Traveling Responsibly is Easy and Brings Own Reward

By Karen Rubin

Is travel and tourism the problem or the solution for the welfare of the planet?

Those who return to formerly remote places and see hordes of cramming trails, high-rise hotels where once there was wilderness, who go out to snorkel in the John Pennecamp National Marine Refuge to find a parking lot of boats, or who fly in to New York area airports and see the island blanketed in a black smoke of pollution, cannot help but wonder.

You have to feel guilty when you realize that air travel presently accounts for 3.5 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and expected to increase by 75 percent in the next 10 years.

Air travel has for all practical purposes made the world has become a much smaller place: in 1950, there were 25 million international travelers; in 2007, 846 million, a 3000% increase. The industry forecasts that in 15 years, there will be 1.5 billion international travelers. That’s an awful lot of feet to leave prints.

While some might argue that people who travel for pleasure waste energy and spew that much more carbon emissions into the air, to a much greater degree, it is travel and tourism that sustains traditional culture, protects the environment (the scenic beauty) from being despoiled. More importantly, it promotes face-to-face encounters and understanding that have repercussions in the laws and treaties that get adopted by government. This is as true today as it was in the day of Marco Polo.

Wuzhen, in China, has been preserved as a historic city (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

“Tourism can be opportunity or a threat to the planet,” says Costas Christ, President of the Adventure Council and Global Travel Editor for National Geographic Adventure Magazine. “We all have been to places where we visited and loved and return to find ruined, not as clean, or lost its character. That’s the ugly side of tourism.

“But the flip side is that tourism done well can be the engine that drives the protection of cultural heritage, keeps our cultural diversity alive and protects our planet.”

He adds, “Because of global warming, environmentalists tried to stop planes, but that is wrong. If we turned off travel completely, it would exacerbate global warming – because the places are protected because tourists want to see. Without motivation and economic viability, then the Serengeti Plain would be turned into cattle ranches; forests that harbor the gorillas would be cut down…The market is a powerful force.”

Travel can be a win-win-win situation when it is “Responsible tourism”, also known as “sustainable travel,” “green travel” and “eco-tourism.” Regardless of the term that is used, it refers to a means and purpose to travel that protect and sustain the environment (leave no trace) and support vibrant local cultures and communities. It means traveling with the least intrusive, least polluting forms of transportation (biking, hiking, even taking local buses rather than motorcoaches), utilizing locally produced goods and services, such as when dining, or in the interior furnishings and artwork of hotels, and promoting interactions with local people.

“Responsible” and “sustainable” travel are also consistent with the explosive growth in adventure and experiential travel. But it does not require “roughing it” – trips span the gamut from “back to nature” to ultra-luxury.

“This is probably the most significant transformation of the travel in history,” Christ says, a transformation on the scale of a revolution in the way the industry is organized. And the impact is enormous, since travel and tourism is the largest industry on earth, employing one out of every 12 people on planet, and changes ripple through industries and communities.

“Travel is needed now more than ever, at time of global misunderstanding and to bring understanding of who we are as Americans,” Christ says.

“Travel is the unexpected, special moment; that imparts understanding, forges connections. Travel isn’t just about blazing paths from place to place, it’s about new frontiers of consciousness and progress.”

A novel way to experience New York State's magnificent Erie Canal is to charter a canal boat. Tourism can bolster the economy when older industries collapse(© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Just recently, a group from Great Neck traveled to the Maasai Mara region of Kenya to witness the impact of money they raised for a well to provide a source of fresh water for a village that was close to being forced by drought to leave their tribal lands. While there, they saw first-hand the people affected by global climate change, and went on safari to see animals struggling to survive in their natural habitat. Many of this group, members and supporters of Reach Out America, are tireless advocates of policies to address climate change and environmental protection.

