Zarafa Camp in Botswana

What makes a holiday green?

With a blizzard of 'eco' kitemarks smattering the tourist industry, we ask whether it is even possible to identify standard 'green' credentials when it comes to crossing borders, and take our pick of the most environmentally responsible getaways.

Once we went on holiday to become brown. Now we go to be green. Increasingly, tour companies are claiming not only to offer us a good time, but to make us good people. From a weekend away in a two-room bed and breakfast to a fortnight at a sprawling international resort, holiday websites list ways in which they'll guarantee our trips are sustainable and low-impact. But what counts as a 'green' holiday? What are the real benefits of 'eco' travel? And is technology a help or hindrance in turning our vacations into ethical outings?

According to the Travel Foundation, the travel industry charity set up to respond to concerns over the sustainability of travel and tourism: 'Greener holidays simply mean holidays that benefit people and help protect the environment in destinations.'

But there's no regional, national or international agreement on what counts as either 'benefit' or 'help'. There are a confusing number of green kitemarks, each with a list of criteria – and each list different. There are several schemes within Cornwall alone, from the Cornwall Sustainable Tourism Project to the Green Acorn, a green tourism award covering just the south east of the county.

Sue Jewell, who runs Green Acorn, says: 'We believe in locally driven, locally run schemes. You then deal with people who know your area, know what is achievable and available, and you obviate the need for travelling up and down the country conducting inspections. A holiday maker should look at the aims of a scheme and if it ticks most of his or her boxes, that should suffice.'

Ticking the right green boxes

The problem here is that each scheme has different boxes to tick. The Travel Foundation's Make Holidays Greener Week last July challenged tourists to do three small things to make a difference. These included reusing towels, turning down the air-conditioning and not leaving the hotel's plasma TV on standby. Many green schemes wouldn't consider these three gestures significant.

With no agreed definition of how much (or little) counts as being green, it's a moving target for the tour company and the tourist. Richard Hammond, chief executive and founder of greentraveller.co.uk, favours country-wide schemes to assess a holiday's eco credentials. 'National certification is the best as you can compare like with like within a country. It's much harder for those schemes that span several countries to provide a consistent kitemark – for instance, the environmental challenges in Scandinavia can be very different from those in the southern Mediterranean,' he says.

But tourism is no respecter of frontiers. Holidays are about travelling, often across borders and frequently to a different place each year. With no international standards, it's difficult for a holidaymaker to make an informed choice. How can we assess whether South Africa's Fair Trade in Tourism or ABTA's Travelife Sustainability System is best placed to help save the planet? An unlikely winner of a global green award was the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, awarded the first ever Sustainable Travel International Eco-certification in Ireland. Among the winning measures was the production of electricity using highly efficient Combined Heat Power, leading to lower CO2 emissions.

Using technology

This nod to new technologies is rare. In most green holiday initiatives, there's an assumption that technology is the enemy to ecology. Green holidays are often just low-tech by another name. To save the planet, it's presumed you have to eschew the modern world. Breaks are being offered in candle-lit accommodation supplied with little more than a cold bucket shower. The National Trust advertises a cottage on the Isle of Wight without electricity.

But is technology really the enemy in the move to make holidays greener? Dr Jim Butcher, a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent and author of  Ecotourism, NGOs and Development', doesn't believe so. 'It's vital in terms of pressing needs in the developing world. Yet green holidays are often associated with a dim view of technology in the destination. Green holidays are more likely to romanticise poverty,' he says.

According to Georgina Davies of the Travel Foundation: 'New technology will be important in reducing CO2 emissions from transport. However, technological solutions may not arrive quickly enough, so it is vital that we don't sit back and wait for them. And technology is only part of the answer – we have to focus on working with the industry to help change practices within travel companies to ensure that both the environment is protected and that local people in tourism destinations benefit.'

The four-tent Zarafa Camp in the Selinda Reserve, Botswana claims to be 'one of the most luxurious and green camps on the planet'. It combines the consistent use of technologies, even if not particularly new ones, with community involvement. The camp has a solar farm, with over 150 205-watt solar panels and an inverter system – all running silently. Building materials include recycled railway sleepers for decking, and the furniture is made from Boxing Day tsunami flotsam. Guests are given metal water flasks to fill from purified boreholes, treated through a UV filtration system, instead of plastic bottles. Safari vehicles run on used filtered cooking oil from nearby Kasane town kitchens (85 per cent) and diesel (15 per cent). These vehicles stick to the network of game-viewing trails in the 320,000 acre reserve, maintaining a soft impact on the environment and allowing wildlife to roam freely without human interruption.

Transport solutions are often where new technological developments are put to best use. At Rocking Z Guest Ranch in Montana, the irrigation pumps are powered by vegetable oil, and bio-diesel is used for the tractors and earth-moving equipment. Wilderness Scotland promotes sea-kayaking: 'Not only does it use human power but it leaves no trace and is unobtrusive to marine wildlife.' Zarafa Camp offers canoe safaris.

