See the world and help save it

(This article was first published in The Daily Telegraph, 30 December 2006)

bike-on-prvicThe clock strikes midnight, Champagne corks pop – Happy New Year! But then there are the dreaded resolutions, which usually mean giving something up or, worse still, taking something up… such as jogging. In 2007 I resolve to do something that will make me feel better about myself and which I can enjoy at the same time: travel. But this year I am going to be a responsible traveller. Here’s how:

Think before I click

I can spend hours making sure that most of my food purchases bear the Fair Trade label, but I buy a holiday at the touch of a “confirm purchase” button. The prospect of paradise on the cheap can tempt even the most well-meaning person.  This year I am going to give just a little more thought to how and where I am going. Taking time to research good practice versus bad practice, not just good beach versus bad beach, must surely make holiday hunting more inspiring.

One easy way is to use a travel company with a responsible tourism (RT) policy, such as Explore, Exodus, The Adventure Company, Responsibletravel.com and Tribes Travel. These and many other companies worth supporting can be found on the Responsible Travel Awards website at www.responsibletourismawards.info. Another good place to search is on the website of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (www.aito.com).

High-street travel outlets are also discovering the importance of RT. Many now support the work of the Travel Foundation, a pioneering British charity that initiates projects enabling people, particularly in rural areas, to contribute directly to tourism in their area. See www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk.

Ready to rail

If I own a railcard, then I have to use it. I love trains and they are still one of the least polluting forms of transport. For information on how to take a train to just about anywhere, see www.seat61.com.

Get offsetting

There is a lot of confusion about offsetting the carbon-dioxide emissions produced by aircraft, and this puts me off. I recently tried to offset a flight with Monarch, using its website link to ClimateCare, a well-known carbon offsetting company. The cost was about £5.50. Doing it directly through ClimateCare’s website cost me £1.40. ClimateCare’s explanation for this discrepancy was: “They [Monarch] assume a load factor, not 100 per cent occupancy. They also do not include non-CO2 ghgs, which is why the figures differ.”

ClimateCare recommends reducing carbon emissions rather than just offsetting them. I hope that this year the various bodies that represent the travel trade will come up with a framework on offsetting that we can all understand. Meanwhile, I will support Friends of the Earth, which funds research to provide the Government with accurate information on the subject. See www.foe.co.uk.

Down on the farm

Instead of just booking any old cottage for a romantic break, I will choose a farmstay. This gives a new meaning to the idea of a dirty weekend. More seriously, farmstays often support farmers in need of additional income and most offer the basics of cosy duvets and open fires. Some even have swimming pools and spas. For options in Britain and Ireland, see www.farmstayuk.co.uk, www.responsibletravel.com and www.greenbox.ie. For places abroad, do a search for ”agritourism”.

Hostels from heaven

Family weekends this year will involve lots of travelling by bike and staying in youth hostels. There are many good hostel options in Britain: you can stay in a mountain barn for a fiver or rent a whole hostel and have a party. One of my favourites is at Castle Hedingham in Essex, a creaky 16th-century house overlooking a Norman keep. The cycling charity www.sustrans.org and www.yha.org.uk are promoted to my favourites list and the invaluable International Youth Hostels Guide 2007 is a must.

Live like a local

I confess to hiding in a cosy comfort zone on holiday. I check in, find the nearest supermarket to get supplies, sit by the pool, find one restaurant I like and make it my holiday haunt. Keeping it local is the way to go, and not just “by the pool” local. Use local transport, language, shops, markets, bike hire, drink local wine, eat local food and use a local guide.

That sounds like a lot of work, but I caught the local bug last summer on a small family-owned campsite in France. They gave us a list of all the daily markets in the area, so we hired bikes and borrowed a map. I stepped out of my comfort zone into a world of camp cooking.

One night we cooked fresh mussels, ratatouille and a bit of French fish (delicious, but I still have no idea what it was). We bought meat at a local organic farm, and a nearby château had enough orchards and vineyards to supply all our drinking requirements. I love the endless hypermarket aisles of Merlots, mustards and Madeleines as much as most people, but these ventures into local life are top holiday memories. Camp with the locals at www.huttopia.com.

Home from home

Many travel companies offer the option of staying with a family in their home. This way, the money goes straight to where it ought to. You pay the family for a bed, they serve locally grown or sourced food and everyone is happy. However, I do feel a little uneasy about those travel itineraries offering a list of activities such as abseiling, safari, and one night with a local family. A family should not be seen as just another tourist attraction. I think I’ll have to do it properly and stay for a few nights – if they’ll have me, that is. Do a search on “homestay” and the destination you want to visit, or see www.responsibletravel.com for recommendations.

Mobile-free

I am not resolving to achieve world peace, but I do like to find inner peace on holiday. So this year I am leaving all gadgets at home, and switching off the phone. A recent two-day train journey to Spain was the perfect try-out. No iPod, no laptop and nothing to distract me from my journey through mountains and olive groves. It was the most relaxing two days in a long time. For those who want to go cold turkey, the Adventure Company has 37 mobile-phone-free holidays in its 2007/08 programme. That really has a top-notch New Year’s resolution ringtone to it. See www.adventureholiday.co.uk for further details.

Enjoy myself

I am not going to feel bad about travelling in 2007. I am just going to do it better and give more thought to the world I want to see more of. It’s a long way up to that moral high ground, but it still beats taking up jogging.

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