A-Z of eco-tourism

Author: emily ross

An Inconvenient Truth 
There is a copy of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's climate change bible, in every room at the eco-friendly Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa and its sister property Gaia at Anderson in California. Designed by green designer Wen Chang, the hotel has touch screens that tell guests about water and electricity savings as well as CO2 emissions. It also uses recycled tiles and granite, has low-flush toilets, low-flow showers, solar power (10 per cent), low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, an energy-efficient ozone laundry system and even recycled water in its ornamental koi ponds.

The Royal Society of Chemistry estimates that a one-way flight across the Atlantic uses a year's supply of biofuel made from the equivalent of 30 football fields of crops. Nonetheless, controversial biofuel is being trialled by airlines including Virgin Atlantic, Continental, Japan Airlines and Air New Zealand. 

Carbon emissions*
Air travel is one of the worst contributors to greenhouse gases, causing two per cent of total emissions globally and 40 per cent of travel-related emissions. According to the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation's (ICAO) carbon emissions calculator, a one-way flight from Sydney to Los Angeles uses a whopping 142,539kg of fuel, with the average CO2 emissions per business class passenger at 1859 tonnes.
To calculate yours go to:
* See also Offsets

Destiny USA
This ambitious green city and eco-tourism venture in upstate New York will look something like the love child of the lost city of Atlantis and Dubai's Burj Al Arab when it opens in 2012. Destiny USA aims to be a fossil-fuel free retail city, meaning cars won't run on oil or gas; even onsite construction equipment is using 100 per cent biodiesel fuel (the precinct will include a 1300-room hotel). Destiny USA will also harvest rainwater, recycle grey water and waste and will operate on 50 per cent less energy than a non-green equivalent complex.

Not to be confused with airconditioned luxury lodges in beautifully remote locations, eco-lodges have much lighter carbon footprints, practise sustainability and embrace local culture and nature conservation. Australia's eco-lodges include the solar-powered Hidden Valley Cabins, north of Townsville in Queensland, Rainbow Retreat at St Patrick's Head, Tasmania, and Coco Eco Nature Retreat in Broome. Costa Rica is a world leader in eco-lodges with the Rios Tropicales Ecolodge on the Pacuare River and the Lapa Rios Rainforest Ecolodge on the Osa Peninsula. Lapas Rios is surrounded by 405 hectares of tropical rainforest (and hidden waterfalls) on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and guests eat meals cooked using biofuel made from pig waste.


Kelly Bricker travels the world as chair and executive director of the Washington-based The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and practises what she preaches - offsetting travel, taking trains, ferries and buses, avoiding global chain restaurants and picking hotels committed to environmental management and sustainability. Other tips include minimising long-haul travel by staying longer and flying less, taking only carry-on baggage, choosing newer, more fuel-efficient planes and using paperless ticketing.

This is the art of spin, allowing people to lecture about saving the planet while carrying on unsustainable business practices. Eco-tourism has been growing at a rate of more than 20 per cent since 1990, according to TIES, and marketers want to cash in on this growing green dollar. A case in point is the recent WOW! Fraser Coast video to promote the World Heritage-listed Queensland island. The reporter arrived by jet ski, jumped into a chopper to check out the ecosystems, then hired a 4WD along 'busy' 75 Mile Beach. Not exactly a carbon-friendly experience.

Hybrid taxis and limousines
Travellers in New York, London, Los Angeles and Sydney can use hybrid car services to get around town. Originally London-based, Green Tomato Cars has a fleet of Toyota Prius cars operating around Sydney. Airport to Sydney CBD fares cost about $50 (including tolls). The firm also offsets twice the amount of CO2s produced by the cars. Eco Limos has similar services in Sydney and Melbourne. Melbourne is also hosting a trial of 50 hybrid taxis that Premier John Brumby says will save $5000 in fuel and two tonnes of CO2 annually.

Enviro-conscious hoteliers around the world are competing for green brownie points. New York City's Greenhouse 26, set to open in late 2008, offers geo-thermal heating and cooling, courtesy of an underground well. The InterContinental Hotels Group already has geothermal heating for its airconditioning system at its Thalasso Spa, Bora Bora, in Tahiti; wind farm energy to power the InterContinental Willard in Washington; and it's launched an Innovation Hotel project with initiatives including plant-covered rooftops to improve soundproofing and insulation, a ban on plastic and metal signs, the replacement of energy-hungry plasma TVs with LCD TVs, recycled furniture, the distribution of unused food to charities and greater use of solar energy and grey water systems. 

Sir Richard Branson has paid $20 million for Moskito Island, a tiny uninhabited rainforest jungle paradise in the British Virgin Islands near his beloved Necker Island, and plans to make it the most eco-friendly island in the world, with wind-turbine energy, electric cars and huts made from local timber. It will be carbon-neutral, naturally.

Leading British hoteliers Tim and Kit Kemp are opening their first green hotel, the Crosby Street Hotel in New York's SoHo in early 2009. The goal is to reduce the carbon footprint of the hotel from the start and achieve gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) status with locally sourced building materials. Firmdale's marketing director Craig Markham says: "As a pioneer in this area, it can be costly but there are so many ways in which companies and individuals can make a difference."

Can high thread-count sheets live in harmony with composting toilets? "It's all in the definition of luxury," says Australian-born, English-schooled Charles Carlow who operates three luxury bush retreats around Australia. To Carlow, luxury is about exclusivity and lessening the impact on the environment; a combination of the right sheets, towels, great food, wine and smart guides, a composting ensuite, solar-generated power and careful water usage (only 20 litres per day). And he is frank about the need to constantly work on living sustainably. "I'd be lying if I said we were there yet," he says. 