Going green long-haul

But can any long-haul destination consider itself to be green? No, according to Richard Hammond: 'Going on a green holiday is first and foremost about choosing places that are reachable by low emissions transport. Then it's about choosing accommodation that has a low environmental footprint and taking part in low-impact activities,' he says.

'There's such a steep difference between the greenhouse gas emissions caused by flying and those caused by travelling overland by train or bus that it's no longer acceptable to claim you're on a green holiday when it involves flying half way around the world to get there.'

Justin Francis, co-founder of responsibletravel.com, takes a broader view. 'In many developing countries, responsible tourism is integral to the livelihoods of local people and in poverty reduction. To refuse travelling long-haul can remove a vital source of income into the local economy,' he says.

Responsibletravel.com no longer supports carbon offsetting as the solution to still clocking up the air miles. 'You can't simply put money into a scheme and excuse yourself for continuing to emit carbon at the same level. Reducing your carbon emissions at home all year round, as well as being cautious about your consumption and usage abroad, is key,' says Francis.

Like Zarafa camp, most green holidays are small scale. But do you have to cater to only a handful of tourists to count as environmentally friendly? Francis says big can be beautiful. 'You might argue that bigger hotels have bigger resources to offer sustainable accommodation, source local goods, provide jobs for local communities and generate revenue that can be put to use reducing poverty in the area. Whether they are big or small, they can sit at the cutting edge of responsible tourism,' he says.

Bigger can be better

Costa Navarino is a new tourism development in the south-west Peloponnese, Greece. It's large and ambitious; when completed, it will have a string of 5-star hotels, luxury residences, conference facilities, a state of the art spa, thalassotherapy centres and world-class golf.

Ironically, golf courses are difficult to make green due to their large water consumption. The Costa Navarino's courses are irrigated from two water reservoirs and with wastewater. Electronic weather monitoring also calculates the optimum amount of water required, resulting in 'significant savings'. There's engagement with the local community through the Navarino Natura Hall, an interactive exhibition centre – a collaboration between the University of Stockholm, the Academy of Athens, the Hellenic Ornithological Society and the Hellenic Marine Environment Protection Association, as well as the resort's developers. The new centre educates guests, university students and local schools about the natural habitats in the surrounding area of Messinia and its environmental issues.

But the simplest, most cost effective and innovative way in which this development uses technology is not on site, but remotely through gaming. The Costa Navarino Forest online game supports the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign. Web visitors can plant their own virtual sapling, learn how to care for it and invite three friends to provide water, soil and fertilizer. This sapling will be planted in the online nursery garden. If you correctly answer a question about the Messinia's flora and fauna or local history and traditions, it will be transplanted to the online forest. These virtual trees will then be turned into real endemic ones in Messinia on the slopes of Taygetos mountain, aiming to reach a total of 10,000 new plantings by the end of this year.

The Internet is the greenest item in the eco-holiday suitcase. As Jewell points out: 'The technology surrounding the Internet is a great thing. For a start, it has eliminated the need for a paper trail when booking.'

Hotel Bon Sol on Mallorca has solar panels, waste air-conditioning to provide warm water and almond shells to supply heat. But the hotel owners also calculated how much CO2 they and their guests were emitting by flying from all over Europe, and bought a piece of land in the Costa Rican rainforest the size of 520 football fields to compensate, planting over 230,000 trees.

Millbrook Cottages in North Devon has a wind turbine, biomass heating and energy monitors in the rooms. But perhaps their most significant green initiative is their village Facebook group, used to promote local businesses and events and encourage people who wouldn't normally read the parish magazine to learn more about what is happening in the village. They also use their website to market what's on locally and link to other North Devon sites. 'Our main objective is not to market to green customers but to encourage our customers to take small steps to becoming greener,' says Kate Boothby of Millbrook.

Finding a balance

But do customers really care more about the environment than personal enjoyment? Does the holidaymaker put solar panels at the top of their list? Hammond sees it as a priority. 'We've had a 300 per cent increase in visitors to the site since the same time last year, so we believe tourists are increasingly looking for holidays that have less of an impact on the environment. Plus there's lots of anecdotal evidence, such as more people taking Eurostar to the continent and more hotels have joined the Green Tourism Business Scheme,' he says.

Andy Cook, founder of takethefamily.com, is more skeptical. 'Ninety-five per cent of visitors to our site care deeply about the environment their children will inherit. But with a pound buying little more than a euro, financial considerations are an even higher priority at this time.'

Perhaps all that can be asked for is small steps towards improving the planet. Perhaps a holiday can only ever be greener, never really green. 'I can't think of many holidays that are 100 per cent green,' says Hammond. 'Most holidays use some form of motorised transport that use fossil fuel, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. So while we are still dependent on fossil-fuel, when we talk about going on green holidays, we really mean greener holidays.'

Georgina Davies agrees: 'Greener tourism is always a balance between environmental protection and social benefits,' she says. 'The challenge is to maximise the positives and minimise the negatives. It's all about getting the message out that everyone can make a difference, no matter what type of holiday they're going on.' *

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