Go for a green vacation

It is possible to travel and be kind to the environment. Here is how those who are eco-minded can plan their trips

NEW YORK • So you want to see the world without messing it up? Embarking on a trip makes you something of a carbon hog, unless you are planning to walk, cycle or sail. That said, there are ways to make your trip as harmonious with the Earth as possible.

We have asked representatives of environmental groups how they approach travel. Here are steps to planning your trip with the environment in mind.

Vacations kind to Earth

When planning a vacation, the most important decision is where you are going. The environmental purists' answer is that it is ideal to go nowhere. Staying local and taking walks in your neighbourhood (the staycation) is the greenest option.

"Taking a trip to a place that's like home, but warmer, is hard to justify," said Mr Bill McKibben, a co-founder of 350.org, a non-profit organisation (NGO) that campaigns for climate action.

But a green vacation does not have to be about the natural environment. Just strolling or biking around a new city - say, Boston, or Paris - is an easy way to have an environmentally friendly vacation.

The second-best thing to staying home is venturing a few hours away. For those who want to experience a different country and landscape, environmentalists suggest using travel dollars to reward places or governments that prize conservation.

Namibia, for example, is "the exception on the African continent when it comes to poaching", said Mr James Sano, vice-president for travel, tourism and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund.

Another destination is Costa Rica. "That country's focus on ecotourism is so deep and pure that it's become a huge part of the economy," said Ms Avital Andrews, lifestyle editor for Sierra, the Sierra Club magazine. "It's like this Eden of rainforest and wildlife."

Many environmental entities offer trips or join with groups that offer excursions. Although these may not be service-oriented, the groups are certain to pay attention to the details of getting around and dining in as environmentally friendly a way as possible.

Mr Sano said: "Conservation NGOs are doing their homework to make sure these for-profit companies are behaving in a way that aligns with their values. Examples include Natural Habitat Adventures, which is a partner of the World Wildlife Fund and offers trips around the world, and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic.

But a green vacation does not have to be about the natural environment. Just strolling or biking around a new city - say, Boston, or Paris - is an easy way to have an environmentally friendly vacation.

How to get there

Getting to and from your destination will almost certainly account for the biggest carbon chunk of your vacation, especially if you fly far away.

Driving will usually be better than flying, particularly if there is more than one person in the car, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, a non-profit organisation that helped uncover the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Planes burn a huge amount of fuel, especially during take-off and landing.

Thus, according to the council's analysis, which covered trips of 480km to 800km, a sport-utility vehicle with two or more people is more carbon-wise than flying.

Buses between cities tend to be more environmentally friendly than all but the most fuel-efficient full cars, the analysis by the clean transportation council found.

If you are travelling beyond 800km, you will most likely fly, which is an extremely carbon- intense activity. An economy-class round-trip flight between New York and Paris, for example, can generate 1 metric tonne or more of carbon emissions, whereas a resident of the United States generates annual carbon emissions of 17 metric tonnes on average.

There are still ways you can lessen your carbon footprint while in the air. It is usually best to go nonstop because that allows for more efficient use of the aircraft. Going coach is also greener than first class because you are taking up less space.

Environmentalists differ on whether it is worthwhile to buy carbon offsets. These are credits that go towards reducing carbon elsewhere, by capturing the potent greenhouse gas methane on a farm, for example, or by planting trees. They may be offered by airlines as you buy a ticket, at a cost of, say, US$70 (S$94) for a New York to Paris round trip. Many environmentalists do not use them, saying it is better to be carbon frugal in other aspects of life.

"We just try to bake it into our existence or the food we consume," said Mr Chip Giller of Grist.org.

One final note before you set off: It is much more eco-friendly to take public transportation to the airport than use a car.

Where to stay and eat

Figuring out where to stay and where to dine can be baffling. A blizzard of organisations provide green stamps of approval to hotels.

Ms Andrews trusts the green- building certification system known as Leed, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Only a handful of hotels in the US have attained platinum status, Leed's top measure. They tend to be on the luxury side. They include Bardessono in the Napa Valley of California, with its reused stone, salvaged cypresses and organic linens; the Proximity hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina; Hotel Skyler in Syracuse, New York; the Crash Pad, a cheaper venue in Chattanooga, Tennessee; a Marriott in the College Park, Maryland, area; and the W Hotel in San Francisco.

An unresolved question is how home-stay options, such as Airbnb or HomeAway, compare with hotels on environmental footprint. The answer, almost certainly, is: It depends. Heating and cooling will probably be your largest sources of carbon emissions at a hotel, so if you rent a large home on Airbnb and need to heat or cool every room, you will most likely be using more energy than if your family occupied one or two hotel rooms. But if you share a home with the host, you may not need any more heating or cooling than what is already used.

Wherever you end up staying, it is best to minimise your use of heating and cooling. Besides manoeuvring the thermostat and turning the system off when you go out, try closing the curtains during the day to reduce the heat from the sun. You can also refuse the bottled water if your hotel is in an area where the tap water is safe to drink.

Many people take a vacation by the coast. So when looking for places to eat, you will probably end up at a seafood restaurant. It is vacation, but there are tools that can help you make sustainable choices. The Seafood Watch programme from the Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a handy guide to which fish are best to eat, and avoid, in different states.

Another tip: Rather than, say, Texas barbecue every day, eating vegetarian, at least occasionally, is another easy way to go lighter on the planet.

What to do

The most environmentally friendly vacations, and some of the best vacations in general, are about relaxing. The less you drive around on unfamiliar roads, the happier you, the children and the planet will be. Think beaches.

"If you live anywhere near a beach, that's just like you're never going to find a better place for a kid," said Mr Giller. "Just plant them at the beach and they are happy for hours, digging holes, playing with the tides."

Ms Andrews said that theme parks are not a particularly green travel genre. But if you go, try to find parks that are trying to reduce their environmental footprint and try to reduce the amount of trash you generate.

Cycling, camping and sailing tend to be other low-carbon options that get you out into nature. For some, there is the great question of cruise ships. Boats are far more fuel- efficient than most other modes of transportation. That is why cars, toys and much else arrive from overseas by immense cargo ships. But you have to get to the port, which often requires a flight, and once you are on board, a cruise ship is always moving and thus running its engines.

Environmentalists complain that cruise ships dump sewage into the water. Air pollution is another concern. In the latest rankings, which are based on several criteria such as air pollution and sewage treatment, Disney Cruise Line comes out best, although none performed especially well.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'Go for a green vacation'. Subscribe