Recently, I saw first hand the benefits of tourism in protecting heritage and culture in ancient villages, preserved as living-history museums near Hangzhou, in the Zhejiang Province of China. Wuzhen (the name means “Black Town”), for example, is an old water town dating back 1,000 years. While progress – in the form of high-rise buildings and factories – has consumed such villages, Wuzhen continues to be occupied, its narrow cobble streets crowded on any given day with tourists who come to marvel at the architectural features, the workshops that re-create centuries-old handicrafts, and to experience the aesthetic scenes that make Classical Chinese paintings come to life. These dozen or so villages, that have been preserved as part of a 1990s government initiative.

You see in place after place how obsolete industries are replaced by travel and tourism – the whaling towns of New England, for example and along the Erie Canal, once the essential commercial artery from the Atlantic to the Midwest, where today you can bike 180 miles of paved trails and new life has been breathed into industrial plants. You can even see it on Manhattan’s West Side, where shuttered factories and decrepit piers have been rebuilt into the Hudson River Park, Chelsea Piers, and South Street Seaport.

“We are all part of the great global economic pattern of tourism” said Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, Francesco Frangialli, addressing the UN Climate Change Conference last December.

“Whether we come here to enjoy the beaches or the conference halls – or both, we are contributing to local commerce, to jobs, to investment and to export income. In so doing we are providing sustainable livelihoods through a long supply chain which we must increasingly help to make carbon clean. And we must start now.”

Travel’s Green Crusade

The travel and tourism industry is taking up the crusade. It is in the way tours are organized to bring a closer understanding of cultural and environmental issues and creating opportunities for interactions with local people; using transportation that is the least polluting, or purchasing carbon offsets; it is promoting volunteerism to help… It is hotel companies building “green” buildings; and cruise ships using special coatings to improve fuel efficiency and gearing up for biodiesel and other forms or power.

Sustainable Travel International offers these suggestions to minimize the footprint you leave when you travel: Research alternatives so you can help support environmental conservation, protect cultural heritage and promote cross-cultural understanding and economic development when you travel; be culturally sensitive – learn about the places you plant to visit and respect the values, customs and beliefs of local people; make meaningful connections with local people – chat with locals and try to speak the language, use local transportation like buses and subways; give back by buying locally produced goods; conserve natural resources when traveling and offset your carbon emissions. (For more information, 720-273-2975,

Two historic Maine Windjammers glide out from Rockland to the Penobscot Bay. The former cargo schooners are finding new use for cruising, and a new "ecotourism" program combines a windjammer cruise with a stay in a historic inn (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The International Ecotourism Society, dedicated to promoting responsible travel that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people, notes that anyone can be a responsible traveler – just make informed choices before and during your trip (202-347-9203,

For example, search the web for specialists in responsible travel, ecotourism or sustainable tourism (but don’t just accept the “label” as fact); consult guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Moon for information on the destination’s environmental, social and political issues.

The Society offers these resources: TIES Travel Choice Directory (; Rainforest Alliance-Sustainable Tourism (; Eco-Resorts (; EcoTour Directory (; Ecotrans (;; Mesoamerican Ecotourism Alliance (; National Geographic (; Planeta ( Responsible Travel (; Tour Operators Initiative (

Look for green certification. Increasingly, hotels are being built that are “green” in their construction as well as their policies regarding water and energy conservation (in my hotel in Hangzhou, China, you needed the card-key to turn on the electricity in the room). Another example is Sixth Senses Resort & Spa in the Maldives which was built for zero carbon emissions – not just offset by planting trees, but using technology to pump down 300 feet for cold water, using solar energy and cold ocean water currents in place of air-conditioning.

All 44 Fairmont Hotels & Resorts properties are part of a Green Partnership Program, and there are many others hotel companies and properties which are taking up this initiative.

