Green is the new black

‘The only true ethical traveller is one who stays at home,” an old friend of my father’s announced over Christmas. “Bah, humbug,” I said, and we entered into a hearty debate. I am glad to say I managed to win him over. With luck I have managed to win a few readers over since I started Ethical Traveller, earlier this year. My argument is quite simple. Tourism is the one of the largest industries in the world. If we all stop travelling, world economies would be much more bruised than they are already. On the other hand, tourism grows all the time, with new destinations suddenly becoming the place to see “before we die”. So we need to stop and take stock of the effect we are having on these places.

According to the UN, European trips will grow by 57 per cent between 2000 and 2020, despite the current economic downturn. Its Code of Ethics for Tourism rightly talks about “tourism’s contribution to mutual understanding and respect between peoples and societies”. In other words, the world we like to call our oyster is also someone else’s home. If we trample all over these homes, use up all their resources, shut them out of their own back gardens or beaches, or treat them like servants, all in the name of a holiday, then this is not ethical.

If this all sounds a bit worthy, then that’s because it is. We don’t have to sugar-coat the ethical message any more, as people get it: we all recycle, buy energy-saving bulbs and know something’s not right about a T-shirt that costs €1. That is why eco-, sustainable or ethical tourism, call it what you will, is one of the biggest growth sectors of tourism.

Many companies are finally taking heed, listening to their clients’ increasing ethical concerns, and providing holidays that really make a difference to the places we choose to visit. Charities such as the UK‘s Tourism Concern ( lobby multinationals and governments to stop exploitation in the name of tourism.

This column aims to help you pick out the real thing, because with green being the new black, “eco” is being rapidly tagged on to any old travel website. So beware. Look for responsible tourism policies, read them and find out what the companies are really doing to improve their business practices. There is no international ethical rating system yet for tourism, so it is difficult to distinguish the good from the dodgy, but I try to give the good ones a voice.

Travel is one of life’s most rewarding and inspiring pursuits, and doing it more responsibly does not mean giving it up altogether. Just do it better. Fly only when absolutely necessary. Spend your holiday money locally in whatever way you can. People in tourist areas depend on it for a living, so think local. Learn some of the language; it is the first step in embracing local culture. Leave the car behind, and use low-carbon transport whenever you can. Learn about the local flora and fauna. What impact does your jet ski have on marine life? What is the artificial snow machine doing to the Alps? How can a golf course be so green in a drought area, where locals have water restrictions? How much is that waiter being paid?

The good news is that there is a plethora of alternatives. Amazing train journeys, cooking holidays, walking breaks, cycling getaways and kayaking trips. Ecofriendly cottages, castles and campsites. And, most importantly, people out there creating superb ways for us to see the world and ensuring, at the same time, that it will still be there for the next generations. So, happy travelling, and happy new year.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 27 December 2008)