Your Planet: Have a safe flight

Some holiday activities do a lot more damage to our world than others. Simon Calder offers a rough guide to ethical and sustainable tourism
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The Independent Online

They paved paradise, put up a parking lot: the singer Joni Mitchell summed up the tourism conundrum neatly in her song Big Yellow Taxi. By going on holiday we run the risk of destroying the very things we wish to see. Into the bargain we consume scarce resources and trash the environment. Worse still, we distort and sometimes destroy the coherence of communities.

Being a responsible tourist is like walking on environmental eggshells. Even the sensitive traveller's mantra -"take only photographs, leave only footprints" - raises concerns. How much energy did you consume to reach the location you photographed? And from the Pennine Way to the Inca Trail, paths are deteriorating under the cumulative impact of millions of footprints.

So is there such a thing as a "good" tourist? As with many enigmas, the answer is as opaque as the jet trails from the thousands of aircraft that are flying tourists around at any one time.

We are living in an age when our horizons are limitless. The average British wage earner can comfortably bring home enough in seven days to fly to Australia and back. Now travel to Europe has fallen to the same price bracket as a good dinner out, we are becoming steadily more addicted to abroad - to the considerable detriment, incidentally, of the UK Treasury.

The same dynamic is happening across Europe - especially in the east, where the desire to see the world was artificially constrained for decades. And the burgeoning middle classes in India, Brazil and China are adding tens of millions to the international jetsetters keen to see the planet before all those pesky tourists diminish it.

The result: too many of us burning up aviation fuel while chasing the sun, seaside and sights. Tourism also impacts on communities. This can be anything from distorting the labour market - with workers abandoning the fields or the fishing boats for the richer harvests of tourism - to diverting scarce resources such as water to benefit tourists - to the detriment of local people.

Anyone who is absolutely serious about limiting the environmental impact of their holiday should walk or cycle around their local area, perhaps camping or staying in a bed-and-breakfast. Yet to do so is to forego something that most of us regard as a right - and to deprive the millions of people in the rest of the world who depend on tourism for a living.

Joni Mitchell is not fond of holidaymakers. The singer once condemned a raucous crowd with the words: "You're behaving like tourists," - the biggest insult she could muster. On the scale of damage caused by global industries, though, tourism is one of the more benign businesses.

For now, most of us will settle on a messy compromise, seeking to limit our impact without restraining our horizons. Whatever your style of travel, the decisions you take can make a real difference to the physical and mental health of the planet, and sustain it for future trips - and future generations. Here are a few examples of better and worse choices.

Better: If there's a train or a boat or a bus, choose it in favour of the plane. Flying devours finite resources, makes a fearful row and pumps poison into the atmosphere. Even if there is no alternative to flying, there are ways to limit the damage - and that mainly means opting for the most efficient option.

High-density charter companies pack the punters in tightly, and operate with much higher "load factors" (average number of seats occupied) than scheduled airlines. The result: a much lower per-person impact on the environment and the airport's neighbours. Your knees may be numb but your conscience should be clearer.

You might also become a bit of a planespotter. Generally, the more modern the aircraft, the more quiet and efficient the engines. If you can't hang around waiting for the wonderfully economic Airbus A380 or Boeing 787 - which should enter service next year and in 2007 respectively - then opt for a new-generation 737 or the stretched variant of the Airbus A340. Carriers such as Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines have relatively young fleets.

Worse: In general, bigger is better and safer. Small commuter jets consume far more fuel than large aircraft. Having said that, some airlines - such as Northwest of the US - still fly big, noisy and thirsty dinosaurs such as the DC10. Worse still, in some parts of the world old Soviet aircraft are still flying. The high price of oil means many of these planes are likely to be grounded or scrapped. Until then, check out the plane at the same time as you check out the price.

The class of cabin you choose is crucial, too. First and business class travellers take up far more room than those of us in the cheap seats, rendering the operation a lot less environmentally efficient. And don't even think of chartering your own executive jet, even if you could afford it.

Better: Half a century of mass tourism has transformed the coast of Spain - much for the worse, many people would say. Some travellers see a package holiday in Benidorm as the devil's work, but in fact it is among the lowest-impact holidays you could take. Half a million beds have been crammed into a small stretch of the Costa Blanca, making it arguably the most efficient tourist-processing plant in the world - and if you don't care for that terminology, bear in mind that this is an industry. Benidorm also has a fabulous pair of beaches.

Similar enclaves around the Mediterranean can deliver equally excellent-value holidays.

Worse: Spain's coastal development was created deliberately to bring the moribund economy to life. It has succeeded dramatically - and persuaded every country with a half-decent beach to try to emulate the Iberian miracle. Often, this takes place in areas with poor infrastructure and fragile communities. So by all means travel to developing countries - it is imperative that many of us do - but live in a low-impact way, staying cheaply with local families rather than sleeping in an expensive modern hotel. The latter only encourages them.

Better: The main purpose of travel is to meet people, and the best way to do that is to share their transport, eat in their restaurants and drink in their bars. Supping local beer rather than sipping banana daiquiris will put more money in the pockets of the local people - and keep more money in your pockets, allowing you to travel even more widely.

You also need to make the right choice about activities along the way. A wildlife safari on foot with an expert local guide beats sitting in a Land Rover driven by a tour leader brought in from outside. Canoeing, horseriding and cycling are also excellent low-impact activities.

Worse: Backpackers mostly get it right, but the presence of a very visible "banana pancake trail" of cafes catering exclusively for those clutching their Lonely Planet or Rough Guide shows that some travellers refuse to diverge from the straight and narrow narrative of their guidebooks. Travel guides do a tremendous amount of good in empowering us to venture further afield, but it is your responsibility to stray away from slavishly following their advice.

Any activity involving a motor is probably a bad thing: jetskis are highly dangerous as well as noisy and polluting; quad bikes deafen people while churning up the terrain; and helicopter joy rides are wonderful for the passenger but not for the environment or other people in what should be serene, tranquil locations such as the Grand Canyon.

Finally, a sin of omission: spending your time in an internet cafe, e-mailing your pals, when you should be out on the streets or the beach. Don't turn your holiday into a virtual retreat.

Better: Retailing provides some of the world's greatest tourist experiences. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the night markets in Asian cities and even the giant malls in North America are real treats for travellers. Spend freely, especially on locally-produced crafts, while bearing in mind the £145 customs limit for bringing stuff back to Britain from outside the EU. You need not be an international expert to be able to work out what is the mass-produced tat and what is the real thing.

Worse: Many resorts in the Med have been filled with near-identical shops selling stuff that you could get in your local high street for the same price. By shopping in these stores, you are helping to oust long-established traders who were actually serving the community rather than dispensing tourist trivia.

Bargaining should be fun - indeed, if it stops being fun then something is going badly wrong. Accept that you are going to end up paying much more than the locals, and celebrate the fact that you have the wherewithal to pay the extra. Lucky you.