Eco-travel ethics are always a great issue of debate, which can get quite heated at times. Air-travel plays no small part and it would certainly be a good idea to improve ground transportation wherever possible - though I am not convinced that a flight, say from Texas to Merida would really be more harmful than taking the same journey on one of those Diesel belching buses. Cleaner transport options should be developed for local and long distance travel all over the world, whether in air traffic, road traffic, train or ferry - there is lots of scope for improvement in all of them. The same goes for hotel options. Too many hotels are still too wasteful - in the mistaken belief that this constitutes some sort of attribute of luxury. Yet the top end eco-resorts manage both, to implement high environmental standards and practices, and offer top quality service. To prove ecological sophistication many hotels and lodges are clambering to get certified, but unfortunately there is not just one certifying body that vigilantly checks that the applicant complies with a range of measures. There are many such programs, and not all are particularly well managed. In some countries certification does not exist at all. Elsewhere, different schemes compete with each other, even within the same country. Some certification schemes are a lot more stringent than others. A lengthy evaluation procedure takes many different aspects of 'best practice' into account and operators are regularly checked to see if they still comply. Of course, the more elaborate the evaluation measures, the more time consuming and bureaucratic the administration, which also means longer waiting times for people who have applied. Other schemes basically amount to little more than a green-wash label that gives operators access to certain marketing tools and come with annual subscription fees - which small operators often can't afford. So, just because someone is not certified does not mean their operations are not as sustainable as they can be - or as green as their neighbours, who can afford to stick the certification label on their promotional materials.
Let's face it - not all countries are created equal when it comes to the framework and infrastructure that enables people to operate in an eco-friendly manner. Green cleaning products may not be available in developing countries, nor may 'green' sources of fuel be available or recycling facilities.
Some hotels and lodges, especially the newer ones will be more likely to have environmental measures built into their design - solar powered electricity, waste water management and so on are much easier to install when a building is first conceptualized than added on as an afterthought - as most everybody who has looked into installing a solar powered heating system or waste water management system in their own house will realize. Thus, I would say, such features are great if we find them, but we should not expect them. However - some of the older lodges have no electricity at all, or if they do, it is generated only for a few hours a day, so they are not necessarily less eco-friendly. If a lodge or hotel does not have a label or written policy, talk to the owners and ask them what they do - just because they don't publicise what they do does not necessarily mean that they are oblivious to questions of sustainability and conservation.
Tourism, above all, is interactive, and travellers themselves should not defer responsibility for their own conduct to the tour operators, but instead become ambassadors for 'green' practices abroad - and lead by example. Talk about the environment, talk about best practices - and show that you mean it by being conscious of your own ecological foot print, whether at home or aboad - reduce your waste, your water and your electricity consumption. Don't let the room service change the towels every day. Did you know solar powered battery chargers are available for travellers so they don't have to rely on the electricity supply of hotels or lodges that may have to run a generator, just for this purpose?
Did you know that every year volunteers help to clean up the Inca Trail, the beaches, the Everest Trek and more?
Did you know that anybody can get involved with cleaning up their neighbourhood?
Join a 'Clean Up the World Event' in your area.
There isn't one?
Organize your own! http://cleanup.org.au/en/
Recycling follows very different guidelines and standards in different countries, and even in different regions of the same country. But who really knows what happens to all the neatly separated trash in the end anyway? Can we trust that they are not just all mixed together and thrown onto the same garbage dump? If we can't be sure of our own council's procedures, how can we be sure of the legitimacy of good recycling practices in another country, even if there are separate bins to sort garbage at your hotel?
Waste is a serious problem and tourists are often blamed for leaving their mess everywhere - which unfortunately is not entirely unjustified. But, considering the years of conditioning that has perpetuated the attitudes and practices of our 'throw-away society' with its attending garbage men, who quietly dispose of our junk, - out of sight and out of mind - it is hardly surprising that we don't much think about the junk we generate while travelling. Though no doubt 'convenient', such outmoded procedures have created a complete sense of detachment between consumer behaviour and the resulting legacy of waste that piles up in garbage dumps throughout the world. However, it is up to each and all of us to make a difference, whether at home or abroad.
Remote wilderness areas lack proper places for garbage disposal - that's one of the things that make them wild and free of civilization and its trail of attended junk. Inevitably, tourists who visiting such areas will generate waste. The ubiquitous plastic bottles and other packaging soon amass, Using refillable bottles that are filled from refillable water tanks is much more sensible - if available. Solid packaging should be avoided wherever possible - remember that depending on where you are travelling, garbage usually just gets burnt, no matter what it is. So - as a responsible tourist, try to minimize your personal garbage generation and be prepared to take your garbage back home with you where they can be disposed off more properly. I don't mean banana peels, but things like batteries, which in many places are still simply dumped with the rest of the garbage. Also, be very careful with certain insect repellents which can be extremely poisonous to water organisms as well as to small children and animals. Always take these containers back home with you, even when they are empty, as otherwise they might end up polluting the groundwater in that pristine wilderness you just visited.
Even at the risk of coming across like a stuck up old fart, I have to raise this issue... Though not exactly a green issue, I feel it is crucial to responsible tourism ethics. The issue I am concerned with is 'right conduct' - or 'basic manners', as my Dad would say. Some (many, unfortunately) tourists apparently feel that as they paid for their holiday they are entitled to have their fun, no matter what. Nobody wants to deprive anybody of a bit of fun - but that should not amount to a 'free for all' licence to act like pigs on a rampage. I sometimes want to weep when I see how some people behave while on holiday, letting it all hang out and leaving their mess all over the place, too (lets not go into detail - it's beyond description). Sure - in the larger scheme of things, all countries are happy about revenues generated by tourism, but there is a limit to what local people should have to endure. Earlier this year the people of Mallorca finally voiced their protest against the obscene and obnoxious behaviour of some foreign tourists that all too frequently invade their beautiful island. Unfortunately, but understandably, their views of foreigners have been tainted forever by the totally 'out-of-bounds' party crowd that regularly invades their little island - and Mallorca is not the only place that has to suffer these types of assault on a regular basis.
No matter where we are and where we go - we should treat people with respect - respect their customs and cultural attitudes too. Remember, that as tourists we are the guests, and that each traveller is regarded as an ambassador of their country and representative sample of their culture. Their behaviour will shape the attitudes towards their fellow countrymen, and by extension, towards all other tourists, who will visit the place long after they have returned home.
And finally - the old adage 'leave only footprints - take only photographs' of course is still as relevant as ever. But this does not just apply to things you see on your walks and excursions. It also applies to souvenirs. Many people are still unaware of the fact that just because something is for sale may not necessarily mean that it is legal. Poaching of endangered species is partly supported by the ignorance of people who buy products made from them. So, if in doubt, don't buy things that are made from animal parts or wild plants - not even traditional Chinese remedies that promise to boost your virility.
Many years ago the UNTWO established a code of principles for responsible tourism which is accessible to anyone. . These are not the most radical guidelines as far as best environmental practices are concerned, but if every operator and every tourist took them to heart we would have come a long way.
Essentially, most people want visitors to feel welcome and comfortable in their country and most tour operators want clients to be happy - and if they know you care, they will care. It's up to you and me and all of us to shape the impact of our visits abroad by nurturing cross-cultural relationships and travelling as heralds for the environment. Tourism is a great force of change, which may have positive as well as negative impacts, but impact it will - its up to each and all of us to make a difference!
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