A source to find such properties is the Green Hotels Association (

Carbon Offsets

The issue of Sustainable Tourism has become so large and so fundamental, that the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the largest professional association of retail travel agents, is creating a new “Green Member” category. That means you will be able to find travel agents who engage in “green” business practices, who have signed on to a “Green Code of Ethics” – and who are experts in Responsible and Sustainable tourism. That means they will be the experts on where you can rent a hybrid car and how to obtain carbon offsets for your trip and will not knowingly sell a product as green when it does not meet green standards. You will be able to locate an ASTA Green Member by searching, or by seeing the ASTA Green Member logo on the agency’s website and at their business.

One of the new trends in travel and tourism is to provide a means for travelers to offset their carbon emissions.

Portland, Oregon, is visited as much for its fabulous museums as for being a "green" city that works, with bike-friendly buses and light-rail, and trails throughout the city (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

NativeEnergy Travel Offsets fund new projects such as the construction of new wind farms on tribal lands and methane digesters and wind turbines on family farms. The site provides an online Emissions Calculator, so you can determine your trip’s environmental impact, as well as the cost to neutralize it. This program not only benefits the planet, but bolsters the economy of Native Americans. (NativeEnergy Travel Offsets, PO Box 4363, Burlington, Vt 05406, 802-735-0796,;

For example, Atlas Travel International, a New England-based agency, has launched ecoAtlas to enable clients can make a donation to NativeEnergy Travel Offsets, which supports efforts to harness wind energy or energy from methane to counteract the impact of carbon dioxide. Atlas has also been adopting such eco-friendly tactics as reducing paper waste and supporting a fully digital office. See

Cooler Skies Company has created program where you can book travel online at and earn free carbon offsets to fund projects that fight climate change at affiliated companies, through links to their sites. The travel affiliates so far include: Travelocity, Orbitz, LastMinuteTravel, CruiseDirect, and RailEurope; airlines including Delta, Virgin Atlantic, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and Westjet (Canada & selected US destinations); hotel companies include Hilton Hotels, Marriott Hotels, Radisson Hotels, and Comfort Suites; car rental companies include Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Thrifty Rent-A-Car and Budget Rent-A-Car.

“If we, as a society, want to make renewable energy the norm, we have to support energy projects that reduce or displace greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuels. Investing in carbon offsets is one way of achieving that goal, ” says Jack Boyle, President of Cooler Skies Company, Mount Vernon, Washington. To find out more about the Free Offsets Travel Program, visit: or call 877 662-6248.

Scores of travel companies offer the opportunities of ecotourism and responsible tourism:


International Expeditions, a pioneer in ecotourism, was named one of the 2008 Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth by the editors of National Geographic ADVENTURE magazine for its unique itineraries and trail-blazing spirit, and it is consistently on Travel + Leisure magazine’s list of “World’s Best” tour operators and safari outfitters, especially for its Galapagos cruise aboard the M/V Evolution and its Amazon Tour. The company is a leader in nature travel for the naturalists and historians who guide the trips. Trips go to the far reaches of the planet including East Africa, southern Africa, Brazil, Costa Rica, Machu Picchu, India, Egypt, The offerings include a series of family departures to the Galapagos and Amazon. (800-633-4734, International Expeditions also organizes educational adventures for teachers and school groups to the Amazon and Belize (

Earth River Expeditions, specializing in trips to some of the wildest, most remote places in the world using water as a primary means of transportation, offers an unparalleled adventure. Imagine a ropes course spread over an 1500 wild, secluded acres of the Patagonia in Chile. This is not just a river rafting expedition, but you access private camps that include tree houses, cliff dwellings and stone shelters, all by hiking, climbing, rappelling. Believe it or not, they claim you do not have to be a major athlete (you can take a virtual tour at the website). (Earth River Expeditions, Accord, NY, 845-6y26-2665,,

Biking to and around destinations is a great way to appreciate them, and also minimize the footprint you leave(© 2008 Karen Rubin).

G.A.P. Adventures offers small-group adventures on all seven continents – 1000 trips to 100 countries. It was named Best “Do It All Outfitter on Earth,” by National Georgraphic Adventure Magazine.

