Wednesday, 21 August 2019

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    7 minutes reading time (1339 words)

    Sustainable Travel Can Be Budget-Friendly

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    Lucas Peterson - FRUGAL TRAVELER

    When you think of sustainable travel, what comes to mind? Gorilla trekking in Uganda, perhaps, or a sojourn in a remote yet well-appointed eco-lodge in the forests of Costa Rica, or even a luxurious stay at a Galápagos safari camp with an infinity pool and locally made teak furniture. If these high-cost trips are what pop into your head, your picture of what qualifies as sustainable tourism is not necessarily wrong — it’s just incomplete.

    The term sustainable travel has been inextricably tied to opulent eco-travel. Fueled by a desire for guiltless extravagance and increasing attention paid to climate change, sustainability became a misused, industrywide buzzword associated with far-flung, expensive trips.

    But sustainable tourism doesn’t have to be expensive. Not only that, “it should actually be cheaper,” said Kelly Bricker, vice-chair of the board of directors of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, or G.S.T.C. “There should be cost savings for doing the right thing. If you’re sourcing locally, reinvesting back into the community, it should be cheaper than if you’re importing from all over the world to create your product.” Not only should traveling sustainably not break the bank — it’s frequently a better, more enjoyable product than its nonsustainable counterpart. I’ve compiled some tips from experts, as well as from my own experiences, and have found that sustainable travel is something nearly all casual tourists can afford.

    While there aren’t definitive statistics on the percentage of the hospitality industry deploying a sustained commitment to sustainable travel, there are indications that it is on the rise. A Booking.com study shows that 65 percent of travelers intend to seek out green accommodation in 2017 — nearly double that of the previous year. And a study conducted by McGraw Hill Construction shows that green building increased by 50 percent from 2011 to 2013, and now encompasses 25 percent of all hospitality construction.

    And that affects an increasingly huge number of travelers. Nearly 1.2 billion people traveled the world in 2015, generating $1.5 trillion — a full 10 percent of global G.D.P. That number — and the huge environmental impact that comes with it — is part of the reason 2017 has been designated the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations. Both travelers and destinations are increasingly acknowledging the impact of sustainable travel. “We are at a crucial crossroads,” said Dirk Glaesser, the director of sustainable development of tourism for the United Nations World Tourism Organization. “We currently see that many countries are taking this very seriously.”

    Tourism, while a global economic driver, also leaves a big environmental footprint. By some measures it accounts for a full 50 percent of all traffic movements, according to the U.N. Environment Program, and local culture can be strained by too many tourists crowding a particularly beautiful place — a concept known as overtourism. With a rapidly growing tourist base (1.6 billion people by 2020), the need for a sustainable approach grows more and more urgent.

    The first challenge facing travelers is defining what sustainable travel actually is — and distinguishing it from the many varieties of travel that advocates and marketers have tried to label as sustainable. “When people think of sustainable tourism, they think of small eco-huts,” said David Picard, a former professor of anthropology of tourism at the University of Lausanne and an author of a Unesco study on sustainable development.“Eco-tourism rings a bell — Costa Rica, luxurious safari lodges in East Africa. But that’s just a tiny element.” While those businesses certainly have their place, he said, a small lodge built in a remote location is unlikely to have a significant impact on local and national development.

    “You don’t create enough jobs or income,” he said. “You don’t create enough capacity. Paradoxically, what we recommend is work with AccorHotelsbecause they have a huge professional capacity. They’ll train an entire hotel — 300 or 500 people — and what we saw is that these staff, once they’re trained, is that they’ll start opening smaller hotels.” That large-scale paying forward of both skill and financial viability is key, Mr. Picard said. “That’s the definition of sustainability — it’s preserving resources for future generations.” (He added that he would “endorse any hotel that has a Green Globe certificate.”)

    As the notion of sustainable travel has become more mainstream, so has the notion that it implies a level of discomfort — but that need not be the case. “It’s not drinking water out of a vine, holding a machete and getting bitten by bugs,” said Geoff Bolan, chief executive of Sustainable Travel International. What it does mean, he said, is simply exploring the nature and culture of a place.

    Not all travelers buy in to the idea that they need to worry about sustainability either. That is why advocates have focused on getting big companies on board — they can shift the agenda.

    AccorHotels’ director of sustainability, Arnaud Herrmann, said the hotel was committed to executing more sustainable practices on a large scale through its Planet 21 program. “You don’t wake up and say, ‘I want sustainability,’ ” he said. “It involves a long process of developing the company culture and integrating the principles within the company.”

    It doesn’t hurt that the move toward sustainability has buoyed AccorHotels’ bottom line. The company has saved millions of euros by encouraging guests to reuse towels and conserve water — and a portion of that money has gone into its Plant for the Planet program, which has planted five million new trees over the past nine years. (A majority of U.S. hotels also have programs that reuse towels and linens.) The goal is to make environmentally sound choices simple for the consumer and without imposing undue financial burden. “Ecology should be not more expensive, and should not have any negative effect on comfort,” Mr. Herrmann said.

    The importance of large chains to sustainability doesn’t mean you have to cancel your trip to the tiny lodge in Central America; opportunities to travel sustainably are everywhere. Travelers “think sustainable travel is either too expensive or outside of what they want to do when they travel. More often than not, this is not the case,” said Kelley Louise, executive director of Travel+SocialGood, a sustainable tourism advocacy group. “It can apply to any kind of travel, whether you’re going to New York City or Costa Rica or Europe. When it becomes more applicable, it becomes more powerful to be used as a force for good.”

    What, then, has prevented sustainable travel from gaining broader acceptance? It might be a branding issue. “The word sustainable is not very digestible,” said Ana Duék, editor of Viajar Verde, a news site about sustainable travel. “The idea is to communicate it in a more attractive way to travelers, using words like ‘authenticity’ and ‘experience.’ 

    That sort of demystification is what organizations like Visit.org are trying to accomplish. The site curates different local travel experiences — ranging from free to several thousand dollars per person — in the name of social good. Sustainability, the idea goes, is not always something quantifiable like a certain number of trees planted or an amount of food waste reduced — it can also be about cultural exchange. An experience at the League of Kitchens, in which people can sign up to cook in home kitchens around New York City, demonstrates that sustainable travel need not necessitate leaving the country.

    The immersive cooking workshops ($175) aim to empower immigrant and refugee women. “It’s not about visitors sharing their skills with the locals,” Michal Alter, a founder of Visit.org, said. “It’s about the community sharing their experiences and history with the visitors.” Other experiences visitors can book on the site include an art workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia ($18), and a five-day wine tasting tour in Moldova ($594).

    Generally speaking, sustainable travel simply means being open to other cultures. “Dare to talk to someone you usually wouldn’t talk to,” said Mr. Glaesser of the World Tourism Organization. “Leave a positive footprint, whether it’s a local purchase or a kind of respectful economic or cultural input.”

    Here are more practical tips for traveling sustainably that won’t blow your travel budget — and in some cases will save you money.

     

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