Is your next holiday green, or just 'greenwash'? We guide you through the maze of sustainable and responsible tourism
Our travel plans are increasingly motivated by our desire to look after the destinations we're visiting. Almost half of British holidaymakers want to give back to the places they visit, says a recent poll by TUI. In an earlier survey by AIG Travel in 2017, 78% of travellers rated sustainable travel as important – up from 52% the previous year.
The rise of ecotourism is big business for hotels, tour operators and tourist attractions that lean green. The tricky part for travellers is telling the difference between green and ‘greenwash’ – when operators give an outward impression of being environmentally friendly when the reality is anything but.
Most travel providers aren’t trying to dupe their customers. It’s more likely that they’re over-emphasising their lone concession to reducing their carbon footprint. There might also be something lost in translation: after all, ‘eco-lodge’ and ‘animal sanctuary’ don’t carry the same connotations worldwide.
So how do you cut through the waffle to plan a trip that’s truly green? Here are four questions to ask.
1. Do their green commitments sound vague?
Eco-lodge. Natural. Chemical-free. These descriptions sound lovely but mean almost nothing. There are no globally enforced rules about describing a business as an ‘eco-lodge’, and ‘natural’ is a flimsy term (crude oil occurs ‘naturally’). If your hotel’s shampoo is truly ‘chemical-free’, then it isn’t shampoo (fruit extracts, detergents, fragrances...they’re all chemicals).
Some tourism businesses rely on feel-good branding to give the impression of being in tune with their environment. They hope that travellers won’t look past the reassuring wording. Others are simply oblivious: in parts of Asia, ‘eco’ is used as a synonym for ‘outdoor’, so an ‘eco-park’ might be nothing other than a golf course or amusement park.
2. Is your ‘green’ hotel too focused on towels?
Practically every hotel bathroom carries a tag urging guests to reuse towels for the sake of the environment. Yes, reusing towels reduces water waste – but if an avowedly green hotel makes their towel policy a major headline, it doesn’t bode well.
A hotel truly striving to minimise their impact will list several methods on their website: rainwater toilets, eco-friendly cleaning products, proper insulation, solar panels… At the hotel, you should be able to see evidence of eco-friendliness across the board, like recycling bins in the reception area and locally sourced food on the restaurant menu.
Don’t be afraid to call and ask before you book. Hotels that are genuinely eco-friendly are often delighted to explain their methods; after all, they’ve put in the hard yards installing energy-efficient lighting and researching organic toiletries. Big hotel brands may even have an entire department dedicated to greenifying their operations.
Countless hotels stumble on the bottled water issue – particularly in destinations where tap water isn’t drinkable, and guests expect something in their room to quench their thirst. Ask whether filtered water’s available and find out their policy on one-use plastics.
3. Are they doing good, or making me feel good?
Increasing concern about animal welfare is changing the travel industry for the better. In the past few years, riding an elephant has gone from being a common Asian holiday photo-op to a travel taboo. Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple was shut down in 2016, putting an end to an era of tourists posing with maltreated tigers.
Animal sanctuaries are less clear-cut. Supposedly they’re refuges for wounded or rescued animals, and many do excellent work. Libearty in Romania gives acres of space to rescued bears, while Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand cares for tusked friends saved from slavery.
However, not all ‘sanctuaries’ make the grade – and the feel-good factor of adorable animals can make it more difficult for travellers to spot greenwashing.
Any close encounter with animals, however innocent it seems, should be queried and thoroughly researched. Holding a koala seems like a harmless interaction with a sleepy marsupial, but scientists have learned that this puts them at risk of human-borne illnesses. Yet, the activity is still allowed in some Australian states.
Equally, if animals that would usually flee from humans seem friendly and tame, ask questions. Just because a sanctuary looks legitimate doesn’t mean its methods are beyond reproach.
4. Are you being served an ‘eco sandwich’?
Imagine you’ve found an incredible-sounding ecotourism experience: a jungle lodge, a sanctuary for rescued animals, or a sensitively managed hike into a nature reserve. How much do you know about the gritty details?
Unfortunately, ecotourism experiences are sometimes served up alongside environmentally destructive practices. This is otherwise known as an ‘eco sandwich’: the filling is green, but the rest is pure stoge.
Perhaps, somewhere along your hike into a fragile national park, your guide pulls plastic-wrapped lunches from their rucksack, each one accompanied by a single-use spoon. Or maybe, to reach a stilt-perched lodge in a remote stretch of a river, the transportation is a gas-guzzling motorboat that spooks the water creatures.
It’s a good sign when a tour guide or hotel gives information up-front; for example, if they recommend that guests hire bikes, or give a reminder to pack out all rubbish when leaving a national park.
Not all of them do so, particularly when the transport, food and activity elements have different providers. Ask your guide or tour company whether they follow a leave no trace policy. Make sure you’re clear on all parts of your itinerary, too. In some regions of Malaysia, firefly-spotting tours (low impact) can come as part of a package with wildlife-feeding (disruptive to native ecosystems).
If an ecotourism experience doesn’t turn out how you expected, don’t feel dumb for falling for the greenwash. Raise concerns with the provider face to face – if the company’s in an early stage of their green travel endeavours, they’ll take it on board.
If they fob you off, commit your complaint to email and take it higher: if environmental concerns don’t faze them, the potential loss of customers will. Letters of complaint may not seem like the weapons of an eco-warrior, but they’re a powerful force when it comes to the battle against greenwash.
So where can travellers seek credible ecotourism?
Get familiar with green schemes in your chosen destination and you’ll be all the better at weeding out the greenwash.
Across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, look out for the Qualmark ‘light footprint’ logo attached to business that have taken considerable steps to reduce their environmental impact.
The world’s first ecotourism accreditation programme was launched in 1996 in Australia. Today, the Ecotourism Australia website catalogues hundreds of sustainable travel experiences Down Under.
In the UK, the Green Tourism scheme bestows bronze, silver or gold certification on sustainable activities and accommodation.
In South America, the Rainforest Alliance awards environmentally, socially and economically sustainable businesses with a green frog symbol.
Take our poll to let us know your thoughts
Inspired to change your travel for the better? We have plenty of tips for you...
Be the first to comment
Do you want to comment on this article? You need to be signed in for this feature