Choosing an Ideal Green Vacation

What it really takes to be a sustainable tourist


| July/August 1998



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.'