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Vacations Go Green

There’s no hotter travel topic, if you’ll pardon the expression, than green vacations. With global warming weighing on everyone’s mind, many travelers are suddenly examining how their habits affect the earth. But what is green travel? It’s more than just renting a hybrid car the next time you go on a trip or choosing an eco-lodge over a Hyatt. It can be about offsetting the carbon dioxide generated by the airplane that flies you to Thailand or Italy, as well as the energy a San Diego hotel is expending to keep you comfortable. Still, in a field that’s in its infancy, there are prophets, nonprofits and profiteers, all ready to take advantage of your good intentions. Which means that it’s buyer beware in a movement that seems to be growing and changing by the minute. So here’s a look at how to navigate this fast-evolving world.

(Photo: Hotel Terra, Jackson Hole, WY)


One of the most popular ways to “green up” any vacation is to buy a carbon offset. This means that you’re counterbalancing the carbon emissions of your energy-consuming activities by reducing an equal amount of carbon somewhere else. That’s typically done by donating money, which goes to support projects that reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Individuals can donate, as can hotels, resorts and other travel-related companies. The easiest way is to log onto the Web site of a nonprofit devoted to carbon offsetting, and charge the donation to your credit card.

So how much is your 757 spewing into the atmosphere between New York and Jamaica? Go to the online calculator at carbonfund.org to find out, and then pay to offset the carbon dioxide. For example, a round-trip flight from JFK to Kingston, Jamaica, generates .57 tons of CO2. To offset that, you’d pay Carbonfund.org $3.14. They would then invest your money in a reforestation project or in renewable energy. This is but one of many companies offering the service a list can be found at cleanair-coolplanet.org.

Naysayers claim that offsets are simply a way to ease your guilt, a plan oddly reminiscent of buying an indulgence, where the faithful could pay their way out of their sins. Perhaps. But many travel providers have jumped on this bandwagon. For example, REI Adventures, which offers adventure travel trips around the world, is fully carbon neutral, thanks to a partnership with Bonneville Environmental Foundation, an organization that supports solar and wind power; REI pays them for its carbon offsets. The rafting company O.A.R.S. and the travel company Natural Habitat Adventures have done something similar. Go to travelocity.com to book a trip, and you’ll see that Travelocity has a partnership with The Conservation Fund. For any trip, you can elect to pay an extra charge and “Go Zero,” with the money being contributed to a reforestation project. Expedia does the same with TerraPass.

On the destination side, Vail Resorts now buys wind power credits to offset all of its energy usage. Vail doesn’t actually use that wind power — you won’t see windmills on the slopes. It simply pays to have the power produced and consumed somewhere else. But will this have a real effect, or is it merely a case of wealthy travelers trying to assuage their environmental guilt? Check back in a few years for an update.


Where you choose to vacation can have an impact on the environment. You might pick a hotel that has decided to recycle and monitor both waste and energy consumption. I recall the old Canadian Pacific Hotels & Resorts (now Fairmont Hotels & Resorts) as the first chain to suggest that you reuse bathroom towels about 15 years ago, a practice that’s now widespread. Some hotels have installed compact fluorescent bulbs, which are initially more expensive than incandescent bulbs but can save 75% in annual lighting costs. They also last 10 times longer and produce less heat. Or you can choose a hotel with a swimming pool heated by solar power or a resort that uses native and drought-resistant plants in order to save water.

You can even take it one step further and stay in a hotel or resort that is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED ) certified. The LEED Green Building Rating System!” was set up by the U.S. Green Building Council to evaluate buildings based on their development of sustainable sites (those sites that, among other things, avoid impacting natural resources), water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. One of the first hotels to earn this designation is the Orchard Garden Hotel in San Francisco.  I recently did a tour of the Hotel Terra (left) in Jackson Hole, which is seeking LEED certification. It’s using 100% recycled roof shingles, fly ash (a cement substitute) in 50% of the hotel’s concrete, low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint and carpeting and organic cotton linens. The Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa (see accompanying story) which is LEED certified, has a real-time display in the lobby showing how much energy the hotel is consuming and saving, moment by moment. Vail Resorts has announced that the 9.5-acre village area formerly called West LionsHead will be transformed into Ever Vail, an ambitious “green” development project to the tune of $1 billion. The resort village would become the largest LEED-certified resort project in North America if approved. It’s also one of the first to aim for the new LEED for Neighborhood Development certification.


Of course, you can seek out those resorts that committed to the concept of green early on and ran with it. They tend to be small and located in developing countries places such as the Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize, which uses solar power and has an organic garden and a reforestation program that plants teak and mahogany trees and relies on composting toilets. Like many others in the forefront of this movement, these lodges also involve you in the community and the concept. In this case, that means chocolate: You pick the fruit from cacao trees, dry the beans and learn about fair trade practices.

Other eco-lodges seem more focused on simply experiencing nature and various cultures by treading lightly, like the Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa in Australia, which offers rain forest walks with members of a local Aboriginal tribe, or the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica lodge in the Peruvian Amazon, where a treetop canopy walkway allows you to see exceptionally rare plant and animal species. But it’s worth noting that there is no governing body to regulate the term “eco-lodge.” So when The Ritz-Carlton announces an “eco-conscious design approach” at its new Molasses Reef property in the Turks & Caicos Islands, we can applaud but hardly rush to add them to the ranks of eco-lodges.


Until recently, it was easier to rent a Hummer than a hybrid in the United States. Only one company, EV Rental Cars, has been offering fleet-wide hybrid vehicles, in partnership with Fox Rent A Car. Their fleet includes the Toyota Prius, Toyota Highlander and Honda Civic models. Daily rates for a Honda Civic Hybrid start around $26. But their cars can be found only at a limited number of rental locations, including Phoenix, San Francisco, Orange County, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego and Oakland. This is because hybrids are expensive to buy, and they’re limited in number. Suddenly, however, whether out of a sense of responsibility or opportunity, the major auto rental companies are joining in. Enterprise Rent-A-Car recently announced that it was going eco, not only with hybrids, but with FlexFuel cars that burn ethanol. Hertz, too, made news in June, saying it would add 3,400 Toyota Prius hybrid vehicles by 2008. That’s noteworthy, but it’s really a drop in the bucket: Hertz’s fleet consists of more than 410,000 vehicles. Avis made a similar move this summer, announcing that it would soon have 1,000 Toyota Priuses for its customers. But even with more of these desirable cars available to renters, they will still be very hard to find.

There’s little question that the green travel movement is evolving fast. Will buying a carbon offset, sleeping in a hammock at an eco-lodge and tiptoeing around native species save the earth? Perhaps not, but surely it can’t hurt.

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