Keep from see­ing red — when you go green

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org.

Green may not be the most fash­ion­able color this spring, con­sid­er­ing the re­cent pol­icy shift in Wash­ing­ton on cli­mate change. But it’s still the “in” thing for many trav­el­ers.

A sur­vey by the Sin­ga­pore-based on­line travel agency Agoda.com found that 58 per­cent of ho­tel guests pre­ferred stay­ing at an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly prop­erty. Nearly 40 per­cent said they’re will­ing to spend an ex­tra $10 a night to sleep in a sus­tain­able re­sort.

If you’re a hote­lier, hang­ing a sign on your door that says you’re green — even if you aren’t — can boost rev­enue. A study by mar­ket re­search firm Man­dala Re­search found that 60 per­cent of U.S. trav­el­ers have taken a “sus­tain­able” trip in the last three years and that these trav­el­ers spend on av­er­age $600 per trip, and stay three days longer than the av­er­age guest. Brian Mullis, founder of the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Sus­tain­able Travel In­ter­na­tional, calls the bur­geon­ing green-travel mar­ket “too big to ig­nore.”

Yet some trav­el­ers re­main skep­ti­cal.

“For me, green im­plies no man­u­fac­tured prod­ucts,” says Carl Lehman, an au­dit man­ager from Wind­sor, On­tario. And by that stan­dard, no air­line, cruise line or ho­tel can truly mea­sure up.

In a per­fect world, for a ho­tel to be con­sid­ered green, it would have to be bull­dozed to the ground, trees would be planted and peo­ple would let na­ture take its course. But that’s not the world we live in. Still, at a time when terms like green, sus­tain­able and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly get tossed around too much — of­ten with the in­tent of lur­ing you into a book­ing — it’s worth ask­ing how to sep­a­rate real green from AstroTurf.

Bret Love, who pub­lishes an eco-travel blog out of At­lanta called Green Global Travel, ad­vises trav­el­ers to “do your re­search and ask ques­tions” to de­ter­mine whether green travel op­tions are le­git.

For ex­am­ple, many ho­tels pro­mote their Lead­er­ship in En­ergy and En­vi­ron­men­tal De­sign (LEED) Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from the U.S. Green Build­ing Coun­cil, which judges on sus­tain­able-site de­vel­op­ment, wa­ter sav­ings, en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, ma­te­rial se­lec­tion, in­door en­vi­ron­men­tal qual­ity and in­no­va­tion in de­sign. But if you travel abroad, you’ll need to be aware of other sus­tain­abil­i­tyc­er­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­grams, such as Aus­tralia’s EarthCheck or Bri­tain’s Green Tourism Busi­ness Scheme.

“Mem­ber­ship in or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the In­ter­na­tional Eco­tourism So­ci­ety or af­fil­i­a­tions with Na­tional Ge­o­graphic or World Wildlife Fund can be a good sign,” Love says. “But they don’t guar­an­tee true sus­tain­abil­ity com­mit­ment.”

Ho­tel chains some­times have their own sus­tain­abil­ity stan­dards. In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Ho­tels Group, which owns the Hol­i­day Inn and Crowne Plaza brands, runs an in­ter­nal pro­gram called IHG Green En­gage that lets its ho­tels mea­sure their en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact. Own­ers can pull re­ports on wa­ter use and util­ity con­sump­tion with an eye to­ward re­duc­ing their car­bon and wa­ter foot­print.

“It makes our ho­tels more cost-ef­fec­tive and ul­ti­mately al­lows us to im­prove the value of ser­vice we of­fer to our guests,” says Paul Sny­der, IHG’s vice pres­i­dent of cor­po­rate re­spon­si­bil­ity.

When it comes to air­lines and cruise lines, there’s a con­sen­sus among ex­perts that there’s al­most no such thing as green — only shades of fake green. “There’s a lot of green­wash­ing,” says Donna Zeigfin­ger, owner of Green Earth Travel, a travel agency based in Cabin John, Md., that spe­cial­izes in eco­tourism. She says that both air­lines and cruise lines pol­lute and dump to such an ex­tent that some trav­el­ers find it dif­fi­cult to jus­tify a book­ing.

Tour op­er­a­tors, which com­bine air­line, ho­tel and ex­cur­sions into a sin­gle pack­age, can be even more chal­leng­ing to fig­ure out be­cause of their many com­po­nents.

“It’s not al­ways easy to tell apart au­then­tic green, ecofriendly and sus­tain­able tour op­er­a­tors from fakes,” says Joost Schreve, co-founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of kimkim, a com­pany based in Palo Alto, Calif., that spe­cial­izes in cu­rat­ing in­de­pen­dent cus­tom­ized tours by lo­cal travel spe­cial­ists. “My best ad­vice is to get on the phone or Skype with your travel op­er­a­tor and ask some de­tailed ques­tions.”

Those in­clude: What ho­tels do you pre­fer to send your trav­el­ers to and why? What com­mon travel prac­tices do you see that you don’t like? How do you op­er­ate in a more eco-friendly way? Can you tell me about the guides you work with and how you re­cruited them?

“By put­ting in a lit­tle bit of ex­tra ef­fort and ask­ing the right ques­tions, you can in­crease the like­li­hood that you are deal­ing with some­one who shares your val­ues,” Schreve says.

Ask for more than num­bers, ex­perts say.

“Aside from what bulbs they use, how many re­cy­cling bins you see, or whether they give you the op­tion to de­cline daily room ser­vice, it’s hard to tell on the sur­face how sus­tain­able they are re­ally try­ing to be,” says Alan Muskat, who runs No Taste Like Home, a for­ag­ing-eco­tour com­pany in Asheville, N.C. “I would want to see where they are sourc­ing their food, what they do with leftovers and what clean­ing prod­ucts they use.”

If you don’t like the an­swers or if they seem eva­sive, look else­where. “Sim­ply stat­ing they are green or eco-friendly does not guar­an­tee they are not green­wash­ing,” says Terry Dunn, founder of EcoTripMatch, an Al­bu­querque-based web­site that helps trav­el­ers find eco­tourism providers.

Dunn says that the homework isn’t easy, re­quir­ing that you “dig deep” on the provider’s web­site to de­ter­mine things such as the build­ing ma­te­ri­als used to cre­ate the lodge or ho­tel, its ef­forts to save fuel and con­serve wa­ter, and green cer­ti­fi­ca­tions. If that in­for­ma­tion is miss­ing, per­haps the ho­tel or tour op­er­a­tor’s com­mit­ment to sus­tain­abil­ity just isn’t there.

For guests like Rick Jar­rell of Madi­son, Wis., it all adds up to an al­most im­pos­si­ble task. When he and his girl­friend were look­ing for an off-the-grid evening on a road trip from Los An­ge­les to San Francisco re­cently, they found a glamp­ing re­sort in a Cal­i­for­nia state park. The ho­tel ap­peared to be green, with an or­ganic farm and an am­bi­tious re­cy­cling pro­gram. But upon closer in­spec­tion, he found that it was us­ing gen­er­a­tors rather than so­lar pan­els for elec­tric­ity and the food was any­thing but or­ganic.

“We were by no means rough­ing it,” he says.

No travel provider will come up per­fect. Af­ter all, ev­ery air­line, cruise line, ho­tel and re­sort pol­lutes the en­vi­ron­ment. Per­haps the best trav­el­ers can hope for is that their pen­chant for sus­tain­abil­ity will make the in­dus­try more re­spon­sive to their con­cerns. Be­cause, in the end, the only green the travel in­dus­try prob­a­bly cares about is your money.

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