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The green travel “evolution”

Increasing numbers of us are making more informed choices about how we travel, how often and where we choose to go.

By James Glave

We all know someone like John, a guy my wife and I used to hang around with a lifetime or two back. He would scold me for the SUV in my garage, the non-native plants in my yard and the Cool Whip in my fridge.

I remember him as Mr. Greener-Than-Thou. And now that I’ve joined his ranks to a degree, now that I’m a card-carrying member of the new eco-evolution, his name comes up a lot around the house. Whenever I get a little too cranky about turning off the energy-hogging halogens, whenever I push too much to skip the petroleum-based Ziploc bags, my wife lets me know. “Thanks, John,” she’ll say, rolling her eyes. Or, “OK, John.” I rely on her for these gentle course corrections.

In a way, Canada’s tourism industry is walking that fine line today—rolling out earth-friendly tours, adding educational components to attractions or touting a lodge’s latest gray-water treatment system while, at the same time, not coming across as too overly preachy. With global warming already underway, more and more travellers are demanding their vacations be as sustainable as possible. But it’s tricky. Too much of a good thing is bad.

Case in point: a year or two back, I enjoyed what is known in the travel biz as a “soft adventure” experience. The outfitter offered a gentle adrenaline rush—barely enough to justify a signature on a waiver—in a reasonably accessible semi-wilderness setting. The afternoon required next-to-no training or skill; ditto expensive and fussy gear. In short, it was a hoot.

If you don’t count the homework.

Let’s just say the company had opted to weave a fairly heavy-handed educational message into the experience. This was a low-emissions operation, and they made sure I knew it. The outfitter had taken great pains to not only minimize its greenhouse-gas footprint, which is great, but also to earnestly explain concepts such as “biodiversity.” It was like someone passing around a petition at a party—an eco-buzzkill.

I think about that afternoon in the woods every time I consider the new phenomenon known as “sustainable travel.” To the International Ecotourism Society, such excursions “meet the needs of present tourist and host regions, while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future.” I prefer to characterize the shift underway in hotels and airports around the world as an emerging individual philosophy that is both broader and more personal. It’s as much about authenticity as it is no-brainer environmentalism. Call it “green travel.”

I’m not just talking classic eco-tourism—a jaunt to a sensitively-built wilderness lodge or a kayaking trip into a biosphere reserve. Green travel is, instead, a philosophical approach. It takes the quiet shifts already underway in millions of private lives in Canada around the world, and extends them into the vacation realm. It’s a quiet evolution; one that can’t be captured on a customer comment card. It’s so low-volume, it’s practically silent. But it’s there.

It is also, in one significant respect, an oxymoron.

Among those working to live more lightly on the Earth—perhaps you’ve started composting kitchen scraps or buying more local produce or pedaling to work once in a while—vacationland simply ain’t what it used to be. Anyone with an inkling of the mess we’ve managed to get ourselves into on a global scale may have a harder time reconciling pure-escape sun-and-sand travel with what we suspect is actually going on backstage. Somewhere, way deep down, we realize that our getaway is not, in fact, getting us anywhere.

Enter Mr. On-the-Go Green. He’s seeking a more authentic, genuinely meaningful experience that offers some connection to the natural world or the promise of actual contact with real local lives. For this guy, it’s not about what activities he pursues (soft adventure, backcountry epic or somewhere in the middle), it’s how he approaches them.

The new-generation eco-tourist is quietly rebelling against a global industry that regards destinations and experiences as “products” to be consumed. He’s trying to peer beyond the packaging, to see a more unfiltered aspect of his destination—a chance for some kind of unexpected, unplanned and unforgettable encounter. Perhaps he’s a fearless foodie on a quest for regional organic cuisine. (He’s the guy knocking on that rural farmhouse door in search of Québécois artisan goat cheese or Saskatchewan lentils.) Heck, maybe he’s even into golf. It doesn’t matter. The point is that the new green traveller hopes to add more than he takes.

There is some research, mostly from overseas sources, in support of this attitudinal shift. A 2005 European Travel Commission report notes “demand for authentic experiences, including local culture and closeness to nature, continues to increase.” A Government of India report predicts the global appetite for nature-based travel is expected to double, even triple, in the next two decades. Meanwhile, a recent European Tourism Research Institute paper underscored the business opportunity for operations that employ renewable energy and encourage reuse and recycling: “Destinations showing that they care about these issues and that they are innovative in this respect may have a lot to gain.”

Indeed, such destinations do have more to reap than good publicity—though that doesn’t hurt, either. This past summer, Aspen Skiing Company said it would purchase wind-energy credits to cover all of its energy needs. In doing so, the resort will prevent more than 22,000 tons of CO2 from escaping into the atmosphere.

There are very good business reasons for going green, too. By installing ultra-efficient lighting and heating systems, a hotel or resort chain can save millions a year in utility costs. And guests are evidently willing to help foot the bill for all those curly-cue lightbulbs. A 2002 hotel-industry poll of U.S., British and Australian travellers revealed 70 percent would pay up to $150 more for a two-week stay in a hotel with a “responsible environmental attitude.”

