What is their fair trade policy?
- What sort of accommodation do they use? Is it family-owned and how environmentally sustainable is it? For example, many trekking lodges are still burning forests to provide food and hot showers for tourists. Kerosene and solar power are alternative energy sources.
- What proportion of revenue remains in, or reverts to the local community? (On a lot of 'all-inclusive' packages, the answer is 'very little')?
- Do they work with any local charities or conservation projects, or have they initiated any projects of their own? What are they doing to 'give back to the community'?
Finally, in the immortal words of Kermit the frog: 'it’s not [always] easy being green'. So if an operator is getting it right, they’ll be proud of it. Ask them what their biggest successes have been: a project started, a milestone met. From the true believers – the best practitioners – you’ll hear heart-warming stories of philanthropy, partnerships, pride and passion.
And the best thing is, these principles infuse all aspects of the travel service they provide – and that means your experience, too.
Want a feelgood travel experience? Head over to lonelyplanet.com and read up on the top 10 sustainable holidays.