Mia Ljungberg, Danish travel journalist resident in Stockholm, Sweden and Quito, Ecuador. She spends most of the year travelling and writing about eco friendly places around the world. She is a fulltime travel consultant and writer for Organic Style. 

Kirstin: Eco-travel is such a buzzword now, but what does it really mean?

Mia: Many hotels and resorts use ‘eco travelling’, ‘sustainable travelling’ and ‘responsible travelling’—all buzzwords by the hospitality business— to attract customers. Personally, it means planning a responsible vacation and visiting hotels and destinations that conserve the environment while supporting and contributing to the local community. It’s always possible to enjoy travelling. But at least do it in a responsible way by choosing caring airlines, hotels, resorts, spas and restaurants that have an open, environment-friendly policy.

Six Senses (www.sixsenses.com), an Asian based resort chain, is a great example of a company making an effort to protect the environment. For example, they never chop trees when constructing new hotels, but instead build around them. They also recycle, hire local and buy local. Most of the Six Senses properties have their own organic gardens, and they’ve even added solar panels to some of the resorts. The founders of Six Senses, Eva and Sonu Shivdasani, are both dedicated environmentalist and they are working on becoming the first fully carbon negative resort chain. One way they’re accomplishing this is by adding an additional 100 USD to every guest’s bill, which goes to a carbon offset program.

For urban hotels the challenge is a bit more complicated because guests don’t want to compromise comfort or luxury when travelling for business. Kimpton Hotels (www.kimptonhotels.com) in the US and Scandic Hotels (www.scandic-hotels.com) in Europe have done a great job proving it’s possible. Kimpton Hotels have an in-room recycling system with a bin for biodegradable things and one for the non-biodegradable. They also return hangers to the cleaners after giving laundry back to guests. It recycles thousands of hangers that would normally just be thrown out. Kimpton Hotels offer organic minibar snacks, clean with eco friendly products and use amenities from Aveda, an eco friendly product company.

Scandic Hotels have limited the use of disposable packages from 55,000 per day to almost zero! They never use small packages of jams, butters, cheese etc. They even have their own water tank, so you won’t find any plastic water bottles in any of their hotels. Scandic also fills up the refillable shampoo and soap dispensers, so no more one time shampoos or soaps. The food leftovers are brought to local homeless shelters and every employee must dedicate time to a local charity project.

An even bigger chain, Starwood, has now realized that it’s actually cost saving to build and manage ‘green’ hotels. Starwood Capital Group signed an agreement late 2007 to build the Washington, D.C. region’s first eco-friendly luxury hotel. The hotel, 1 Hotel, will be one of the world’s first five-star, eco-friendly international hotels. It will combine the best of environmentally sustainable architecture and design properties with impeccable service and luxurious comfort.

If you really want to get away you’ll find places like the Yachana (www.yachana.com) in the jungle of Ecuador. Awarded the most eco-friendly lodge in 2004 by Conde Nast Traveller magazine, you can spend the day with the local community, working in their gardens, cooking with them, etc. Generally you get the experience of being part of their daily lives while supporting them.

So next time you book a trip, hotel, dinner or spa reservation, you should ask yourself before placing the booking:

  • Do they use environmentally friendly, organic, biodynamic, recycled products?
  • Are they committed to preserving their wild and marine life and the environment?
  • Do they increase knowledge of local community and benefits socio economically and affordability?
  • Do the profits go back into the community? Do they employ local people and pay them fair wages?
  • Do they carbon offset?

These are all things to consider before deciding on your destination

Kirstin: Where do you offset your flying ‘damage’ (carbon)? And how do you figure out what your carbon footprint actually is?

Mia: There are several sites available to calculate your carbon emissions and hundreds where you can offset them. First, calculate what you are emitting, including transport, dining, lodging etc. Then find a way to reduce it by consuming less of each item, replace what can be replaced with carbon friendlier alternatives and by offsetting the emissions that can’t be reduced or replaced.

