Helen Truszkowski: Woman About World

Want to save the planet? Pick up your towels
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The Independent Travel

Like island destinations everywhere, those in the Caribbean are a fragile paradise. The pressure created by droves of holidaymakers and their increasing demands is leaving a depressing litany of damage. According to the World Resources

Like island destinations everywhere, those in the Caribbean are a fragile paradise. The pressure created by droves of holidaymakers and their increasing demands is leaving a depressing litany of damage. According to the World Resources

Institute, two-thirds of the Caribbean's beaches are already eroded; wildlife is being displaced by huge hotel complexes, water sports cause coastal, coral-reef and marine pollution, while more and more wetlands are being destroyed to develop golf courses.

Sure, if you're anything like me, you go on holiday to have a good time, not to save the world. But, be honest, wouldn't you like to know your family break could be about giving, not just taking?

Well, take heart. Ecotourism is going mainstream, and the Caribbean is feeling the effect. Take Tobago's Blue Haven Hotel (001 868 660 7400; www.bluehavenhotel.com), an antidote to so many of the fenced-off and homogenised resorts in the region. It is renowned for several things: incredible food, a spectacular, film-star setting and, above all, its commitment to the happy marriage of ecology and tourism.

It wasn't always so. A heyday haunt for the likes of Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum, the hotel lay abandoned for more than 25 years. Planning a complete renovation, its new owners were committed to both preserving the original architecture and installing modern environmentally friendly measures.

The result is stunning Thirties colonial chic underpinned by a nature-conscious strategy. The hotel uses solar heating, biodegradable detergents, energy-saving gadgets, rainwater irrigation, plus local, organically grown produce and toiletries. It has also banned polluting motor water sports. Only local staff are employed there, and the scale of the hotel is kept small enough to safeguard the highest quality service and lowest impact tourism.

Glitter Bay in Barbados (001 246 422 5555; www.fairmont.com/glitterbay) is equally grand, with impeccably furnished rooms, a crisply uniformed staff and immaculate lawns. Children are welcome, with club activities scheduled throughout the day and a pool of nannies on tap. On a recent family visit, my son helped monitor hawksbill turtle nest-sites, went on a scavenger hunt for throwaway plastics that threaten the marine life and spent time at one of the local schools the resort has adopted. Meanwhile, Glitter Bay's dedicated Green Team got to grips with waste management, donating used hotel crockery to local hospitals, composting garden waste and recycling bed covers into pillow shams.

The aim is to saturate Caribbean holiday spots with a renewed beauty that's more than skin deep. The challenge is to match tour companies that deliver on their promises with family holidaymakers that care enough to make a difference.

"It would be fabulous if all families could instill in their children the idea that when we're on holiday we are all guests in somebody else's home," says Tricia Barnett, of the campaigning organisation Tourism Concern. "While it is your holiday for just two weeks, it is someone else's home for a lifetime."

Well, you can start right from the moment you pencil in a date on the calendar. When it comes to booking your island holiday, try to seek out tour companies that mention environmental or conservation issues, and those that invest some of their profits back into local charities and initiatives. One great online booking source is www.responsibletravel.com.

Consider scaling back on accommodation. Few visitors to the Caribbean realise that staying in huge, all-inclusive hotel complexes or using luxury cruise liners provides almost no benefit to the island people. Many less scrupulous hotel chains use disproportionate amounts of valuable local resources (water, for example), while cruise ships create pollution and erosion which affect the livelihood of local fishermen. By staying in smaller, locally run hotels you can minimise your family's impact on both the environment and the culture.

Once you arrive, help support the local economy by buying produce that has been made or grown nearby. And be sure to pay a fair price for the goods or services you buy. Haggling for the lowest possible price might save you pennies, but deprive the vendor of a day's salary. Use public transport, hire a bike, visit local restaurants and carnivals, find out where the locals go, and get off the well-trodden tourist route. That way, you will not only get under the skin of the island, but ensure that your money goes into the pockets of those who need it most.

There is no better way to experience the culture of a nation than through its people. Heavily patrolled, all-inclusive hotels only serve to heighten visitors' fears of life beyond the duty-free gift-shop and create a feeling among locals that tourists are there to be endured, not enjoyed. Abandon the lame hotel lounge, learn some local lingo and put the guidebook away for a while. Ask questions instead: you will find out more from the lady at the local grocery store than you will from any guidebook.

Jamaica's Meet-the-People campaign ( www.visitjamaica.com) teams up family visitors with Jamaican hosts who share a common profession or interest. In true Jamaican fashion, these volunteers offer a hand of friendship to visitors who want to know Jamaicans and the island way of life. From shopping at a craft market, to enjoying a traditional meal or visiting a local church or school, the focus is uniquely Jamaican, and opens a pathway to Jamaica's rich heritage. The Bahamas runs a similar People to People programme ( www.bahamas.com)

Above all, remember your family can help make a difference, however small. On your next visit you will no doubt spot one of those signs cropping up in more and more leading hotel guestrooms across the Caribbean. "Please put towels you wish changed on the floor and re-hang those you wish to re-use." "Please place this sign on your pillow only when you require fresh sheets." Now the cynical among you may see such eco-aware economies as purely a boost for hotel profits, and I will admit that, sure, throughout the trillion-dollar tourism industry taking care of the environment is an attraction in itself. But in a win-win situation like this, doing well can also mean doing good.

Know that you can have a great trip and leave your island paradise as untouched as the day you booked. So start as you mean to go on: pick up your towels.

Helen Truszkowski is a travel writer and broadcaster, and author of the award-winning Take The Kids guidebook series which includes her best selling 'Take The Kids Paris' (Cadogan Guides, £12.99)