Go green while you're traveling
A better breed of sustainable travel has emerged.
Wed, May 13, 2009 at 03:46 PM
Illustration: Heather Cassils
Ecotourism as we once knew it is dead. The word has been misused, trashed, slapped on anything with a patch of grass and a thatched roof. In its place, a better breed of sustainable travel has emerged. And while the backpacking and birdwatching set may have pioneered the art of low-impact tourism, everyone from rock stars to business travelers to luxury vacationers is now joining the eco-chic jet set. Concepts like the green urban boutique hotel and European ecotourism have debuted, and at the same time, unique projects linking conservation and indigenous community development are appearing in Southeast Asia and Latin America. We searched the planet for the best hotels, trips, trends, advice and up-and-coming destinations. Click on the next page to begin your journey through the new-and-improved world of green travel.
[NEXT: WHERE TO STAY >] [Header=Where to stay]
WHERE TO STAY
If the phrase “eco-friendly lodging” makes you think of primitive huts and bathrooms that make you want to head home, it’s time to ditch that notion. Innovative and comfortable options, from remote beach resorts to urban boutique hotels, now exist on six continents. Here, we introduce you to 10 of them.
Arenas del Mar Beach & Nature Resort
Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Hike through Carara National Park to scope scarlet macaws, or kayak through mangroves before a nap in a canopy bed cooled by the coastal breeze. The owners of this brand-new resort avoided using heavy equipment during construction, and built it with green materials like recycled plastic roof tiles. Rooms are outfitted with bamboo towels and solar hot-water heaters. Doubles from $190; arenasdelmar.com
Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa
American Canyon, California
California has taken the lead on climate-friendly hospitality by implementing a green-lodging incentive program, which may explain the gaggle of new green digs. One of the latest: Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa, in the heart of wine country. Its space-age design was constructed of reclaimed corrugated metal and sustainably harvested wood. Solar light tubes reduce the need for electricity, and a high-tech, energy-efficient ventilation system recirculates air to reduce the need for heating and cooling. Cheers to the designers for their appealingly warm, light, and airy interior. Doubles from $189; gaiahotelnapavalley.com
The touristy Mayan Riviera isn’t a hot spot for eco-conscious travelers—that’s why this luxury chain’s initiatives are so noteworthy. In addition to reducing waste and conserving energy and water at all its properties, its Mayakoba location, which opened last year, hired biologists to minimize the impact during construction, and Audubon International has recognized its golf course for its water conservation and wildlife corridors. Doubles from $279; fairmont.com/mayakoba
Biosfera Transfronteriza Andino Norpatagonia Reserve, Chile
By the time you make the three-plus-hour trip from the nearest airport to this secluded resort on the banks of Chilean Patagonia’s Lago Puelo Inferior, its warmly lit cabins, Mayan sweat lodge, and peaceful orchards will make you feel like you’ve arrived on another planet. The menu boasts fresh ingredients from the onsite organic farm and greenhouse. From $70 per person, including meals; ulaapatagonia.com
Orchard Garden Hotel
San Francisco, California
The Orchard Garden Hotel, which opened last November three blocks from San Francisco’s Union Square, is among a small group of American properties that prove planet-friendly accommodations can be chic. This sharp, 86-room boutique hotel has high-definition televisions, iPod docking stations, and open-air terraces. Its tony restaurant serves local and organic dishes; a key-card system reduces energy use in rooms; and housekeepers use biodegradable cleaning products. The hotel was built according to LEED standards, and building materials included recycled steel, glass and cement made from fly ash (a coal byproduct). Doubles from $169; theorchardgardenhotel.com
Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa
The developers of China’s first ecolodge (in the Nankun Shan Mountain Reserve) sought not only to protect the existing land, but to also enhance its health and embrace the local Keija community. A feng shui master helped design the 49-room lodge and spa that opened last year, to avoid disturbing the land. Construction relied heavily on indigenous bamboo, which grows quickly and thrives without the use of pesticides. The gardens boast lotuses, rice paddies, and organic vegetable patches, and the surrounding forest is home to owls, woodpeckers, and 176 species of butterflies. Doubles from about $300; 011-86-0752-769-3666
[NEXT: COMING SOON >] [Header=And coming soon ...]
AND COMING SOON...
