While you're reading this article, more than 1.3 million people are heading off on trips. This ever-expanding army is rapidly turning travel into the world's largest industry—and placing enormous pressures on the environment. On average, each jet plane emits a full pound of carbon dioxide per passenger for every mile it flies—a major contributor to global warming. A luxury cruise ship generates as much as five tons of garbage in a single day. But there are ways for travelers to soften their impact on the environment.
In the last decade, a huge number of eco-tourism companies have sprung up, promoting vacations that claim to conserve the environment and directly benefit local people. While some operators succeed in these goals, others cynically use the "eco" label as a marketing device for tours that expose fragile regions to tourism with no regard for their preservation. To get some help in sorting the good from the bad, contact the Ecotourism Society (802/447-2121; www.ecotourism.org), an industry watchdog, or Eco-Source (www.podi.com/ecosource/), a Web page run by sustainable-tourism expert Carolyn Hill, which recommends eco-tours and eco-lodges.
Advice on destinations and operators is also available from the U.S. branch of the World Travel & Tourism Council's Green Globe program (410/263-2128; www.wttc.org). Next month, Green Globe is introducing a certification program for companies meeting the environmental standards that were adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
Clean Your Room
Some hotels think they're righteous in using biodegradable soaps, while the Arco Iris in Costa Rica actually recycles cigarette butts, turning them into a nicotine bug repellent. The American Hotel & Motel Association stresses water and energy conservation in its guidelines for U.S. hoteliers, and hopes to raise consumer awareness with in-room cards that urge guests to reuse their towels and sheets (this also cuts down on detergent use). Then there is Ecotel (800/366-4326), an independent environmental rating system for hotels worldwide that sets rigorous standards for waste, energy, and water management, among other concerns.
Take Your Foot off the Gas
Though it's extremely difficult to avoid adding to carbon dioxide pollution en route to your destination, once you get there you can take public transportation whenever possible and avoid nonessential gas-guzzling noise polluters such as personal watercraft (for example, Jet Skis), speedboats, and snowmobiles.
Here's another angle: Book your flights with a travel agent who participates in Trees for Travel, a nonprofit program that plants trees in 66 countries to counter the effects of global warming. Trees for the Future, which runs the program, estimates that each tree absorbs 50 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Contact Tread Lightly Limited (860/868-1710) or Escape Artists Travel (510/652-1700) for your nearest agent, or participate directly by calling Trees for the Future (800/643-0001).
You Shop, They Drop
Those natural souvenirs may look authentic, but what was sacrificed to make them?Coral reef is fundamental to the eco-balance of marine communities stretching from Australia to the Caribbean, yet we still buy coral necklaces as gifts and, in turn, local fishermen continue to dynamite reefs to satisfy tourist demand. And though it's hard to believe, some tourists still insist on buying items made from ivory and tortoise shells, needlessly endangering the lives of elephants and tortoises.
Travel Globally, Think Locally
Industry experts agree that the key to sustainable tourism is to involve the local population, to foster the community's respect for both their environment and the visitors who come to enjoy it. Enlightened safari companies, for example, employ and train local guides and rely on established local companies to transport their clients. Individuals can also contribute by eating at locally owned restaurants and shopping at the markets.
Even symbolic gestures can be beneficial. Ecotourism Society executive director Megan Epler Wood says most tour operators "still assume that high energy consumption is what the tourist wants," but as more people express environmental concerns, so too will travel companies. "Eco-tourism is already proving that the consumer wants sustainable tourism," she says.