Green Living's Guide to Eco-Conscious Travel

Photo: iStockphoto.com/tupikov
Taking a summer trip? Here’s how to leave nothing behind but footprints.

Summer is here, and many of us are itching for a getaway. According to BMO’s 2012 Summer Travel Survey, 84 percent of Canadians plan to take a summer vacation this year, up five percent from 2011. And we’re not alone – the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported that international tourist arrivals reached an estimated 980 million last year (2011) and are expected to surpass one billion this year.

Undeniably, each arrival has an environmental cost. You’ve probably heard that old adage “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” – what can you do to have a positive impact? Green Living’s favourite eco-friendly travel tips can help. Some steps are small; others require a bit more planning, but they can all make a difference—especially if we do them together.

Pack your environmental ethics

Even the most environmentally conscious consumers tend to leave their green routines at home, according to a 2007 survey by ELEMENT Hotels. In fact, the majority of travellers surveyed admitted to ignoring their usual eco-friendly habits, such as using less water and turning off the lights, while on the road. Research by the TD Friends of the Environment Foundation reveals that most Canadians aren’t as concerned about the planet when they’re travelling—83 percent have never taken an eco-friendly vacation. When you’re out and about, try to keep up the good habits you have at home.

Stay at eco-friendly lodging

When booking your trip, support environmentally conscious hospitality management by choosing accommodation with eco-friendly certifications or memberships in green industry associations. In Canada and the U.S., look for the Green Key Eco-Rating Program, a graduated rating system that recognizes hotels, motels and resorts committed to improving their environmental performance. Other highly regarded green lodging certification programs include Green Globe, Green Seal, Audubon Green Leaf, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and the Sustainable Tourism Education Program (STEP). To find more credible eco-label and certification programs worldwide, check out non-profit Sustainable Travel International’s handy overview.

One industry leader at the forefront of sustainable tourism is Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Its Green Partnership Program was the first hotel chain-wide environmental program, and its Fairmont Green Partnership Guide helps other hotels become more eco-conscious without sacrificing luxury. Find out more about Fairmont’s advances in energy management, water conservation and community outreach.

Can’t book eco-certified accommodation? Look for comfortable yet basic options. Smaller rooms with fewer amenities use less resources, and newer hotels are likely more energy-efficient. If you’re visiting the U.S., pick a place that’s Energy Star rated.

Choose a responsible tour provider

Ten years after the UN declared 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism, it’s never been easier to book eco-conscious trips. All over the world, there are tour companies with sustainability in mind. Read how to evaluate responsible tour companies or see a checklist of important questions to ask when booking travel. If you’re looking to explore, enjoy and protect the planet, we recommend Natural Habitat Adventures, the official conservation travel partner for the World Wildlife Fund and a leader in responsible nature travel for more than 25 years (even better—it’s the world’s first 100-percent carbon-neutral travel company). We also love G Adventures, who integrate sustainability into every decision they make while offering unforgettable small-group adventures, averaging just 10 to 15 travellers per trip. In 2003, they started the Planeterra Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the development and support of small communities around the globe, and offer a wealth of information for the conscientious traveller, such as these sustainable travel tips. Other outdoor adventure experts committed to responsible travel are Sierra Club Outings, Intrepid Travel or the many companies in the directories of the International Ecotourism Society and Sustainable Travel International.

Give back

Make a positive impact on the community or destination you visit by giving back—donate to a local environmental organization or pitch in at a roadside cleanup, for example. Or combine your love of travel with philanthropy by taking part in the growing “voluntourism” movement. Imagine contributing—in a very tangible way—to conservation efforts by protecting sea turtles in Costa Rica, making the desert bloom in Israel, or building hiking trails across the U.S. Find out more about voluntourism, join the 93,000+ volunteers who have helped Earthwatch Institute conduct front-line environmental research, or volunteer on an organic farm with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). We promise you’ll gain new perspective and make the world a better place.

Choose green transportation

Reduce your dependence on travel options that incur large carbon footprints. Not surprisingly, air travel is the worst offender, accounting for four to nine percent of the total climate change impact of human activity. According to Sustainable Travel International’s carbon calculator, a round-trip economy-class flight from Toronto to Paris generates carbon dioxide emissions of over two and a half tons per person! Seek other methods of transportation when possible—trains and buses are far more energy-efficient. If you must fly, take the most direct route, and check out Greenopia’s airline ratings. Kudos to Costa Rica-based Nature Air, the first airline to offset 100 percent of its carbon emissions.

Plan ahead and come up with creative, car-less ways to explore an area. The planet (and your wallet) will thank you. Check Google Transit to see your options (bus, subway, streetcar, water taxi, etc.). And there’s no better way to get to know an area than by walking or cycling—look for bike-share programs, such as Montreal-born Bixi or Portland-based Alta Bicycle Share. If you must rent a vehicle, look for car-sharing services like Zipcar or Toronto-based Autoshare, or choose a hybrid or fuel-efficient car.

To further reduce your trip’s emissions, you can buy carbon offsets. Visit Sustainable Travel International, Planetair or TerraPass to learn about this innovative idea, calculate your carbon footprint and purchase offsets.

Canada’s Olympic team is setting a gold-medal-worthy example: it’s the first team to go carbon-neutral for the London 2012 games. They’re planning to purchase carbon credits to offset the 1,500 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions expected to be emitted from their travel.

Have a “staycation”

Take a vacation where you live! A “staycation” is not only kind to your finances and the planet, but also less stressful than going abroad. Support your local economy while enjoying all the things in your city that you’re usually too busy to appreciate. Visit parks, museums, festivals and neighbourhoods you’ve never explored. Find a green event such as Feast of Fields or Run for Biodiversity. If possible, ditch the car and walk, take public transit or ride a bike.

Use your staycation to (literally) get a taste of where you live. Try local cuisine, visit a farmers’ market or tour a farm. Learn more about your region’s specialties and embark on culinary adventures, such as the Niagara Wine Trail or Quebec’s Route des fromages.

Slow down and spend time with nature. Visit one of Canada’s abundant national parks, provincial parks or green spaces. Take your family to the beach or lake. Look for Blue Flag certification, awarded to 16 beaches and three marinas in Canada that meet strict environmental criteria. No matter where you go, tread lightly. For tips on enjoying the great outdoors responsibly, visit Canadian non-profit Leave No Trace.

Every action helps. With almost a billion tourists on the move each year, it’s more important than ever for travellers to minimize their environmental impact. Protect the places you visit and live in—not only for yourself, but for future generations of explorers.

We always love to hear from you. Are you planning an eco-conscious vacation this summer, or do you have green travel tips to share? E-mail editor@green-living.ca.