Rosalie Bay Nature Resort
Rosalie’s beaches once attracted illicit turtle-egg hunters, but when this resort opens in December, tourists will watch the endangered reptiles lay eggs safely, with the help of a local conservation program. Fifteen guest rooms, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Morne Trois Piton National Park, will run on solar and wind energy and will feature a wetland wastewater treatment center. rosaliebaynatureresort.com
San Gregorio Hotel & Spa
Santa Elena Barillas, Guatemala
Opening above Guatemala’s Lake Amatitlán this November, San Gregorio Hotel will feature ten bungalows furbished with handmade Guatemalan artwork, a wine bar, juice bar, and spa. Organic cuisine, solar hot-water heaters, and drinking glasses made of recycled glass all attest to part of the resort’s environmental ethos. sangregoriospa.com
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Extreme skier Rob DesLauriers’s newest venture into the world of ski-in lodging—Hotel Terra—will open at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in December. It will feature 32 condos with Bose surround-sound systems and MP3 players typical of the swanky village. Not so typical: low VOC paints, double-paned windows, low-flow water fixtures, and renewable power. hotelterrajacksonhole.com
El Silencio Lodge & Spa
Bajos del Toro, Costa Rica
The owners of renowned eco Hotel Punta Islita in Costa Rica are putting their environmental sensibilities to work again with El Silencio (below), to open in November in the country’s central volcanic region. The 16 suites will run on small-scale, low-impact hydro energy, and sit on a small part of a 500-acre private forest reserve. elsilenciolodge.com
[NEXT: GREEN GETAWAYS >] [Header=Green getaways]
A slow float through Utah’s canyons. A meditative moment on the Tibetan Plateau. A chance encounter with a hawksbill sea turtle. We looked into dozens of adventures and picked eight of the most tempting, responsibly-planned, low-impact journeys from some of the most forward-thinking tour operators. Most of these companies offset their emissions, and many of them reinvest a portion of their profits in conservation groups and other nonprofits, or use their purchasing power to foster community development. Some do both. All go well beyond recycling soda cans in their commitment to sustainability. Prices are per person, double occupancy.
Meditate in tranquil monasteries, trek over high passes, and meet local shepherds on a 21-day odyssey to one of the world’s most remote places: the dry, starkly beautiful Tibetan plateau. Life in Ladakh still revolves around ancient agricultural ways and small villages, though you might spot a solar panel here or a small water turbine there, thanks to recent projects by international aid groups. KE Adventure offers several trips to Ladakh; this one, Zanskar’s Wild West, isn’t the most strenuous but does follow a hardy trade route over 12 days on foot. $2,295; 800-497-9675, keadventure.com
Standing on top of Mt. Kinabalu to watch the sun rise, lazing in jungle hot springs after a long trek, and spending a night in a traditional Malay village are all part of Intrepid Travel’s 22-day Borneo Adventure itinerary. On this jungle island, the company supports organizations that fight trade in illegal wildlife products and encourages villagers to live off the land without destroying it. The trip includes a look at conservation efforts—travelers visit hawksbill turtle nesting areas and an orangutan rehab center. From $1,322; 866-847-8192, intrepidtravel.com
Get up close and personal with Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest on GAP Adventures’s 16-day Inland & Amazon tour. You’ll stay with a family from the Quichua tribe, canoe the Napo River (an Amazon tributary), and ride horseback in the jungle that stretches over the Andean foothills. Most of the country’s visitors flock to the Galapagos Islands, so you’ll have the lush mainland rainforests largely to yourself, though the government is trying to change that situation by encouraging more community-based tourism with Amazon tribes. $795; 800-708-7761, gapadventures.com
Polar bears may be among the early casualties of climate change—and their plight may teach us something about ourselves. On Natural Habitat Adventures’s six-day Classic Polar Bear Expedition, scientists from the World Wildlife Fund discuss climate change and polar bear life, while guests, safe in buggies, watch mothers tend to cubs and giant males brawl. On these outings, the tundra appears stark, but careful observation also reveals Arctic foxes and hares. Come evening, the Northern Lights flare across the sky. $3,795; 800-543-8917, nathab.com
San Juan River, Utah
Use gravity as your motor on a six-day rafting trip down Utah’s San Juan River organized by OARS. This stretch of the river meanders through crimson cliffs along the northern border of Monument Valley, and the long glide is interrupted by occasional rapids as well as hikes to ancient cliff dwellings. At night, camp on sandy banks under a sky thick with stars. All outfitters in this region follow the rules of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, including limits on the number of rafters plying the river, but OARS stands out for its offsets program and contributions to conservation projects. $1,515; 800-346-6277, oars.com
