No industry has been quite as rife with accusations of greenwashing as tourism. A combination of a growing international appetite for unique, place-centered travel (who wants to spend hours in a plane to vacation where it smells, tastes and looks like home?) along with some unscrupulous, or sometimes ignorant tour companies and destinations has led to plenty of confusion on the subject.

 

Part of the problem can be explained by plain old learning curves; this is new territory for many countries - in some places even traditional tourism barely has a history, let alone guidelines for what eco-friendly or sustainable means in that locale. Another challenge is dealing with regional differences: What is planet-friendly in one part of the world could be irrelevant in another. One of the challenges of the eco-travel industry is to come up with standards and yardsticks by which to measure the efforts of a property or tour in a fair, unbiased way that can assess a sleepy B&B in the rainforest as well a thousand room hotel in Las Vegas.

 

One thing is for sure: tourism has a big impact on the world economy. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, international tourism receipts were estimated to have reached $919 billion in 2010. That’s some serious cash. Used in a responsible way, that money can help improve the lives of local people and help protect fragile environments.

 

A few groups are working on trustworthy certifications for sustainable tourism, including Sustainable Travel International, Greenloons , the International Ecotourism Society and Ecotourism Australia. There are a number of regional and state-based programs around the world as well (Costa Rica has an excellent one). But so far, there isn’t one generally accepted international certification, and there may not be for some time, as becoming certified can sometimes be an expensive or time-consuming process. Especially for smaller establishments, they might not have the money or staff time to dedicate to getting certified. And differences abound as to what sustainable tourism means.

 

So take any certifications into account, but do some of your own sleuthing as well. Ask questions before you book your next vacation – tour operators that claim to specialize in sustainable travel should be more than willing to answer your questions about destinations and lodgings, as well as transportation. 

 

At the end of the day, the extra time and effort of looking for a sustainable, conscious destination is very much worth it. Why? Explains Irene Lane, founder and president of Greenloons, “By recommending fun, safe and educational vacation experiences, we hope more people will connect at a deeper level with the places and people they are visiting.” It’s all about that true and real connection to the place you are visiting; when you are travelling sustainably, this happens naturally.

 

But what are the specifics? Look for the following and you will be on your way – most destinations with a serious environmental commitment will have this information detailed on their website or in some way accessible to visitors:

 

Energy: How does a hotel or lodging power itself? Do they use solar panels, local hydropower, wave energy or geothermal to heat or cool their buildings? Do they use biodiesel or electricity to power their vehicles? Do they buy carbon offsets?

 

Water: Do they recycle greywater (sink and shower water) to water plants? (This is very common in water-challenged locales and is a pretty basic move). Do they encourage guests to save water, and how do they dispose of sewage? In many countries the rules about sewage are weak or unenforced; responsible parties won’t be dumping untreated sewage into oceans or streams.

 

People: Are employees local, and are they paid a fair wage? Are there programs to improve the areas around the tourist areas or hotels (in the Caribbean, it’s common for resorts to build and staff schools and community centers, for example)? Are employees trained in how to reduce waste and protect their local environment?

 

Food: Is food local and are farmer partnerships in place so that the local economy is supported by the hotel or destination? Is food organic or grown without pesticides or minimal chemicals? (Oftentimes the word ‘organic’ isn’t used or known, but many foods are grown without chemical additives, so you can ask about that.)

 

Wildlife: Are local plants and animals protected from being harassed by visitors? Is the lodging built in such a way to have minimal impact to the already-existing animal life in the area? Is the staff knowledgeable about which animals, plants and insects are endangered or threatened? 

 

Recycling: In many countries, recycling facilities don’t exist, but if they do, recycling should be evident. Is food composted? Are towels and sheets reused? Are there creative and thoughtful solutions to the inevitable waste generated by guests?

 

For more details, check out these 5 tips from Ecotoursim.org about how to make your vacation green.

 

Have other thoughts on sustainable tourism? Leave us a note in the comments below.