These are my favorite sites:

You can mitigate your flying carbons with a carbon-offset program, including tree planting or by helping prevent deforestation. There is a lot of controversy about whether planting trees is the most effective carbon offset, but it is only one among several ways to cancel out the negative effects.

Silverjet, the first carbon neutral airline, did it another way by creating their own carbon neutral program. They have a Jamaican energy efficient project that subsidises the cost of energy efficient light bulbs. Benefits to the island include less dependence on depleted oil reserves and less power cuts, which helps promotes tourism. The New Zealand wind farm—one of the few gold standard carbon offset projects worldwide—provides an alternative to non-sustainable power sources. In Ecuador they help capture decomposing organic material that releases substantial quantities of methane at the Zámbiza landfill. By capturing the methane until it changes to carbon dioxide, the methane’s climate change impact is reduced by a factor of 21. To learn more about what Silverjet does, you can check out their website (www.flysilverjet.com).

Kirstin: Describe a few of your favorite eco-friendly destinations—even if they’re really off the grid.

Mia: Galapagos is one of the most sustainable places to visit on earth. The islands are so protected that you can only enter them with a certified Galapagos Island guide who lets you only walk certain paths. And because they limit the number of tourists per year (60,000), it’s also one of the most exclusive places to visit. The Galapagos Islands, made famous by Darwin and composed almost exclusively of volcanic rock, are home to the world’s only seagoing lizards, flightless cormorants and penguins, frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, giant tortoises and 13 species of Darwin finches.

While there you can stay at the eco-friendly Royal Palm Galapagos (www.royalpalmgalapagos.com/), which is certified by Rain Forrest Alliance and Smart Voyager (meaning the hotel meets the highest standards of wildlife conservation, water protection and wellbeing of its staff and local community).

Another great destination is Seychelles, located just south of the equator. The cluster of 115 secluded islands, surrounded by the most amazing blue water, has a small population of only 81,000 and is one of the purest destinations in the world with some top-class sustainable luxury resorts. Fregate Island (www.fregate.com), North Island (www.north-island.com) and Banyan Tree Seychelles (www.banyantree.com) are some of the most sustainable, responsible and eco-friendly resorts you can find in the world. These hotels all have a conservation program and work to help the local communities. Some even have their own organic gardens.

Scandinavia has always been known for its environment-friendly policies. In fact most hotels in Scandinavia were saving water and energy before ‘eco’ was a buzzword. A recent survey by American environmental economist Matthew Kahn claims that the five most eco-friendly countries are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Austria. And the greenest city out of the 72 analyzed was Stockholm, followed by Oslo. Look up the Scandic Hotels chain as they are taking the lead in eco friendliness.

Kirstin: What are the top things to avoid? i.e. the most damaging.

Mia: Taking a cruise is one way of travelling you may want to avoid. When a cruise ship leaves Stockholm it uses more carbon that the whole city’s morning traffic. Few people are aware as to how damaging cruise ships are to the oceans and the environment. In fact, new research reveals that they actually emit three times more carbon emissions than aircraft. Carnival, which comprises 11 cruise lines, emits 401g of CO2 per passenger per kilometer, even when the boat is entirely full. This is 36 times greater than the carbon footprint of a Eurostar passenger and more than three times that of someone travelling on a standard Boeing 747 or a passenger ferry.

You might also want to avoid resorts with golf courses. Keeping a course so lush and green is very damaging for the environment. Plus the players spend hours breathing in those chemicals used to keep them so pretty. If golf is a priority, make sure you chose an eco-friendly golf course by going to www.golfandenvironment.org/ecofriendlygolf.htm

Ultimately it’s essential to look for travelling options that address the environmental issues head on. By supporting organizations and destinations with a program, perhaps more resorts and hotels will catch on. By supporting these worthy initiatives you can relax and enjoy your vacation knowing you’re doing your part.