Into the green: eight destinations for an eco-friendly escape

Deciding to adopt a sustainable tourism ethos doesn’t mean vowing never to take another flight or to only travel to off-the-radar locales. Instead, invest your wanderlust in places that are rolling out initiatives to minimise the impact of tourism on the environment.

In many ways travel can be a force for good, so kick-start your eco-friendly escape with one of these dynamic destinations doing their bit for sustainability; from hotels committed to reducing energy consumption, to pioneering tours and activities designed to give back to local communities and help wildlife thrive.

A view over Lake Garda in Italy. The photo is taken from a height and shows red-tiled rooftops circling around the still lake. The sun is breaking through some fluffy clouds and rolling green mountains are visible in the background through light mist. Get the glamour of Italy's lakes while giving back to the environment at Lake Garda © Lukasz Szwaj / Shutterstock

Lake Garda, Italy

While the lavish shores of Lake Como may attract high-profile celebrities like George Clooney, when it comes to A-list environmentally-friendly hotspots, bigger is better! Not only does Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, have a direct rail connection from Milan, allowing visitors to leave their cars at home (or in the rental depot), it is also home to one of the country’s greenest hotels.

The beautiful Lefay Resort and Spa offsets 100 percent of its CO2 emissions, and 60 percent of its energy comes from renewable sources. Hi-tech design materials minimise heat and energy dispersion, and the roof is covered with vegetation to reduce sight pollution and promote local flora and fauna. Feeling guilty about the flight you hopped on to get to Milan? De-stress with a massage at the spa, the first in Italy to be given Ecocert’s Ecological Spa certificate.

A suite at Hotel Valsana. The walls are painted a deep green and have a worn effect. A glass chandelier hangs from the high ceiling in front of a modern fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows. There are cozy furnishings mixed with modern wooden furniture. Eco-warrior Hotel Valsana is the jewel in the crown of an already eco-friendly town © Hotel Valsana

Arosa, Switzerland

Arosa is home to Hotel Valsana, Switzerland’s first hotel to be heated by an 'ice battery' – an energy recovery system which reuses surplus heat energy that would otherwise have been lost to the surrounding environment. This charming alpine resort village is helping the environment in other ways, too. Several hotels have electric car charging points, and there’s even a charging point in the centre of town that is free to use.

The area has also been given Alpine Pearl status – recognising its ‘green mobility’ and eco-conscious practices – by the tourism association of the same name. This EU-funded organisation was set up to promote and support communities going above and beyond when it comes to sustainable tourism.

The lobby of the Pikaia Lodge on the Galapagos Islands. The room is mostly shades of cream, beige and brown. There are fans hanging from the ceiling above a stone-tiled floor and plush beige-cushioned couches with dark-wood frames. The lobby of the Pikaia Lodge on the Galapagos Islands © LunaseeStudios / Shutterstock

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

A visit to the remote Galápagos Islands tops many people’s bucket list, but this same isolation, though incredibly attractive to travellers, can also require a motorcade of gas-guzzling transport options to get there. The good news? Several properties – such as the Pikaia Lodge – are going all out to protect this fragile environment and offset the environmental cost of getting there.

Believe it or not, this innovative carbon-neutral hotel is made with steel, chosen due to the ease with which it can be recycled. The walls are covered with lava stone collected from areas approved by the Galápagos National Park Service and the doors and furniture are made from sustainable teak. The hotel has its own reforestation programme (10,000 endemic trees have been planted so far), and water comes from rooftop rain harvesting systems.

The majority of tour operators here come with environmentally-conscious credentials, but be sure to do your research before booking and, where possible, travel in a small group so as to have as little impact on the wildlife and natural environment as possible.

Munjack Cay with bay and beach in Abaco, Bahamas. The image shows a narrow strip of land edged with pristine white sand with lush greenery in the center and surrounded by clear blue sea water. Organic products, solar energy and conservation efforts are helping to protect the Bahamas stunning natural assets © pics721 / Shutterstock

The Bahamas

A number of Bahamas properties are taking a more proactive approach to protecting the environment. Take Kamalame Cay on Andros island, which encourages guests to dine on lionfish (an invasive species which preys on indigenous fish and disrupts the local ecosystem) or The Other Side hotel, which is entirely solar-powered.

At Tiamo Resort, all products used are carefully vetted to minimise the risk of pollution, with rooftop solar panels used to help heat water. And to ensure continued support of local communities, the Tiamo Resort recruits all of its employees from the Bahamas.

