For all our talk of responsible travel, hedonism remains alive and well--and it's growing bigger and brasher than ever. Short of giving up and staying home, can travelers hope to reconcile doing good with having fun?
Edwin Fotheringham
| Credit: Edwin Fotheringham

But wait a minute. Isn’t vacation a time for avoiding reality?For forgetting the price of gas, the rising cost of air travel, and the toll our trivial peregrinations take on the earth?Why all this hand-wringing and nail-biting about sustainability when travel is about, y’know, “getting away from it all”?

So chants a chorus of increasingly defensive tourists who would just as soon not face the world’s problems while on holiday, thank you very much. (Never mind that many of us also ignore the world’s problems at home.) Call it obstinacy, call it entitlement, call it the American Way: a sizable portion of the traveling public is convinced we deserve a break—and the responsibility zeitgeist, frankly, is bumming us out. The noble opposition may argue till they’re green in the face, yet still come our petulant retorts: Where’s my wave pool?Where’s my trained dolphin?Where’s my back nine?

And how could we be denied?Outsize excess has not only survived the doomsaying; it’s positively booming. For every sensibly scaled retreat that sets up on the edge of a rain forest, another dozen behemoths open just down the shore. Cruise ships continue to swell: next autumn will see the debut of Royal Caribbean’s 5,400-passenger Genesis, the latest “world’s biggest cruise ship,” this one a whopping 40 percent larger than the previous one. Then there’s the trinity of who-gives-a-damn extravagance: Las Vegas, Dubai, and Macau, soon to be the site of the world’s largest resort—the 6,700-room Cotai Central, opening in 2009. This is just the latest addition to the tens of millions of square feet of gambling, hotel, and entertainment space already on the Cotai strip, which the new hotel’s own publicist describes as “Vegas on steroids.” (Uh, that’s a good thing, then?) If heedless excess has an address on earth, it is this, it is this.

Even now, as the world goes down the three-gallon-flush toilet, most travelers seek only an effective means of escapism. Especially now. We stroll on the beach in blissful oblivion, tracing our carbon footprints in the sand. We luxuriate in scorching deserts, cooled by poolside misters (talk about eco-unfriendly: you might as well spray caviar out of a firehose). We continue to bow before the Fun God in the face of all evidence that Fun is not so good for the planet.

Who’s responsible, then: the travelers who demand all this or the companies that indulge them?In the industry’s defense, while it’s hard enough to persuade people to do the right thing in their homes and workplaces, it’s even harder to persuade them to make those choices while on vacation, when otherwise thoughtful citizens turn into decadent reprobates. A couple of newlyweds check into a honeymoon suite at a beachfront resort to find all the expected amenities—and energy-saving CFL bulbs in the bedside lamps. The couple may drive a Prius and carry reusable grocery bags back home. But will they be happy spending their honeymoon bathed in fluorescent cubicle light?Those commonsense sacrifices that seemed reasonable back in Bloomington are suddenly out the window in Anguilla. Few travelers are willing to compromise an experience they’ve spent so much time and money on. And few hotels will risk alienating guests by forcing compromise upon them.

This is not an easy time for the tourism industry. Leaving aside spiraling costs, the very idea of leisure travel is under environmental scrutiny. Other endeavors may sap as many resources—raising beef or corn, for instance—but tourism is a voluntary indulgence. No one needs to holiday in Fiji, just as no one has to build a party boat the size of an aircraft carrier.

So what are the giants of the industry to do?Well, they can turn the tables and try to play the eco-card themselves. Hotel chains, cruise lines, theme parks, and airlines are all showing their green stripes these days. Here at T+L, our in-boxes are flooded with press releases trumpeting the Good Word. Imagine our surprise when the infallible Environmental Protection Agency bestowed an Environmental Quality Award on…Harrah’s Entertainment! But indeed: at its four Atlantic City casinos, the company is recycling cooking oil, installing waterless urinals, and making other green improvements so you can feel good while behaving badly.

