Shades of green

Back in the 1990s, I visited Kona Village Resort on Hawaii’s “big island”. A truly beautiful and charming place, the overblown telegenic hula of Elvis and Steve McGarrett’s high-rise Honolulu nearby seemed a million miles away.

With a fresh flower lei around my neck, I quickly settled into the “barefoot luxury” of what the hotel blurb called the real Hawaii. Simple cottages on stilts made from locally sourced wood offered heavenly ocean views.
There were outrigger boat trips guided by real-life native Hawaiians. There were white sands, azure lagoons and quaint stargazing programmes. But really, Kona Village’s allure had nothing to do with its facilities. In fact, its canny unique selling point was its lack of facilities.

There was no business centre or Internet access. Electricity was intermittent. There were no telephones and no televisions in the rooms. Cellphones were discouraged and the use of laptops in public areas was frowned upon. If you required room service, you left a large conch shell (provided) outside your door. Every attempt was made to keep tourism as uninvasive, energy economical and environmentally friendly as possible. I remember thinking, “These guys are really on to something here.” Ten years on and eco is in the travel market ether. (Eco, by the way, stands for environment and community-oriented.)

It is no longer polarised by a rough ‘n ready, dirt-cheap campsite or ultra high-end luxury wilderness. Young, idealistic and energetic types are driving a rapidly expanding and increasingly fashionable global eco-tourism industry. New environmentally and ethically aware hotels, travel agents, tour operators, campsites and websites are opening up. Seasoned travellers are starting to talk seriously about “offsetting” their carbon dioxide emissions when they fly, or taking the train or a car instead.

We’re not just talking mature hippies here, either. “This year you’ll be getting in training for your holidays,” wrote Vanity Fair’s Victoria Mather recently. “It’s not enough to simply go on a luxury beach holiday—we’ve all done that already. Instead, this year we’ll be white-water rafting on the Ganges, trekking for eight hours to see gorillas in Rwanda and walking in Luangwa with Robin Pope.” Blimey.

Even your reporter, at best a fickle environmentalist, is getting involved. Last year, I spent a weekend at Whitepod, a “zero-impact” camp for 10 guests situated over 1 700m high in the Swiss Alps.

It consists of five portable geodesic pods on platforms, which are removed in spring and leave absolutely no trace. It was terrific—like base camp as envisaged by Wallpaper* magazine—managing to be comfortable and close to nature without having a negative impact. Eventually, the owners plan to eliminate all the camp’s carbon dioxide emissions, even though their tenacious attention to detail and environmental accountability has already reaped rewards. At last year’s Responsible Tourism Awards, Whitepod won the prize for innovation.

Spending time in a peaceful, thoughtful and uncrowded place—where the proprietors were mindful of their social and environmental impact on the local area—made me feel rather good inside. Just the same way I feel good on the rare occasions that I can be bothered to recycle my newspapers, bank my bottles and package up some old clothes to be sent off to Pakistan.

Only problem is, I’m not like this all the time. My à la carte environmentalism is at its most dichotomous with travel choices. While I might embark on a solo hiking trip to somewhere far-flung and exotic on my own once a year, using a local guide and staying in a hut, hostel or yurt, I’ll grab a fistful of cheap family flights to the Mediterranean, stay in some nice middle-class hotel or villa and spend most of my holiday by a pool, not too far away from lots of other similarly zoned-out English people.

What does this kind of holiday schizophrenia say about me? That I’m a conveniently green eco-dilettante? Well, not quite. According to Justin Francis, co-founder of the online travel agency, this makes me a “light green”.

“The dark green traveller has always been there,” explains Francis. “But they are really less than 1% of the overall market. We are now seeing the emergence of the ‘light green traveller’, the type of person who goes to farmers’ markets but also goes to [the local supermarket].”

Francis, who defines ecotourism as the kind of holiday that “maximises the economic benefits to local communities and minimises negative social and environmental impact”, cites emerging eco destinations as Jordan’s nature reserves, the high-altitude ski-tours of Whistler’s ungraded slopes, gorilla-watching expeditions in Rwanda and Libya, with its local Bedouin guides, spectacular Roman amphitheatres and 3 000km of Mediterranean coastline unsullied by hotel buildings.

The reason ecotourism is growing three times faster than conventional tourism, according to Francis, “is that it’s not just about ‘doing the right thing’, but also about finding a different type of experience, a much deeper connection to nature and/or the local community. It’s about opening your eyes in the morning and immediately realising what country you are in rather than looking at the generic interior of a hotel chain.”

The print industry is also latching on to the concept. A new magazine, Project, is being launched later this year. Brought to the newsagents’ shelves by the unremittingly fashionable i-D team, Project is an eco-centric lifestyle magazine with strong emphasis on food, fashion and travel.

Why is now a good time to launch? “I think the fact that subjects such as climate change and the growing fuel crisis are so often in the news, people are becoming much more aware of their actions in all aspects of their lives,” says Project’s editor Liz Hancock. “With travel in particular, people are thinking about the impact they have on the places they visit and how they can minimise that. But really, it’s because the whole image of environmentalism has changed beyond recognition. It’s shed that underground and anti-establishment, militant image for something more gently aspirational and thoughtful.”

That said, as with any fashion-led trend, there is also a slew of disreputable bandwagon-jumping chancers. These even lighter greens—let’s call them Pistachio Cowboys—are the tour operators, hoteliers and travel agencies who promise and preach eco-friendly principles in their publicity literature, but don’t actually practice them.

The United States magazine Men’s Journal dubbed this practice “greenwashing” and claimed that the word eco has been “hijacked”, with “many dirty practices hiding beneath a green veneer”: an “ecotourist hotel” in Chihuahua, Mexico, dumping its garbage into scenic canyons; safari operations in Kenya’s Masai Mara national reserve clear-cutting riverbanks for firewood; and an “eco-lodge” near Tortuguero national park, Costa Rica, using outdoor lights that disrupt the nesting habits of endangered turtles.

“Like a shopper choosing between the ‘100% organic’ snack and the one ‘made with organic ingredients’, an ecotourist has to decide on an acceptable shade of green,” warned the article in last month’s Men’s Journal entitled How Green is Your Eco Lodge?

“Will you be angry if you have to forfeit lobster because it’s on the local endangered species list? Will you cross a place off your list if they wash towels only once a week? Don’t be fooled by so-called “eco-resorts” that have cropped up all over the developing world since Costa Rica demonstrated that ecotourism can be profitable,” it said.

The writer once asked the owner of an “eco-hotel” on Lake Titicaca in Peru exactly what made the hotel ecological. The answer? “We don’t allow smoking.”—Â

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