After a disastrous experiment with large-scale, high-impact tourism, community-run lodges and services are now the norm in Kenya, and U.K.-based Journeys by Design arranges custom itineraries that sample some of the country’s best sustainable developments. A 12-day itinerary might start in a lava-rock lodge that sits amid fig orchards at Lake Naivasha; then move on to the Masai Mara, where millions of impala, zebra, buffalo, and wild cats roam the savanna; and culminate with a stay in a white-washed thatched cottage by the sea. From $4,894; 212-568-7639, journeysbydesign.co.uk
The South Island of New Zealand is a study of heady, pristine landscapes: farmsteads and charming towns, glacial lakes and misty mountains that drop precipitously to the sea. Adventure South’s Milford Wilderness bike tour takes you on a scenic ten-day journey from Christchurch to Milford Sound and back to Queenstown. Most days involve about six hours of cycling, but there’s time, too, for off-road hikes and a day in Queenstown reserved for more exhilarating pursuits, like bungee jumping and jet-boating. $2,792; 011-64-3-942-1222, adventuresouth.co.nz
The Nature Conservancy has worked with Panama’s indigenous communities for the past 22 years, training villagers to become guides and conservationists. The nonprofit now offers a peek behind the scenes on a ten-day trip jointly offered with Emerald Planet. Visitors amble the streets of the old colonial capital, spy exotic birds in a lush cloud forest, and kayak through mangrove swamps in a protected area established by the Conservancy. Staffers explain their work, while graduates of the program identify botanical wonders and introduce their guests to indigenous customs during village visits. $3,250; 888-883-0736, emeraldplanet.com
[NEXT: UP&COMING DESTINATIONS >] [Header=Up and coming desinations]
Since the idea of ecotourism first emerged some 20-odd years ago, its success has been measured by how it has spread around the world. Ventures that benefit local ecosystems and communities have taken hold everywhere from Panama to Gabon to the mountains of China’s Yunnan province. The notion of sustainability in travel is also moving beyond developing nations and natural settings, as industrialized countries bring green energy and good environmental sense to rustic parks, tony resorts, and even business hotels in major metropolitan areas. These six regions are at the vanguard of the new generation of planet-friendly travel.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
It shouldn’t be hard to lure tourists to this Balkan nation, which claims some of Europe’s last virgin forests, picturesque medieval villages, and the historic city of Sarajevo. Seven-year-old Green Visions (greenvisions.ba) is trying to bring visitors back to the war-fractured country, and to forge a link between tourism and conservation. Founded by aid workers, the nonprofit has published guidebooks to the region and helped train local people in organic agriculture, guiding, and preparing meals. The country still has a way to go—land mines buried in the forests make hiking guides mandatory—but Green Visions has already lured major tour operators like Intrepid Travel and Mountain Travel Sobek, which offers its first tour of the region in June.
Other parts of the world have nurtured standards for green travel, and soon at least one of the United States will join them. This year, Wisconsin will launch Travel Green Wisconsin (travelgreenwisconsin.com), a voluntary but rigorous environmental certification program. Almost any kind of facility—hotels, golf courses, and marinas, to name a few—may participate, provided it makes substantial efforts in areas ranging from water and energy conservation to wildlife management. Attractions will be rated on a point-based system, and must make improvements every year. The best thing about the program? It has spawned successors: This year, West Virginia will institute a similar pilot program.
With two UNESCO World Heritage sites, a dense rainforest, and a diverse array of peoples and cultures, Laos has a lot to show travelers (ecotourismlaos.com). The number of visitors has jumped from 14,000 in 1990 to nearly 900,000 in 2004. In response, the Laotian government has implemented a sustainable development policy to promote cutting-edge management practices in pilot projects. And with help from the Asian Development Bank, the country is organizing 20 community-based tourism projects along the wildly diverse Mekong River.
Ecotourism has long had a social agenda, but communities in northwest Ireland are pushing boundaries by erasing them. The nonprofit Greenbox Network (greenbox.ie) will unite businesses across the border that divides the island, and create its first green (figuratively speaking) destination in the process. The Greenbox region includes parts of Counties Sligo and Donegal in the South and County Fermanagh north of the border, where local artists and a surfeit of health-and-wellness offerings draw an avant-garde crowd. Participants must meet rigorous standards. Last year, 14 Greenbox members won the prestigious E.U. Eco Label; another 20 are working to earn the accolade this year.
Tourism in Rwanda may sound like a tough sell, but this central African country is rich in natural resources as well as vibrant folk traditions that have survived terrible tragedy. With the civil war over, the government has turned its attention to sustainable tourism (rwandatourism.com). Early next year, the country’s first ecolodge will open in Nyungwe National Park, home to a vast chimpanzee population. USAID recently awarded $4 million to reconstruct and improve the park.