Here’s the good news: in Canada, there’s no shortage of those. In British Columbia, a number of off-grid backcountry operators—such as Strathcona Park Lodge and Purcell Mountain Lodge—use clean and green hydro-electric power with minimal reliance on diesel generators. Other high-end properties, such as Tofino’s famous Wickaninnish Inn, were constructed from locally quarried stone and trees felled on site.

There are scores of similar examples across the country. At the Crown Jewel Resort Ranch, an eco-lodge on Cape Breton Island, NS, guests arrive via Cessna and shuttle to their room via horse-drawn carriage, then head off for an afternoon of chanterelle foraging. Meanwhile, a coalition of inns operating around the Bay of Fundy (NS) have collectively committed to a program of energy-efficiency audits and upgrades. The hotels aren’t kicking up a big fuss about their decidedly unsexy agenda, they’re just getting on with it—which is exactly the approach that clicks with the emerging mainstream green traveller.

But while a few dozen BandBs can fairly easily upgrade their washing machines and weatherstrip their windows, far-reaching change in all corners of the tourism industry calls for a more significant commitment—the kind best accomplished by some kind of national program. And one Canadian researcher suggests that just such an initiative could stem out of the gnawing green-travel oxymoron.

Here’s another: green travel will never be green as long as it involves a large plane on a long runway.

In Canada, land of vast distances, tourism usually involves a two-way ride in a commercial jet aircraft, and the inescapable no-way-to-spin-it reality is that such planes produce more Arctic-defrosting greenhouse gases than any other single mode of transportation on Earth. Long-haul flights produce 110 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre, the UK Department of Transportation estimates, according to British author George Monbiot. Using that fairly conservative figure, a 3,900-km flight from New York, NY to Vancouver, BC generates... well, let’s just say that leg cramps and rubber chicken should be the least of your worries.

The right thing to do? If you are flying, take longer-duration, more meaningful trips when you do. And purchase carbon offsets.

Carbon wha..? Stay with me here. There are now more than 40 organizations (“offsetters”) inviting air passengers to help compensate for the environmental impact of their travel by purchasing an equivalent number of carbon-dioxide “credits.” Think of them as voluntary conscience-tax payments. These web-based offsetters then funnel those donations into renewable-energy research and related carbon-reduction schemes.

Unfortunately, though many offsetters are legitimate, there isn’t yet a lot of oversight in place and it’s tough to know if your donation really is helping to make a difference. Critics also point out that carbon offsets are a kind of “guilt money” that don’t meaningfully undo atmospheric damage. For the moment, until we reinvent the world and how we move ourselves through it, offsets are the best we’ve got to work with.

Though common in Europe, carbon offsets are just barely hitting the mainstream radar on these shores (BC’s Tourism Vancouver is leading the charge); U.S. travellers who book their flights on Expedia can offset their trips in the midst of the online-reservations process via an outfit called TerraPass for $6 to $30. And now Hollywood is in on it. At February 07’s Academy Awards, instead of a swag gift bag, Oscar presenters took home a year’s worth of carbon offsets (covering 100,000 lbs of CO2 or about double the average American’s annual output). Stars even got a booklet on how to reduce their personal carbon footprint, plus an offer from TerraPass to calculate where the superstars stand today and strategies for reduction.

As more of us start to take baby steps beyond recycling and composting—as we increasingly connect the dots between our actions and consequences—purchasing air-travel offsets could one day become the norm.

And this is where the opportunity lies, according to the Canada research chair on global change and tourism at the University of Waterloo, ON. Daniel Scott would like to see the tourism industry—hotels, outfitters, airlines, the whole bunch—collectively go to bat with some kind of pan-industry coalition that would work to green-up travel infrastructure across the board.

Under Scott’s blue-sky scheme, the airlines would still collect offsets at the time a trip is booked, but then they might funnel those proceeds into a shared fund that would green hotels, restaurants, ski resorts and so on. “There is a good opportunity here for the air carriers to step up to the plate and take a leadership role,” Scott says.

“The resorts might pitch in as well, and say ‘Here is our contribution to this broader fund,’” he explains. “Perhaps it’s a series of upgrades to lighting or cooling infrastructure, or some renewable energy, but it would target real efficiency gains across the board. It needs all the players involved.”

Including, of course, us.

After all, the new era of green travel may be rife with paradoxes (witness the tons of greenhouse gases we generate on our way up to check out polar bears that are, in turn, imperiled by global warming). But more of us are making informed choices about how we travel, how often, and where we choose to go when we do. Like the inns around the Bay of Fundy, on an individual level, we are making an effort. This mindset—and the travel that goes with it—isn’t just an easily-labelled trend. It’s more than a PowerPoint slide. It’s an inevitable and far-reaching shift. And we’re driving the bus—er, the hybrid bus.