Wow, a pre-fab temporary hotel. These boxy beauties, with proper kitchens, have been designed by British architect Tim Pyne to sit atop an existing building or be erected above a car park or on vacant land. The pre-built units arrive on site and are slotted into a steel frame, and can be taken down and reused. Pyne believes M-Hotels are a sustainable solution for undeveloped land in city areas. The first M-Hotel is being built in Hoxton, London.

Not-for-profit or community tourism
Travellers can genuinely engage with local communities through conservation work, home stays, cultural workshops, language and dance in countries such as Thailand, Mongolia, Jamaica, Kenya and Nepal. Community-tourism projects are owned and operated by locals with the aim of investing tourist dollars back into the local community.

Carbon offsets are used to neutralise carbon emissions from a variety of activities including air and car travel, home energy, conferences and weddings.The cost of removing the carbon is calculated, then the user pays for it. Carbon offset programs invest in projects to reduce greenhouse gases. Australian carbon offset providers charge between $8.80 and $25 per metric tonne of CO2.

Power planes
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft may not be able to fly commercially until 2009 but the airline industry has high hopes for it. With a greater reliance on electrics rather than jet fuel, the Dreamliner uses 20 per cent less fuel consumption than comparable planes, and has five times more electrical power than the Boeing 767 and runs more of the plane's systems (which were previously powered by fossil-fuelled jet engines). It also benefits from new technology and lighter materials to reduce fuel consumption. With oil prices continuing north, this plane could be a potential lifeline for the industry.

 "As consumers, we need to demand sustainability in all forms of travel," says TIES executive director Kelly Bricker. "Ask questions. Take time to find out about the enterprises you wish to support." It pays to maintain healthy scepticism when it comes to eco-tourism. Green travellers need to continuously question tourism operators: does their service use renewable energy? Does it waste energy? Is it connected to the local community? Does it recycle? Does it minimise the use of chemicals such as fertiliser and harsh cleaning products?

Responsible travel
Defined by the International Ecotourism Society as 'travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people', this is the antithesis of travel for pursuits such as gambling, sex, drugs, the Disneyland experience, or spending that exploits rather than benefits local communities. Nikki Rose, director of Crete's Culinary Sanctuaries, is a pioneer in responsible travel. "A lot of people are making money from the concept of sustainable tourism," she says. "What responsible travel practitioners need are more responsible travellers. It's that simple."

Sustainable tourism
English environmentalist Sir Jonathon Porritt sums up the planet's need for sustainability: "The future will be green, or not at all. This truth lies at the heart of humankind's most pressing challenge: to learn to live in harmony with the Earth on a genuinely sustainable basis." Conventional travel habits have to change to reduce CO2 emissions and to preserve the planet's diverse cultures and ecosystems. Sustainable tourism can support and enrich local communities, the economy and the environment. It can inspire travellers and benefit local residents. drc.org

The late Marlon Brando's private French Polynesian island, north of Papeete, is being transformed into The Brando, an eco-hotel by developer Richard Bailey, who owns four InterContinental resorts in Bora Bora and Morea. Bailey wants The Brando to harness renewable energy and proposes to ban jet skis, gas and diesel-fuelled boats and fishing inside the Te'tiaroa lagoon in an effort to preserve marine life, particularly diminishing stocks of sea turtles.

Ugly tourism
For many of us, holidays mean luxury - and luxury often equates to conspicuous consumption. Spa baths, ice-cold airconditioning, water-devouring golf courses, jet skis. "I have a friend who feels it's his right to have fresh sheets and towels daily - he's paying for it, after all," says environmental hospitality consultant Kit Cassingham, founder of thebestgreenhotels.com. "I'm sure he's not alone in that attitude."

If you'd like to do more than just lie on a beach during your hols, join the ever-increasing ranks of voluntourists who spend their leave helping others. American non-profit Globe Aware offers one-week volunteer work in countries including Costa Rica, Nepal, Brazil and Romania. You can distribute wheelchairs to landmine victims in Cambodia, look after children in a Laotian orphanage or simply help locals practise their English on you. The cost is about $1200 a week, plus airfares, which incudes a donation to the program. Local organisation Conservation Volunteers Australia runs short-term projects such as 10 days clearing weeds out of Kakadu or regenerating sand dunes on the NSW south coast.

Green travellers, add these to your favourites list:

Coined in 1978 by a water authority in Denver, Colorado, this describes a philosophy of low-water gardening - choosing climate-appropriate plants, mulching to reduce evaporation, improving the soil and minimising areas of turf (while not actually stamping them out completely). In the US, resorts in dry states such as Arizona advertise their xeriscaped gardens as a green selling point.

Yap Island
One of the more traditional island groups in Micronesia, Yap offers visitors some modern comforts (including an eco-resort called Pathways and a grand Colonial-era hotel called Trader's Ridge) and is popular with divers, but its real draw is experiencing a strong cultural tradition that permeates everyday life across its 130-odd islands. Many men on Yap routinely wear traditional dress and, while it's acceptable for women to walk around topless, they are expected to cover their thighs (so female travellers beware).

Zero food miles
In an era when strawberries and spring lamb are available year round, there is a growing movement to minimise food miles and embrace local food and local production. Nikki Rose, founder of Crete's Culinary Sanctuaries, is passionate about working exclusively with organic farmers in Cretan villages where the majority of food is grown in gardens and small farms, metres from the kitchen. "Our program is about discovering and celebrating traditional Cretan cuisine, which is made from fresh, local and organic ingredients usually with zero food miles."

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