Wild Planet Adventures has been offering wildlife eco-tours for 17 years. The trips are designed to increase the odds of wildlife sightings, with local naturalist and biologist guides, night hikes, an interactions with animals, wildlife experts and scientific experts. In Thailand and Laos walk with tigers at a rescue center, bathe with elephants, listen to a gibbon sing from a tree house; in Panama, wander the cloud forest in search of the Resplendent Quetzal; in Costa Rica, cuddle a three-toed sloth in your arts and take a nighttime swim in a tropical ocean alive with bioluminescent sparkles; in Belize, swim alongside a giant whale shark and explore ancient Mayan ruins where there are more monkeys than people; in Peru, float down an Amazon rainforest river in search of a jaguar; and in the Galapagos, swim with sea lions and penguins and witness the mating dances of blue-footed boobies and waved albatross (Wild Planet Adventures, Sausalito, CA, 800-990-4376,

Gamewatchers Safaris and Porini Camps provide exclusive game-viewing and adventure safaris to Kenya’s premier wildlife areas with a sustainable program for wildlife and community preservation. Porini Safari Camps are small, with a maximum of 10 guest tents, and are run on environmentally sound principles, designed for minimal impact. (Gamewatchers Safaris, Evergreen, CO, 303-886-6953,,

Africa Latitude, based in Nairobi, takes clients off the beat safari path in East Africa and integrates local communities into a sustainable tourism experience. The signature trip is the Loita Hills trek in southern Kenya that stars off ina private tented mobile safari camp in the Maasai Mara, then continues to the Loita Hills where guests travel on foot through traditional Maasai villages (303-895-9583,

EcoTraining, specializing in immersion programs in South Africa’s bush for professional safari guides and intrepid travelers alike, is off the bearten track from the standard Africa safari circuit. EcoTraining’s EcoQuest program lets participants live in a private tented camp, Makuleke, in one of the most pristine, untouched, game-rich areas of southern Africa, the Northern Kruger Park, 24 hours a day. The EcoQuest safari, or “course”, is a 14-day program that consists of learning about the African bush while engaging in “the day in the life of a south African safari guide.” You learn about mammal behavior, bird and tree identificiation, studying tracks and tracking big game on foot, star-gazing, buish skills, and even driving a 4×4 vehicle (303-993-7906, www.EcoTraining.Co.Za).

Holbrook Travel, since 1974, has facilitated exploration, discovery and adventure, with programs that immerse in culture, wildlife and natural resources of Latin America and Africa (Holbrook Travel, Gainesville, FL, 800-451-7111,

Ecotourism does not just take place in remote, exotic, far-off places. It happens close to home, as well.

Maine Windjammers Association, for example, is a membership organization of historic and traditional sailing schooners that keep alive this tradition and support small entrepreneurs and local suppliers.

Ecotourism does not have to be exotic: a kayaking adventure through the South Florida Everglades at the Arthur Marshall Loxahatchee National Refuge is only 10 minutes from grandma's house, in Boynton Beach (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The American Discovery Trail Society is America’s longest non-motorized trail, consisting of 6,800 miles connecting wilderness to cities, mountains to prairers, deserts to oceans and community to community (Washington DC, 703-753-0149,

The Appalachian Mountain Club, founded in 1876, promotes the protection, enjoyment and wise use of mountains, rivers and trails in the Appalachian region (New York, 212-986-1430,

Just about every tourism bureau can steer you to ecotourism experiences and outfitters. You can turn a visit to grandma into an eco-adventure, for example, kayaking in the Everglades at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, or walking the trails in search of birds and alligators (10216 Lee Road, Boynton Beach, FL, 561-732-3694,


