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Sustainable Travel: Moving the Dial Starts with a Few Easy Questions

Story & Photos by: Maryann Fernandez | Edited by: Michaela Guzy

Sustainable travel has been on my mind lately.  On Wikipedia it is defined as “tourism that attempts to make as low impact on the environment and local culture as possible, while helping to generate future employment for local people.”   Sounds like something we can all get behind, right?

As consumers, we often focus on amenities (and dare I say, luxury first). While I love a well-appointed hotel room as much as the next girl, I suspected I may not have to sacrifice much in order to have both, but I needed to make sure because of my clients’ preferences.

So, I tried an experiment on a recent exploratory trip. As the focus of the philanthropic journey I am currently planning to Ecuador in 2013 would be the environment and indigenous communities, it was a perfect excuse to engage hotels and other vendors on their practices.

First, I noticed two dominant certifications in Ecuador: Rainforest Alliance and Smart Voyager. I also noticed that Rainforest Alliance also certifies ground operators – bonus!

Second, I adapted a few questions from Rainforest Alliance’s “Green Your Travel” page: http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/green-living/travel

No need to recreate the wheel here! Here are the ones I used when conducting site inspections at hotels to jump start the conversation:

  1. How are you conserving resources? What practices do you have in place to conserve water? Energy? Recycling?
  2. What percentage of your employees are local citizens?
  3. How do you support the local community?
  4. Do you have any initiatives that support conservation?

I learned a lot. From the Rainforest Alliance certified hotels, I got very direct answers, substantive answers especially about how they were working to restore the environment and with local communities (not only schools, but with repurchasing land and entrepreneurship).

With hotels that were not “certified,” I also got some interesting responses. It gave me opportunities to educate some hotel staff, to let them know that it was a consideration for us in choosing hotels and we valued those efforts. I was particularly pleased with a new hotel that opened last fall that was not certified yet (I asked if they were working towards certification in the near future) that heats their hot water with solar power and finds a variety of ways to give business to local shop owners – like providing guests tokens to get an old-fashioned shoe shine from a guy who has been working in the square for years!

If consumers of all kinds – from someone researching hotels for their family vacation online to those of us who develop group trips – just started asking a few questions and committed to increasing their bookings of hotels which are certified or more conscious about their environmental and community impact by at least 10% or 20% for the next year, we could start to move the dial on sustainable travel and send a signal to the industry that it does matter.

For me, I’m pleased that a wider variety of companies, including luxury properties, are thinking about sustainability beyond just sheets and towels. I’m going to continue asking these questions and looking for third-party certification/verification as part of our search process. I suspect that finding the balance between amenities and sustainability will be easier in some regions than others and that the process by which we continue to align our values and our business will continue to evolve….thoughtfully and intentionally.

As for my recent experiment, our trip to Ecuador next year will have….

  • ž the majority of our nights at Rainforest Alliance certified hotels;
  • ž all the hotels we will be using, except for a night in transit, have already put measures in place and are considering additional practices around environment and community;
  • ž our ground operator is Rainforest Alliance verified.