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Green Travel:
Planning a Better Vacation




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As human beings we are going to consume.  The goal is to be aware and knowledgeable about our consumptions so that it strikes a balance between minimizing impact on resources and maximize the quality of life for ourselves and others.  The issues are a lot the same whether you are staying at home or traveling, but there may be a few nuances when you travel which we have outlined below.

Energy and Green Implications of Destination, Accommodations and Other Consumption

You selection of your destination will probably be the biggest determinant of the carbon-footprint  of you vacation. Of course, finding a destination closer to home can be a good start.  Unfortunately it is not always that easy because social-justice, learning opportunity or social factors may also be driving your decisions.

To the extent you can be flexible, pick a region and time of year when the climate is pleasant so you won't have to suck a lot of energy heating or cooling to make it bearable. Similarly, when you pick your lodging keep energy use in mind: Is it a big hotel with a cavernous lobbies, with a big footprint, that is generally empty, but continually heated/cooled and lighted? Or are there modest options that meet basic needs and employing energy saving designs/engineering/construction and materials.  Even if something is other wise "green," if it is oversized it has a bigger footprint, took more materials to build and in one way or another probably takes more resources to maintain.

Interestingly, if you have turned the heating/cooling off at you home, and unplugged all of your gadgetry before you left, and then keep your life simple on vacation, day-to-day, you can actually have a small carbon-foot print than in an energy-intensive working life.

Travel Consumption and Materialism

There is an agonizing contradiction in responsible travel:  One argument for travel is to support a fledgling economy; consuming services and maybe buy some local products.  But "support" has a consumptive element to it, whether you are purchase physical items or service.  If ten thousand people did the same thing as you plan to do, every day, what would the impact be?  So what is the balance between helping an economy and fostering global sustainability.  What is the relationship between an individuals consumption and collective consumption of the thing/space?

One option is to "go beyond the guidebooks."  Guide can have the impact of loving someplace to death.  They are always in competition to "discover someplace new" (it is not new to the people who live there), which sets in motion its loving death, and the cycle repeats itself.

A strategy for this is to pick at least part of your destinations for other than there physical quality.  It is not uncommon for the best memory of someone travel to revolve around the local people they met in the most unlikely places.  There are people spread pretty much around the world and they all have a story.  Their stories can be as good or better away from the "Seven Wonders of The World", "The Great Cities of the World", "World Heritage Sites", etc., as they are at them.

Mode of Travel and Activities

Your selection of your mode of travel with probably be the biggest determinant of the pollution-footprint of you vacation.

Select a non-motorized mode of travel generally has the least impact (carbon-foot print, environmental damage).  Self-contained walking, bicycling  and paddling generally top this list.  If you are going to use a motorized vehicle at some point think in terms of minimizing the distance and use available mass transit (trains, buses, ferries).

Just because it is a bicycle tour doesn't mean it is green.  When you add "Support And Gear vehicles" (SAG wagons) all bets are off.  From the start the carbon-foot print is going to increase.  If the vehicles sit and idle all day, trudge along at six miles per hour (10 kph), or ply back and forth along the route the program has achieved carbon-intensive bicycle touring.  The group quite possibly would have used less fuel -- been better off -- by ditching the bicycles and putting everyone in the vehicle and driving them directly to the days destination.

Similarly, as you play along the way, human powered activities will usually have a smaller carbon footprint than motorized options.

Food and Water

Eating local the local cuisine is also generally a good way to green-up your travel.  Traditionally, local diets were composed of product and produce from the immediate area.  The carbon-foot print of the food is much lower if it hasn't been trucked or flown hundreds or thousands of miles. In many economies, eating in small "ma-and-pa" restaurants can also be more green.  They often don't have the large refrigeration system, inventory and wastage associated with larger restaurants, hotel and resort kitchens and dining facilities -- and you can get some darn good meal.

Similarly, if you are not drinking tap water, select your drinks from the offerings of the local bottler.  If you have a choice of a can, plastic or returnable, reusable bottle, the better choice is usually the bottle.

Water will increasingly dominate the politics of the century.  Bottled water is increasing available in towns around the world, but it may not be the best solution and the empty bottles create permanent garbage. A better practice is to travel with a reusable bottle, refill it with local water and treat this if necessary.

If you don't trust the local water the old standbys were iodine and chlorine tablets. They are useful in emergencies – if you have a half-hour to wait and use them once a week at the most!  [For health reason, it is advisable not to drink iodized water more than once a week. And some people suggest that purifying chemical kill enough helpful stuff in your gut to leave you vulnerable to other bugs -- because of this property they also work as a treatment for gut rumblings, in an emergency.  If you want chemicals check the drug store for tablets.] 

Three better options are; a filtering pumps, an ultraviolet light purifiers (search: SteriPen) or an oxidant purifiers (search MSR MIOX).  Filtering pumps tend to be the most versatile and labor intensive, including requiring the most maintenance.  The last two, hi-tech methods, are light and compact, require clear water, which is increasingly available, and use batteries -- which can be rechargeable.  The MIOX also need salt and adds a little taste to the water, which is mostly an issue if you start with a high mineral water that already has a taste.  The UV pen is the most fragile, but generally can be sufficiently protected.  The UV pen is generally the fastest.  It works great for tap water for which you want an extra layer confidence.  For more discussion on water treatment see

Service Vacations

If you don't plan to do a lot of walking or bicycling at your destinations, think about how you can move about less and get more out enrichment of it.  One option is to engaging in service work -- volunteering on a social justice, conservation or development project. Even this is not without it pitfalls.  Some question that you might ask are: Is the project driven by the community or a broad program agenda brought in by an outside development agency/corporation?  Can you contribute immediate with the skills you already have or, overall, are you going to consumes a lot of someone time being trained?  Could the resource you consumed have been better spent training and empower a local person who would stay in the community longer?  Is the term of your service long enough to be a net gain for the community?  What is the cultural impact of just your presence? Culture impact can come from a hundred sources as innocuous as the logos on our shoes, the music we listen to and almost every aspect of our behavior from the first moment of arrival to our final goodbye?  Do we understand all of this? How can it be minimized? What will you be the impact of you departure on any dependencies (physical and emotional) that have developed?  Much of this is not easy to see.  Remember, it may be your vacation, but it is the people in the communities life!

A Simple Test

Excess and extra of anything tends to be contrary to "green." Because there are so many variables you need to learn to be your own evaluator: You can do a self-evaluation on how many aspects of your program are modest, minimally energy consuming, environmental friendly and sustainable?

A surprising simple measure of the green quotient of a vacation that most people can relate to is to think about your full vacation plan and ask yourself if you, or a visitor, did a package with the same elements, characteristics and behavior in your own community, would it be considered green?

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The International Bicycle Fund is an independent, non-profit organization. Its primary purpose is to promote bicycle transportation. Most IBF projects and activities fall into one of  four categories: planning and engineering, safety education, economic development assistance and promoting international understanding. IBF's objective is to create a sustainable, people-friendly environment by creating opportunities of the highest practicable quality for bicycle transportation. IBF is funded by private donation. Contributions are always welcome and are U.S. tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

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