Speaking of sustainable dens of iniquity, Las Vegas’s 3,066-room Palazzo Resort Hotel recently became the largest building in the world to receive LEED certification. This has only accelerated a Vegas-wide race for the other kind of green, as the major resort players vie for the title of “most eco-friendly gambling colossus.” (Is a LEED rating the new Michelin star?Discuss.) Even Dubai has cast its bid for redemption—at the feet of Brad Pitt, who will consult on a new 800-room, green-minded hotel for developer Zabeel Properties. Not to be outdone, Donald Trump intends to cash in carbon credits with his Trump on the Ocean development, on New York’s Long Island. The restaurant-and-nightclub complex will use 20 percent recycled materials in construction, nontoxic paints in its interiors, and ozone-friendly refrigerants in the air-conditioning.

Is this just a lot of hot—er, cold air?Corporate apologists call it admirable progress. Hard-core eco-warriors call it greenwashing. But perhaps it’s too easy to be cynical. Instead of dismissing such efforts as token PR moves, we should think of the alternative: no movement at all. Even token compliance is still compliance. Perhaps the real question is not, How can these behemoths ever be considered green?but rather, How can the rest of the world ever be green without them?

Consider the curious cases of Jamie Sweeting and Adam Werbach, two of the judges for our Global Vision Awards. Both have extensive experience on both “sides” of the field. Both garnered impeccable green credentials: Sweeting as a senior business advisor and senior director of travel and leisure with Conservation International, Werbach as the youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club, from 1996 to 1997. But to the consternation of many in the eco-tribe, both found roles in the corporate sector. Sweeting is now vice president of environmental stewardship for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, where he helped develop the new Celebrity Solstice, which, in addition to its revolutionary, energy-efficient hull design, will be the first commercial cruise ship to use solar power. Werbach has consulted on sustainability issues for Wal-Mart and directs Saatchi & Saatchi S, the “sustainable branding” division of the advertising giant. Both men insist that the future of environmentalism lies in promoting change on a broad scale—by engaging the corporate “big guns” rather than labeling them as beyond repair and hoping they’ll just go away.

Going green can mean huge savings for a company’s bottom line, from lower electric bills to tax credits. The image of virtue certainly doesn’t hurt, but neither Werbach nor Sweeting is overly concerned with PR. “We tend not to work with companies who approach us from within a social-responsibility framework,” Werbach says. “Those interests generally don’t have a lot of power within their organizations. We prefer when they say, ‘We want to save 30 percent on our fuel costs’ or ‘We want to make our employees happier at work.’ These are core business challenges that in some ways have nothing to do with being green—they have to do with making money. And there’s never been a time in our lives when financial interests were so closely aligned with the needs of the planet.”

Sweeting concurs. “Green concerns are not seen as a competitive advantage among the cruise lines—we’re all trying to work together,” he says. “As an industry we recognize that maintaining a safe and clean environment on the oceans is vital to our business.”

Reforming the big guns may prove as slow as, well, turning a cruise ship around. Yet on this scale even incremental changes can have a sizable effect. Not only do these companies have the most impact and influence within their fields; they also reach the widest audience of the unconverteds we talked about earlier. So if a cruise line makes the decision to offer marine-life conservation lectures alongside the obligatory melon-in-your-cleavage relay races on the lido deck, maybe it’s time to see that not as greenwashing but as a measure of…progress?“Every gesture counts,” Werbach says. “Even replacing paper towels with hand-dryers in a casino helps remind people what we’re up against.”

The road to salvation, in other words, may lie not in that eight-room eco-resort in the Costa Rican jungle, but in Las Vegas, where 750,000 of us go in a single week to forget our troubles and forgive our earthly sins. If just 1 percent of that number can learn to live without high-pressure showerheads and subzero air-conditioning, maybe we can all learn to shift our priorities and be a little more mindful than mindless. Perhaps one day fluorescent-lit honeymoons will be the norm, and we’ll no longer pine for the alternative. We won’t feel guilty and resentful for not complying or smug for doing so; we’ll just do it, because that’s what we do.

In the meantime, we’re going to need a little help from on high. So could we please switch off the @#$%ing poolside misters?

Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure’s editor-at-large.