Leave only your footprints

Today's travellers have a range of responsible holiday choices. Aoife O'Riordain reports

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With the increasing awareness of global warming and the depletion of the Earth's natural resources, over the past decade sustainability and eco-friendliness have become buzzwords when it comes to how we choose our holidays. It would seem that never before has the travelling public been so aware of the effects and impact that their holidays have, not just on the environment but also on local communities the world over.

That said, Justin Francis, the co-founder and chief executive of responsibletravel.com, still feels that there is a long way to go so far as the public's awareness of green travel issues is concerned. Launched in 2001, responsibletravel.com offers more than 1,000 sustainable and environmentally minded holidays all over the world, be it an eco lodge in the heart of the Bolivian rainforest or a walking holiday along Italy's Amalfi coast.

Francis believes that, although attitudes have changed and while some are now actively seeking out these types of holidays, many consumers are still not aware of the growing number of choices. "I wish that people were springing out of bed in the mornings thinking that they must choose a holiday that does a better job of protecting environments and communities. Sadly it does not happen, and the main criteria will always be the right experience, the right price and convenient departure dates," says Francis.

Despite British Airways' recent announcement that it plans to fly jets on carbon-neutral biofuel made from London's rubbish by 2014 , most people are aware that air travel is a contentious issue in the environmentally friendly travel debate. While many advocate the only truly green option is not to fly or to stay at home, those who still want to travel have an increasing number of choices available to help them lessen the environmental impact and give more to their host community.

Greentraveller (greentraveller.co.uk) is another website dedicated to directing consumers towards more sustainable holiday options. It acts as a portal for holidays that can be reached by land as well as offering plenty of tips and advice about having a greener holiday. Its managing director, Richard Hammond, concurs that interest in this sector has grown since the site was established in 2006. "Very few holidays are 100 per cent green, so it's really about having a greener holiday. The most fundamental choice is looking at low-emission forms of transport, or, if you are going somewhere far-flung, minimising your impact at the destination," says Hammond.

While many of the properties it features already have certification from a growing array of international and national schemes, Greentraveller's team of writers personally vet each property and apply their own criteria to the selection process, such as how waste is disposed of, the sourcing of local produce and whether visitors are encouraged to arrive by rail.

International and country-specific certification schemes are a favoured method for businesses eager to gain greener credentials. These include the likes of the EU flower eco-label programme, EarthCheck, Green Key, Green Globe or national schemes such as Nature's Best in Sweden, which Hammond cites as a particularly good example. One of the largest of these schemes was born in the UK. Initially conceived in partnership with Visit Scotland, The Green Tourism Business Scheme is now the national sustainable tourism certification benchmark approved by VisitEngland, VisitScotland and Visit Wales. Since its inception 13 years ago, it has certified more than 2,000 green businesses throughout the UK and Ireland, which makes it the largest scheme of its type in the world.

Each business is visited by one of its qualified certification engineers and assessed against sustainability markers, which consider everything from the energy efficiency of the lighting and waste disposal to practices such as buying local produce, and community involvement. Businesses are awarded bronze, silver or gold status and revisited every two years to check up on whether standards are being upheld. Such has been the interest from consumers, The Green Tourism Business Scheme has just launched a booking engine on its website, so certified properties can now be reserved directly.

As well as sites such as responsible travel.com and greentraveller.co.uk, more mainstream tour operators have cottoned on to the fact that a growing number of travellers are beginning to include this new set of criteria when making their decision on where to holiday. Last year, First Choice incorporated a Greener Holidays brochure in its programme, and tour operators now often list accommodation-only or activity-only prices, so people can choose their own mode of transport such as travelling by rail rather than by air.

Kieran Murphy, group managing director of the tour operator Steppes Discovery, confirms that he has seen an increase in clients demanding eco-friendly holidays. "People now realise they do not have to compromise on quality, cost, comfort and travel experience and be able to give something back to the local communities, wildlife and wider issues of global warming."

Consequently, Steppes tries to source smaller guesthouses, bed and breakfasts and boutique hotels, where the profits are more likely to stay in the local economy. It also works with charity partners, and often builds in a donation to a local charity or a non-governmental organisation operating in the region.

Hotels are increasingly keen to trumpet their eco-credentials and sustainability achievements. Two of the biggest criticisms levelled at hotels tend to be the drain many make on the Earth's resources and, in the case of large global brands, the fact that they tend to bank their profits far from the developing communities that would really benefit.

In response, many have implemented group-wide initiatives to redress the balance and there is a growing number of smaller, boutique chains and individual hotels doing their bit. The Peru-based Inkaterra Foundation is almost exclusively based on sustainable principles as well as nurturing local tribal communities under threat. The luxury Sani Resort in Halkidiki, Greece has its own head of sustainability, while Alila Villas Hadahaa in the Maldives became the first resort of its kind in the archipelago to have been awarded Green Globe status for its construction practices, when it opened last year.

This year, the Accor hotel group is one of the finalists along with Banyan Tree Holdings and Wilderness Safaris in the World Travel and Tourism Council's Tourism for Tomorrow awards in the "global tourism business" category, the winner of which will be announced on 26 May. One of its initiatives, "Plant for the Planet", is a group-wide towel reuse scheme which involves planting a tree in one of seven reforestation projects worldwide for every five towels reused.

Francis also believes that consumers are becoming savvier about tokenism from hotels and tour operators that may not have the best interests of the community or the planet true to their hearts. "My real hope is that we do get much more curious and more questioning, and there are rebellious tourists who do see the greenwash and ask increasingly tougher questions," he says.

Six Senses is another hotel brand operating in the more expensive echelons of the market, which has proven that luxury tourism and environmentally sound principles are not necessarily mutually exclusive. With resorts dotted in some of the dreamiest locations around the world such as Thailand and the Maldives, its husband-and-wife founders, Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, have been passionate about the group's principles since founding Six Senses 15 years ago. Its latest resort, Soneva Kiri, which opened in Thailand in December, features a state-of-the-art eco villa.

So travellers now have a burgeoning assortment of holiday options to choose from which will help them do their bit for the environment and communities.

responsibletravel.com; greentraveller. co.uk; ecolabel-tourism.eu; greenkey global.com; greenglobecertification.com; earthcheck.org; naturesbestsweden.com; green-business.co.uk; firstchoice.co.uk; steppestravel.co.uk; inkaterra.com; sani resort.com; alilahotels.com; accor.com; banyantree.com; sixsenses.com

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