Barefoot, carbon-free

I had a moment of pure recognition a few days ago when I read a column in Time magazine. In it Lisa Takeuchi Cullen laments: “I am not particularly eco-conscious. But I am increasingly eco-anxious.”

How many of us feel like that? There’s just enough drumming on about climate change to keep everyone uneasy.
And the discomfiting background refrain goes something like: “Take a last look, because the planet will never look like this again.” This is your last chance!

The column mentions an eco-therapist­ in Santa Fe who treats up to 80 patients a month suffering from facial twitches to full-blown panic attacks as the growing sense of environmental apocalypse unfolds daily in the media.

And, as the concept of a greener Christmas starts to take hold, there’s the added stress of figuring out what kinds of gifts we should be giving: a certificate guaranteeing that a poor family in Mozambique has received a small solar panel or a beloved perfume (for which privilege a caged Ethiopian civet has had its anal glands scraped so that French perfume makers can harvest the musk)?

Couldn’t we be forgiven for just wanting to get away, gaze into the middle distance and collapse into a world of fluffy towels, gorgeous sunsets and room service?

Fortunately, there are places where the mere presence of one’s wallet and body supports people who are truly making the world a better place. Even better, South Africa has one of the highest concentrations of eco-friendly, people-supportive tourism destinations in the world. In other words, we can save the planet by having a righteously good time. What’s not to like?

It’s particularly convenient because the single, largest disfavour you can do to your home planet (and it pains me to say this) is to fly off to a long-haul holiday destination. A return trip anywhere off-continent or beyond the equator will generate up to 2,5 tons of carbon dioxide, which should wrack your conscience while cranking up the Earth’s temperature. (For penance, consider planting a few dozen trees to mop it all up. And make sure they never burn down.) It also means you can drink good South African tap water and not that other environment-killer — bottled water.

The best place to start planning your anti-guilt trip is by visiting www.fairtourismsa.org.za. Fair Trade in Tourism is a uniquely South African phenomenon. It takes the Fair Trade label — that ensures Third World suppliers of commodities such as coffee and banana are not exploited by the First World — and applies it to certain tourism destinations.

A Fair Trade in Tourism label guarantees that staff are paid decently and offered training and that a certain percentage of food and goods, such as linen and furniture, is locally sourced.

In case you were picturing scratchy homespun destinations out in the sticks, the 30-odd Fair Trade destinations include everything from ultra-luxury in the bush (Singita, Sabi Sabi and Tswalu) through mid-range and fascinating (Bartholomeus Klip) down to backpacker comfort (Masakala Guesthouse and The Backpack). There are great adventure options (Ocean Blue and Mehloding). Even golf courses (De Zalze) and wine estates (Spier).

Then there are the winners and finalists of the Imvelo Responsible Tourism Awards (see the Imvelo Awards section on www.fedhasa.co.za). Here you’ll find some surprisingly mainstream destinations. The 2007 overall winner, for example, was Sun City. It won thanks to the way its management has interlinked effective environmental management.

Other category winners also offer exciting holiday alternatives: cuddle dolphins or help build houses with Voluntours; fly through yellowwood forests on zip-lines with Storms River Adventures near Tsitsikamma; be moved by elemental desert life at Skeleton Coast Camp; and relax at Fish River Sun, Mount Nelson Hotel or Thanda Private Game Reserve. Check their list of finalists for even more enchanting options.

A delightful place to spend a holiday (with the added thrill of actually crossing a border) is the Malealea Lodge and Pony Trekking Centre in Lesotho. This was one of the first overall winners of the Imvelo Awards — a real honour, since they mostly focus on South African destinations. Here your tourist rands can uplift surrounding communities, benefit Basotho pony owners, help educate children and illiterate adults, fix erosion dongas and contribute to solar and wind power for local schools. All for a reasonable price.

Incidentally, there’s a special bottle of organic Shiraz for anyone who comes up with a name for responsible tourism that accurately reflects how much fun it is.

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