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Green Is The New Black

OPINION: Is Your Vacation Really Green? A Responsible Tourism Checklist

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woman wearing straw hat in the middle of the road

Our resident tourism greenwashing expert, Jaclyn Yost, spills on how to make sustainable travel choices that make a difference. Here she shares her top tips to help you spot the difference between genuine and misleading eco-claims. Have a read before you start planning that next adventure.

With the growing global demand for green consumerism, it is no surprise that this arising concern has extended into the hospitality and tourism field. Travellers from all over the world are working towards making more sustainable choices that ensure the most beneficial impact ⁠— keeping in mind the people, the planet, and the profit first. Booking.Com reported in its most recent annual sustainable tourism report that 55% of all global travellers were more determined to make sustainable travel choices than they were a year ago.

Nonetheless, it was also identified that these travellers lack the knowledge when trying to put sustainability in practice, and unfortunately, some companies have caught on to this trend. This phenomenon is known as greenwashing, which refers to the misleading claims of environmental practices to reap the socio-economic benefits of being perceived as “sustainable”. 

With sustainably charged jargon ⁠— such as “eco-friendly”, “sustainable”, “ethical” ⁠— becoming more popular than ever, misleading eco-claims are not always the easiest to spot. Therefore, this compiled list of indicators is aimed to be utilised as a guide for travellers to recognise what makes a travel-related establishment honest and to assist in decisions that will make the most positive impact.

Jetty

Sukau Rainforest Lodge in Malaysian Borneo made from sustainably sourced and local materials, and constructed by local workers.

Eco-Accommodation

  • No matter what the type of accommodation style, local presence should be strong. While multinational corporations are usually chosen out of comfort and familiarity by travellers, internationally operated chains route the main chunk of profit back to the home country of incorporation. Therefore, providing little to no assistance economically to the actual location.
  • Materials and products utilised in the accommodation should be sourced from local and sustainable producers, suppliers, and distributors. And usually, when this is the case, the accommodation is excited to share about it. Not only does this keep profits regional, but reducing international imports lessens the mileage tacked onto building supplies, ultimately creating fewer carbon emissions.
  • On top of that, the accommodation should be employing locals and appointing them with managerial-ranked positions. By allowing locals to achieve top-level jobs (instead of outsourcing expat executives), those within the community will have an equal and fair opportunity in the workforce.
  • If there is a gift shop inside the eco-accommodation, look for signs of sourcing transparency. It is ideal if the establishment is supporting local artisans by selling their products and handicrafts. Further, through this open communication, it is more likely that the enterprise is following fair-trade practices.
  • Local culture should be promoted, and the accommodation should be actively working to respect customs relevant to the region. It could be demonstrated by displaying cultural decor, as well as teaching guests about norms to follow to prevent cultural dilution ⁠— a negative side effect of globalisation where cultures become increasingly westernised through constant exposure. 
  • Also, some establishments may choose to host educational talks to inform their visitors about topical issues in the area; aimed to teach guests on how they can make a difference where it would matter most.
  • Especially in developing regions, you’ll find that many establishments have community development projects in place. This signals that the eco-accommodation cares about supporting the surrounding community and preserving the environment in a holistic, long-term way. Examples of this could include but are not limited to, English language classes, women empowerment projects, vocational training, conservation work, and so on.

And of course, some recognisable indicators that showcase the establishment is actively working to minimise their in-house environmental impact:

  • They post reminders for guests to be mindful of their water and energy usage. Such as towel and linen reuse programmes, and turning off the aircon/unplugging electronics while not in the room. However, be wary if these are the only practices in place, often these are the easiest claims to hide behind and not fully follow through. 
  • Other approaches having to do with water and energy could include initiatives like rainwater harvesting, grey and black wastewater treatment plans, offsetting carbon emissions with reputable projects, offering alternative energy transportation for staff and guests (i.e. bikes, electric vehicles), and using renewable energy sources (i.e. solar panels).
  • Having a waste management system in place and sticking with it unquestionably. For example, a ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ policy in place that declares how it is sorted and disposed of, providing toiletries in bulk containers instead of providing mini bottles, and limiting the amount of single-use plastics and disposables. 
  • Eco-accommodations should also be using all-natural and organic cleaning products to avoid toxic runoff into the local water systems and ocean drainage.

Responsible Eateries

Plates of food and a coffee

A vegan bakery in Rishikesh, India that used its profits to fund childhood education and various community development programmes.