The Pangulasian Island Resort in the Philippines. An image taken from the water shows a thatched roof property facing a white sand beach in front of lush greenery. There are some small white boats in the water and mountains in the distance. Pangulasian Island Resort in the Philippines © jennagenio / Shutterstock

Pangulasian Island, Philippines

Pangulasian Island in the Philippines is a paradisiacal bolthole for those in search of an eco-friendly escape. This private island resort is dedicated to supporting the local people through economic initiative. One such enterprise is teaching local women the traditional art of weaving, the products of which are then bought by and sold at the hotel.

There is also a wide-reaching nature conservation programme which oversees twice-monthly coastal clean-ups, measures to protect against illegal fishing, the installation of Eco Reefs (to help resuscitate damaged marine environments) and mooring buoys (to avoid continued anchor damage on coral reefs) as well as a turtle conservation programme. Join in the efforts to protect new-born hatchlings as they make their first dash for the ocean and further your knowledge with an expert-led talk on wildlife and conservation.

And to keep this ecosystem in and of itself thriving, the staff here are also encouraged to submit proposals for environmentally-friendly initiatives, which are then trialled by the resort.

Weissensee Lake, Austria. A photo taken from the water shows the still lake with a green canoe with two people on it. On the other shore of the lake we can see houses with peaked roofs and a church steeple peeking out from numerous coniferous trees and rolling green hills with a dense forest on them. Weissensee Lake, Austria © Sergio Delle Vedove / Shutterstock

Werfenweng, Weissensee, Styria and Vienna, Austria

Werfenweng is a beautiful lakeside town which is changing the face of sustainable tourism. Anyone arriving at the train station (visitors are encouraged to leave their cars at home), can make use of a complimentary pick-up service, and for €10 can purchase a SAMO pass, granting you access to a fleet of green vehicles from e-cars to novelty buggies and bikes.

And Werfenweng isn’t alone. In Weissensee, Hotel Gralhof relies on a green energy wood chip heating system and has a fully organic kitchen, and the Styrian holiday resort of Ramsau operates the Ramsau Bioniere initiative, a selection of hotels, farms and guesthouses that display a commitment to reducing waste and energy consumption and championing organic produce.

Vienna is proof that being a green capital city needn’t involve compromising culture – in 2019, the Mercer Study voted it the world’s most liveable city. There are 2000 parks in the city, and the new Green Taxi scheme saw 370 hybrid and gas-powered taxis rolled out. Vienna also has more organic farmland than any other city (over 800 hectares and three city farms), 120 bike share stations and a network of cycling trails totalling 1300 kilometres.

A tunnel through Cardona's salt mines. The tunnel is lit by small lamps coming from the sides, it is mostly brown and white. Head into an otherworldly landscape in Cardona's former salt mines © Maria Avvakumova / Shutterstock

Catalonia, Spain

Catalonia is the first entire region to obtain the Biosphere Responsible Tourism certification, a scheme backed by Unesco and the GTSC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council), in recognition of the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature in this region. And it’s easy for visitors to go green here; look for businesses with an EU Ecolabel, a certificate which spotlights environmentally-friendly, high-quality products and services.

Some of the region's most outstanding attractions include various former coal, lead and salt mines that have been turned into renewed cultural and environmental areas. Walk in the fossilised footsteps of dinosaurs in the old open-air coal mines of Fígols-Vallcebre Fumanya, now a designated palaeontology site. Another great area is the Cardona Salt Mountain Cultural Park; after the mine closed in the 1990s the park now offers visitors the chance to learn about the region's unique natural geology.

Coffee being poured from a copper kettle through a fine-knit net with a beautiful valley view in the background Next on the green agenda for Costa Rica, coffee © Karla Ferro / Shutterstock

Costa Rica

Costa Rica aims to become the world’s first carbon neutral country, and it’s on track to achieve this by 2021. Almost all of its electricity comes from renewable resources, and the UN was so impressed with conservation efforts that it made the country’s former president, Luis Guillermo Solís, a special ambassador to their World Tourism Organisation.

His next project is an environmentally friendly makeover of the world’s favourite caffeine fix – coffee. It’s Costa Rica’s biggest export, but also the biggest source of CO2 emissions. The Coffee Institute of Costa Rica has joined forces with the Ministry of Agriculture to develop a process which traps gas produced by decomposing coffee waste and uses it to power combustion engines.

This article was first published December 2018, last updated August 2019.

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