Jordan may be adventure travel’s best-kept secret. Spectacular ruins dating back 2,500 years abound here, and now the kingdom is making strides in preserving its natural heritage, too. The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (rscn.org.jo) has plans to green facilities at the country’s major preserves, which include desert oases and rugged mountains that draw exotic species. Strategies will include everything from installing solar panels at the lodges to supplying mountain bikes and forging new hiking trails. The Society’s tour operator can arrange homestays in Bedouin communities, and a new ecolodge opened in the Azraq reserve in March. By 2009, the country will open the first five-star green lodge near Petra.
[NEXT: WHERE NOT TO GO >] [Header=Where not to go]
WHERE NOT TO GO
Though traveling the world in an environmentally responsible way gets easier every year, there are still some trips worth avoiding. Here’s the lowdown on a few perennially popular options.
Long lauded for pioneering small-scale ecotourism projects focused on conservation and sustainability, the West Virginia–sized Central American country now receives more than a million visitors a year. Tourism has become a billion-dollar industry, and some environmentalists worry that newer developments have placed profits before environmental protection.
Avoid: The Guanacaste Coast. Sprawling mega-resorts are popping up along a once-empty stretch of the northwest coastline.
Instead: Lapa Rios. Built by two former Peace Corps volunteers, this ecolodge practically defines the term and is surrounded by protected coastal rainforests and features bungalows built from local materials. laparios.com
The Yucatan Pennisula
A highly developed strip of hotels and mega-resorts covers about 80 miles of the peninsula’s northeast coast, but head a bit further south and encounter a rarely visited tropical forest steeped in Mayan history.
Avoid: Cancun. The Mexican government has forked over millions of dollars to rebuild beaches swept away during storms like Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The mangroves and other native plants that once helped to keep sand in place are long gone from this spring-break hot spot.
Instead: Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Just 90 miles south of Cancun, Sian Ka’an includes Mexico’s largest protected coastal wetland, plus a tropical forest spotted with Mayan ruins. Rare, a U.S.-based environmental organization does conservation work there, and eco-friendly tours of the 1.3 million acre reserve. siankaantours.org
Large ocean liners pump as many as 25,000 gallons of untreated sewage into the ocean each day. While more and more of these floating cities (some carrying as many as 5,000 people) are sailing the high seas, a number of smaller cruise lines now offer some environmentally-friendly alternatives.
Avoid: The big ones. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian have all been sued for environmental misdeeds, including illegal dumping of sewage and toxic chemicals.
Instead: The little ones. Cruise North Expedition, whose passengers number in the hundreds rather than the thousands, has local guides and an onboard naturalist to point out wildlife on their Canadian Arctic cruises. And Lindblad Expeditions works with groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and the National Geographic Society to promote conservation in some of the destinations they visit, including the Galapagos and the Nile. cruisenorthexpeditions.com; xpeditions.com
[NEXT: GETTING THERE >] [Header=Getting there]
The fossil fuel saved by your hotel’s solar panels is peanuts compared to the amount you burned while flying to your great escape. Two British airlines—Virgin Atlantic and First Choice—have taken steps to reduce and offset emissions, but there are still few options for alternative transportation. Apart from conservation, today’s best solution is carbon-emissions offsets. According to a recent study conducted by the Tufts Climate Initiative, these four offsets programs have the most accurate calculators and prices, and invest in the most effective projects.
BASED IN Vermont
WHAT Flights, buses, trains, and driving
PROJECTS Renewable energy projects, especially wind power on Native American reservations and methane-gas energy production facilities on family farms in the U.S.
PRICE PER TON OF CO2 $12
BASED IN Germany
PROJECTS Renewable energy in the developing world, including solar power in India and South Africa, and methane entrapment in Thailand
PRICE PER TON OF CO2 $27
PROGRAM Climate Friendly
BASED IN Australia
WHAT Flights, driving, and conferences
PROJECTS Renewable energy in Australia and New Zealand
PRICE PER TON OF CO2 $22
BASED IN Switzerland
WHAT Flights, driving, and hotel stays
PROJECTS Renewable energy and energy efficiency projects that contribute to sustainable development, including solar greenhouses in the Himalayas, wind farms in Madagascar, and biomass facilities in India
PRICE PER TON OF CO2 $33
Story by Kate Siber (additional reporting by Justin Nobel and Alison Sherbach). This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2007.