With the northern-hemisphere summer travel season having shifted into high gear, but economies under strain all across the globe, it is becoming increasingly vital that travellers not only budget better, but also ensure that their vacations do not adversely affect the delicate fiscal balance in any place they are visiting. Many of them are therefore looking to ‘go green’.
To the well-intentioned traveler, though, ‘green’ labels can be a bit vague, a tinted title that has been taken to mean a host of things, not all of them positive. Faced with growing concerns about ‘greenwashing’ and tongue-twisting turns of phrase like ‘sustainable eco nature adventures,’ the average person is left wondering what a green leaf means on hotel pamphlets.
Similarly, tips for ‘green living’ can be found in most magazines nowadays, but not always with clear objectives. Does not washing your towels really make that much of a difference? Is switching off your lights really going to save the planet? What makes green hotels truly ‘green’?
To answer that, we first need to look at what it means to be sustainable.
How Do Things Look Today?
These days, green initiatives are usually taken to mean those where the practice either has a positive or neutral (anything except negative) effect on the natural environment. But while the protection of natural resources is a vital preoccupation, sustainability means a lot more than saving our planet’s trees.
Local and indigenous communities across the planet often suffer in the shadow of hard-impact mass-market tourism. While the proceeds from tourism may, generally speaking, bring in capital and sometimes even increase peace and stability, local people are sometimes hard pressed to see the benefits. The lion’s share of profits are shipped abroad to foreign stakeholders while local people are even frequently overlooked as staff, tour guides or regional experts. Those that do succeed in pushing through any obstacles are usually then not given the opportunity to rise to positions of higher-level (managerial or supervisory) responsibility, roles reserved for foreign nationals.
With some bitterness, local people see their cultures bought and sold in front of them, often returned in with no resemblance to the centuries-old traditions that drew in tourists in the first place.
What Is Sustainability?
To me, sustainability is synonymous with responsible economic and social development, even as it is applied to tourism. Clearly there is no catch-all phrase able to determine whether the place in which you are staying deserves the title of being ‘green,’ but sustainability can certainly be measured in terms of an accommodation’s or tour’s effect on the health of the environment, energy consumption, the promotion of local culture and heritage, the distribution of profits, labour force vitality and even the quality and nature of building materials.
The list doesn’t stop there, especially since the notion of sustainability is one that evolves as quickly as new technologies and the circumstances through which they are brought to light.
Nevertheless I’ve tried to compile some basics to help add to a discussion about the definition of sustainable tourism. It is important to remember that each destination is unique and has different sustainability requirements. The following chart should therefore be looked at as a review of general trends in sustainable travel and ecotourism, not as a checklist.
With these factors in mind, the question becomes: where to go? The following are some places that have made important strides toward sustainability and cultural immersion without compromising on comfort. Of course, travelling is all about forging your own path outside your daily routine, so always still keep make sure that your choice of accommodation fits your needs as well as those of the host country.
Green in the City
* Near Amsterdam, the Ilma Yoga House is located inside the Gaasperplas Nature Reserve just 20 minutes from the city centre by bicycle. On site you can enjoy host Ilma’s massage and yoga studios. She donates 10 percent of all her proceeds to charity.
* Located in the heart of Buenos Aires, the Eco Pampa Hostel was the city’s first ecologically friendly hostel, a model for others to follow. The managers have paid careful attention to keeping things green, from installing a rainwater tank, low-energy electrical appliances, solar panels and heating, and an organic rooftop garden to using recycled materials in the decoration of all the rooms.
* What better way to find out what it’s like to live as a nomad than actually to live like one? In Kyrgyzstan, a yurt stay is an increasingly popular way to see the vast undeveloped countryside. Because the camps move with the nomads and essentially leave no trace behind, it’s hard to imagine a way of making less impact.
* Transport yourself to 5th-century Turkey by staying deep inside the surreal cave-and-tunnel systems of the stony Cappadocian countryside. Cave hotels offer unique accommodations repurposed from ancient lodgings designed to support lifestyle without continuous access to water or outside trade. Today’s self-cooling hotel rooms, like those of the Yunak Evleri Cave Hotel, are surprisingly luxurious and full of light thanks to the innovative design of the early Turks.
* Village homestays are an increasingly popular way to directly finance traditional communities instead of parading them as tourist attractions. By living side by side with villagers in, tourists can actually take part in the perfect ecotourism model: natural materials and fibres are used for nearly every edifice and tool, water is sourced from nearby rivers and streams, and opportunities exist for fishing and hunting with locals. The Solomon Islands have some superb village stays, many of which were established in the late 1980s, when the practice boomed.
* Run by a local naturalist (who discovered a new species of bird), the Hobatere Lodge in northern Namibia has leased the land around it from a local conservancy that encourages indigenous people and animals to live freely on and directly benefit from the land. Ongoing lodge projects range from the Kunene Lion Project and the Namibian Elephant and Giraffe Trust to the study of the black mongoose. Local Namibians make up 100 percent of the staff, and 80 percent of them have been working there for 10 years or more. A private generator powers the lodge and there’s a garden of indigenous plants used by the restaurant.
* Featured in the New York Times as the next hot ecolodge destination in Koh Kong, Cambodia, the 4 Rivers Floating Ecolodge is so remote that you need a private canoe to get there. Designed to immerse its guests in the surrounding wilderness at the convergence of four rivers, this destination proves that sustainability does not have to be at the expense of luxury.
* There’s nothing quite like the romance of the Arabian Desert, conjuring up images of starry nights, languid camels, warm campfires, embroidered throw rugs and the call of the Bedouin in the morning. At the famed Desert Nights Camp in Oman’s Wahiba Sands, guests are given the full experience of the ancient practice of the famed desert traders, all with minimal impact on the environment.
In Thailand, it’s easy to visit monasteries but few places allow lay people to live alongside monks and learn their practices. The 10-day silent retreat at the Suan Mokkh International Dhamma Hermitage gives outsiders a chance to experience monastic life. Expect to forsake all material pleasure, eat vegetarian food only twice a day, attend meditation and yoga classes, and maintain complete silence. The retreat is free, but participants must be committed to all aspects of the program.