  • The staff at responsible eateries should be mainly local, with equal and fair managerial opportunities. Furthermore, eateries can be inclusive to the surrounding community in ways such as hosting live music events with local musicians or selling local, fair-trade artisan handicrafts.
  • Eateries can also choose to display cultural roots through decoration, cuisine, and events. This way, travellers can learn about the native way of life. 
  • Ingredients should be sourced and purchased from vendors and farmers in the region. By doing so, the dishes can celebrate seasonality while keeping profits within the local economy and maintaining a minimal CO2 footprint.
  • Some eateries may choose to embed a responsible initiative into their operations, which signals that the business cares about environmental and social causes. For example, training underprivileged individuals to expand their skill set to increase their chance of employability, or donating restaurant profits towards a good cause, or handing out edible and unconsumed food to those in need.
  • The establishment should be actively working to eradicate food waste through ways such as serving à la carte instead of buffet style, composting, and incorporating the full ingredient or surplus food into dishes.
  • Menus at a responsible eatery should offer at least 2-3 entirely vegetarian and plant-based dishes. Not only is this more inclusive to a broader array of diets, but limiting meat and dairy consumption also lessens C02 emissions, saves water, combats deforestation, and protects the world oceans.

Ethical Tours

Whale in the sea

Diving off the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, tour operators made sure that swimmers were always at least 3 metres away from Whale Sharks

  • Decent work opportunities should be provided to those employed with ethical tour operators. The most obvious way to tell is when a company places heavy emphasis on providing local guides for the duration of the experience. Locality promotes a circular economy and also, local tour guides will be able to share a wealth of knowledge about the background of the destination due to their living experience, which subtly roots culture while providing a better learning opportunity for guests.
  • Furthermore, tour operators should make a point to engage travellers to work towards following respectful codes of conduct to lessen the risk of offensive behaviours. For example, they could guide appropriate dress code, respective photography, customary business practices (i.e. haggling, tipping), and social standards (i.e. gesture, eye contact, PDA, meal-time customs). 
  • Tour operators should be especially mindful of their ecological footprint during their experience, keeping a ‘Leave No Trace’ policy in mind to ensure they leave behind minimal impact so that future operations can continue.
  • If tour operators host experiences that interact with wildlife, it is of utmost importance that the provider has policies in place that respect both the visitor’s and animal’s safety. To ensure a tour company is not exploiting animals for their profitable gain, make sure that safe distances are kept, the animals are free from captivity, and that animals do not express abnormal behaviours (i.e. injury, discomfort, fear). While some sanctuaries may be okay with touching or feeding, it is best to be apprehensive and research beforehand to discover a credible backstory before supporting these type of experiences.

Responsible Shopping

Woven hats and baskets

Hand-woven traditional Senegalese baskets straight from the local artisan.

  • Mainly in developing regions, many shops will have environmentally or socially driven missions in place to work towards providing support to a specific cause. Examples of this could be social employment, raising awareness, or paying-it-forward business models. If it is stated, ask for proof or more details to learn about why the shop is choosing to support this cause.
  • Products should have minimal packaging and an easily traceable backstory to support a shop’s eco-conscious claims. Things like highlighting where the generated profits are returning to, or stating who the local artisan was that handcrafted the product show authenticity.  If you are still doubtful, trust your instinct and choose to make exchanges with local artisans in person instead.
  • Be especially mindful of the same generic product on every street market corner, as they are more likely to be internationally made. This funnels profits out of the local area and is more likely to have an environmentally or socially harmful background.

Final Thoughts

Sustainability is a constant journey and learning process, and unfortunately, there is no one size fits all model for environmentally and socially responsible tourism. So for now, to make the lowest impact possible, the best we can do is become familiar with sustainable indicators and practices so that as conscious travellers, we can recognise places that are actually green. Making for a better holiday experience, not only for ourselves but for the wider community and environment as well

Disclaimer: This list is not exhaustive, nor does a business need to be following every practice stated. It is mainly to get associated with what different sustainability practices can look like throughout the industry. Moreover, because we do not know what is going on behind closed doors, these indicators are mainly discussing what the easily recognisable practices are from solely a consumer’s perspective.

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A self-proclaimed "Eco-Nomad", Jaclyn Yost has lived in various parts of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, and has journeyed to 34 countries (so far)! She is passionate about spreading awareness on sustainable tourism and how to be a more responsible tourist. When she is not working or traveling, you can usually find her in a yoga studio or whipping up a tasty meal in the kitchen.

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