Choosing an Ideal Green Vacation

What it really takes to be a sustainable tourist

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Choosing an ideal vacation isn't easy. The choice gets harder if you try to make it environmentally sound. And if you also bring in ethical concerns—such as whether you're hurting the local economy by staying in a foreign-owned hotel, or creating demand for low-paying jobs—then you're on course for never going anywhere.

The debate about environmentally responsible tourism began about a decade ago, fired by travelers' anger at seeing fragile traditional cultures commercialized, and nostalgia-soaked, idyllic locations smothered by garish hotel complexes and visited by—God forbid—tourists.

The green tourism cliche's—such as 'take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints'—quickly wore thin and did little to address key issues. Co-option of land and water in destination areas are two of the most frequent problems, but phrases such as 'stay in hotels without swimming pools' and 'make sure local farmers are paid a fair price for their land' don't roll off the tongue so smoothly.

Tourism is the world's largest industry. By 2010, we can expect 1 billion people to spend $1.5 trillion annually on travel—nearly four times the current figure, according to the World Tourism Organization. In the face of such pressure, campaigners and concerned tourists alike are scrambling to pronounce ecotourism, the industry's fastest-growing sector, as the dream solution. But it's debatable what the term means beyond the marketing hype. It doesn't mean simply traveling in small groups to areas of great beauty and ecological riches, which can cause greater environmental damage than the more traditional sojourn to Costa del Sol.

The Ecotourism Society offers this definition: 'responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.' Such initiatives are, almost by definition, small-scale, but together small operators have collective power. And many are optimistic. 'The age of the sophisticated ecotraveler is dawning,' says Megan Epler Wood, president of the Vermont-based organization. 'In response, professional ecotourism is having an explosion of creativity and is generating unprecedented demand.'

'We're evidence that you can make a profit and stick to good ethical and environmental procedures,' adds Will Webber, director of Michigan-based Journeys International, which sends about 2,500 customers to 45 destinations every year. But organizations that become large, he says, 'either die or start operating something other than ecotourism. Past a certain size you can't work with local communities in a sensitive way.'

Many question whether sustainable ecotourism is a practical goal. Constant community liaison, sensitive planning, and educationally focused small-group tours are time-consuming -- and not cheap. Hence the reluctance of bigger players to define themselves as ecotourism operators. Many smaller operators are also cautious: 'I am thoroughly disillusioned with [the term] ecotourism,' says Jane Durham, director of UK-based operator Okavango Tours and Safaris. She adds a blunt rider: 'No, we do not have an environmental or social policy—we want to make money.'

'We would never use the term ecotourism,' says Noel Josephides, managing director of Sunvil Holidays, also based in the UK. 'We try to have as little impact as possible and do what we can for the countries we operate in, but we wouldn't be so arrogant as to say we're ecofriendly. It's a tiny proportion—maybe half of 1 percent—who could really say they have a minimal impact.'

Major companies that do declare themselves ecofriendly still face problems satisfying the ethical, as well as environmental, part of the equation. The award-winning Taj Group of Hotels, a member of the International Hotels Environment Initiative, has adopted the mantra 'reduce, reuse, recycle' with evangelical zeal. Widely recognized as a leader in the search for more sustainable tourism, it aims to 'protect and preserve the culture and identity of local people, and ensure that they benefit from tourism in a way that preserves their culture and environment.'

Last year, however, the Taj found itself at the center of a classic community versus business battle. Local tribal people—the 29,000-strong Adivasis, who feared losing forest access rights—opposed Taj's plans to build a resort in Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka state, India. The Adivasis won in court. 'The Taj definitely has not come to protect the environment and the Adivasis,' said one. 'Taj wants to make money. We don't really trust them. They are bringing nontribal culture, urban culture, to our society, which will destroy us and ruin our resource base.'

Brian Bashin Hallett, the Taj Group's environmental coordinator, insists that this is not true. 'We assembled a specialized team of environmentalists who surveyed the site and proposed a list of recommendations,' he says. 'We proposed steps that would ensure that the local tribal community benefited from the project, including improved access to clean drinking water and sanitation, erection of a school, and development of the traditional skill of wild-bee-keeping into a sustainable economy for the tribes. In addition, we promised to give a portion of the profits back to the tribes for forest protection.' In doing so, Taj was far exceeding the industry norm and could, with some justification, expect to receive bouquets rather than brickbats. But the Adivasis retorted that their concern was not environmental management or a cut of the profits but indigenous control over their land, resources, and culture.

London-based Tourism Concern believes any ecotourist initiative needs to have 'fair trade' at its heart—and adds that this can confer a clear competitive advantage. 'Experience with commodities like tea and coffee show that fair trade is definitely a growth market,' says spokesperson Angela Kalisch. 'Consumers are increasingly looking for an ethical product as well as a good one.'

Unfortunately, tourism is not just one product; it is a whole range of services. It's hardly surprising that larger tour operators, such as British Airways, are more inclined to address environmental and social issues by offering support to nongovernmental organizations operating in their destinations. Safari operators Abercrombie and Kent set up a charity, Friends of Conservation, to help protect East Africa's wildlife and support community projects; it is now aided by 20 other big players.

To tribal peoples evicted for tourism development, however, such actions smack of tokenism. 'We don't want the financial crumbs of these operators; we want our land back,' says Kitilai ole Ntutu, son of the chief of all Kenyan Masai. 'We want to benefit directly from tourism. At the moment, we don't receive a penny of the profits.'

This comment goes to the core of the ecotourist dilemma. On average, 70 percent or more of the profits from tourism in developing countries are 'lost' to foreign ownership. It's a rule of thumb that as a country becomes a more established tourist destination, the proportion of revenues that are exported goes up. To combat this, ecotour operators emphasize the importance of buying accommodations, supplies, and other services directly from local people. Local people in some tourist destinations are starting to take matters into their own hands. Communities from Gambia to Hawaii and the Solomon Islands have formed coalitions of locally owned tourism businesses in order to gain more environmental and economic control.

'We must have fairer tourism,' says Gambian Adama Bah, publisher of Concern magazine, sold to tourists on the beach. The magazine explains why tourism needs to change and offers practical and cultural information.

Gambia, like many developing-country destinations, is seeing the growth of 'all-inclusive resorts'—a sure death knell to the local economy, says Adama. 'If all-inclusives continue, local people will be alienated more and more. We have to encourage tourists to spend more money locally, and we have to import less and support local agriculture more. There's nothing idealistic about this—it is our only way out.'

15 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Plan a Trip:

Why am I taking this trip?

What environmental impact will I have on the country I visit?

What natural resources will I consume getting to and from the country?

Will I be supporting a repressive regime by traveling to this country?

Is my tour operator committed to strong ethical and environmental standards?

Who owns the hotel where I will stay?

Will my tastes increase the demand for food, goods, and services from my homeland?

What will I leave behind?

Will my purchases support the local economy?

Were local people forced out to make room for tourist development?

Have I educated myself about local customs and culture?

Does my presence create or improve local jobs?

How will my presence influence young people?

Will I have an opportunity to involve myself in the local community?

After I return home, what will I do with my experiences?

From Green Futures (March/April 1998).