Earthwatch Institute is still fairly unique in creating opportunities to join actual research expeditions, and contribute to real science, in places that would otherwise be off-limits to tourists. Part of the fee goes toward helping support the scientific research – taking some of the pressure to constantly having to generate institutional grants – over the past 35 years, Earthwatch has raised $60 million to support research in addition to providing volunteer support to 4,000 projects. Earthwatch sends over 4,000 people a year from all over the world on research expeditions – in places as remote as Antarctica, where they help collect ice borings to gauge the impact of global warming, to Brazil to study threatened populations of pumas, jaguars and other threatened populations of carnivores and Kenya’s Samburu region to help conservationists implement changes in livestock watering and prescribed burns to protect severely endangered zebras. Earthwatch was recently named National Geographic Adventure’s world’s top “Volunteerism Outfitter” for 2008. (Earthwatch Institute, Maynard, MA, 800-776-0188,

The Shark Research Institute is another which lets travelers join oceanographic expeditions to promote better understanding of sharks. This is the only shark research and conservation organization in the USA. Its programs include satellite and radio tracking of sharks, DNA studies, educational and outreach programs, and ocean advocacy. SRI often accepts sport divers as research assistants on their scientific research expeditions. For example, upcoming diving expeditions in 2008 and 2009 are aboard the M/V Kairos to document behavior and track whale sharks, and collect population data, off East Africa in the area around Pemba Island, Mafia Island and the surrounding archipelagoes (around $3400). SRI, Princeton, NJ, 609-921-3522,

For the past 22 years, Global Volunteers has been organizing trips for volunteers to work on long-term development projects in over 50 communities in 20 countries on six continents. Trips range from one, two or three weeks long, but there are extended stay programs in China, Ecuador, India, Ireland, Poland, Romania and Tanzania for up to 43 weeks. Some of the projects include teaching conversational English, nurturing at-risk children, assisting with labor projects and provide healthcare assistance. Program fees range from $1595 to $2595 per person, depending on the country; US program fees range from $795 to $995 (all fees including airfare are tax deductible). Global Volunteers, St. Paul, MN, 800-487-1074,,

Still another volunteer opportunity is offered by Chora Luxury Safaris in partnership with Nomad Charities of Bend, Oregon and Nairobi, Kenya. Travelers may find themselves spending two or three days of a trip drilling boreholes to provide water to a village, working in an organic garden of an orphanage, or laying bricks to help build a new primary school. Choroa Luxury Safaris, based in Arusha, Tanzania, offers mobile camping safaris in Tanzania with special touches such as a Serengeti balloon ride (

Tourism helps sustain local heritage, such as Journeys into American Indian Territory trips (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The American Hiking Society organizes volunteer vacations that bring hundreds of people together each year for the common cause of building and maintaining hiking trails and protecting natural areas (Silver spring, MD, 301-565-6704,

Where to Find Green Adventures

Other sources to find green travel adventures include:

The Adventure Council/Adventure Travel Trade Association ( offers a search engine to find travel providers who are members of the association, by special interest and destination.

Working in collaboration with the Adventure Travel Trade Association, National Geographic Adventure Magazine (, for the first time, is rating the top adventure travel companies, publishing a list of the top 55 in an annual issue of the magazine, and 150 of them on the website, (

Specialty Travel Index produces a user-friendly website,, you can find travel providers by specialty and destination.

To find other ecotourism adventures and learn how other travelers found their experience, visit, a newly created interactive database that is like the Facebook and MySpace for adventure travel.

“Travel isn’t just about blazing paths from place to place, it’s about forging new frontiers of consciousness and progress,” says Costas Christ.

Judith Gabey, a former teacher, knows this to be true. She described her participation in Earthwatch research expeditions as “a transforming experience.” Her favorite came in Namibia, working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund. “I got to play with four cheetah cubs.”

“I had been a very experienced traveler – visiting all seven continents. [But after taking Earthwatch trips] I can’t be a tourist anymore, I have to learn something. “I’ve become addicted to this kind of travel. It is really doing something important…. Once you have done this, everything else is boring.”

Friday, 25 April, 2008

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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