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Treading Lightly: Keeping City Travel Sustainable
A good vacation can make you feel revitalized and healthy, and stave off burnout — with thoughtful planning, your trip can do the same for the planet. No longer a marketing catchphrase meant to lure backpackers to underdeveloped locations, eco-friendly tourism today means making every effort to minimize your footprint when you travel, whether you’re headed to the other side of the world or just around the corner.
If your plans include accommodations at a “green” hotel this year, congratulations for embracing this important trend. According to a 2012 survey, 71 percent of Trip Advisor members intend to make at least one eco-friendly choice when they book their next travel plans, so you’re in good company. Popular online booking sites, such as Travelocity and Expedia, try to make it easier with “eco-friendly” or “green” tags distinguishing responsibly operated properties. However, you have to accept a hit-or-miss approach to score one of these, or dig quite a bit to uncover the information. Expedia, in partnership with Sustainable Travel International, includes a Green Travel Guide, but buries it in the Deals and Offers section without an obvious link. To find it, try entering “expedia green travel” into your search engine, instead.
All major hotels chains have implemented at least some resources-reduction initiatives, but the more proactive among them, including Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Intercontinental Hotel Group, Wyndam Worldwide and Starwood Hotels, have adopted formal sustainability plans with measurable objectives. Plenty of smaller independent and boutique hotels also operate according to this business philosophy, which aims to achieve economic health and cultural vitality while protecting the environment. You can even find admirably green efforts among budget properties, such as Choice Hotels’ Econo Lodge and Accor Hospitality’s Motel 6 and Sofitel brands.
How do you know it’s not just window dressing? Companies could be making false claims for the marketing advantage, but peer oversight and increasingly savvy shoppers make it difficult to get away with this. Julie Klein, principal with Confluence Sustainability, a Colorado-based consulting firm working to advance sustainability leadership across the hospitality industry, is a frequent and discriminating traveler. She says it’s worth doing some research to make sure your choices support those businesses making the legitimate efforts. “Company websites are getting better about putting this information upfront,” she says. But if you don’t see it, ask. Businesses with a sincere commitment to sustainability embed it in their corporate culture, so most employees should be able to tell you about the company’s sustainability initiatives.
Third-party verifications or certification programs can provide at-a-glance assurance that a property really does walk the talk. Programs such as the Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program (STEP), Green Key, Green Seal and Green Globe award certification to properties that operate according to globally recognized standards for sustainability developed by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, a membership organization sanctioned by the U.N. World Tourism Organization. Certifications carry different levels of compliance, but you can rest assured that any hotel or resort with a stamp of approval from one of these organizations has demonstrated an active and ongoing commitment to sustainable operations.
On site, look for energy-efficient lighting and controls, programmable thermostats, convenient recycling that includes in-room receptacles, and towel and linen reuse programs, Klein says. And don’t think you have to forego luxury and pampering to travel sustainably. In fact, sustainably operated businesses are typically also leaders in service and amenities, she explains. Upscale brands — such as Four Seasons, with properties in every CityPASS city except Tampa Bay; Rosewood, which includes the Carlyle in New York City and Rosewood Sand Hill in the San Francisco Bay area; and Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, located in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Southern California and Seattle — respond to their customers’ sophisticated tastes, from serving locally sourced organic foods in their restaurants to using all-natural cleaning supplies. Newer and recently renovated properties often take the effort even further, with automated air-con shut-off systems that respond the instant a door or window gets opened, on-site solar systems and property-wide water reuse systems.
But you don’t have to depend on a hotel management’s behind-the-scenes choices to manage the effects of your journey. Individual actions can add up to mega-impact. For example, during multi-day stays, make your own bed and forego the daily room cleaning. Pack your own natural bath products in refillable travel containers. At your destination, use public transportation — “It’s a great way to meet people, save money and get local tips,” Klein points out — or take advantage of public bike-sharing programs. Choose non-stop flights whenever possible, pack light to cut down on fuel consumption, and support your airline’s carbon-offset program. For example, United passengers can make tax-deductible contributions through Sustainable Travel International to fund reforestation efforts and renewable energy projects.
And remember, good travel habits actually start at home. Turn off all the lights before you leave. Unplug all unnecessary appliances and set your thermostat and water heater to conserve energy while you’re gone. Pull the shades to cut down on solar heat gain in the summer.
Oh, and don’t forget to pack your refillable mug and water bottle.