How Green Was My Vacation?

Opportunities to travel lightly on the planet do exist, but if you start checking the environmental track record of your destinations, will you ever go?

Tourism is the world’s largest and fastest growing industry. Recent statistics reveal that tourism provides 10 percent of the world’s income and

employs almost one-tenth of the world’s workforce. By 2010, those numbers will double

Many negative environmental and social impacts result from today’s travel practices, according to the International Ecotourism Society. For

example, in popular resort areas such as Cancun and Hawaii, overbuilt beachfront hotels have contributed to beach erosion, flooding, and the

disappearance of natural wetlands and generate mountains of garbage without adequate means of disposal. In Nepal, the rapid growth of the


trekking industry has increased pollution in Kathmandu and caused dangerous crowding and destruction of trails. Logging for hotel building materials

and cooking fires has led to deforestation, flooding, and landslides as far away as Bangladesh. In Yellowstone National Park, trash left by tourists

forces relocation of bears and their untimely deaths.

According to Green Seal, a nonprofit environmental organization, the average hotel

purchases more products in one week than 100 families do in a year. Resorts and hotels often over-consume natural resources such as water and

power, forcing up utility prices and causing blackouts and water shortages for locals. Because of this, the greening of mainstream travel offers an

enormous opportunity to conserve resources.

Heartbreak hotels

The hospitality industry has yet to come up with a gold standard for green lodging; there aren’t any independent certifications that are as

recognizable as the standards for organic food. However, many lodging facilities around the world are committed to saving water and energy,

reducing solid waste, and purchasing products such as nontoxic cleaning supplies and post-consumer recycled paper. Some are using healthy

alternatives to chlorine in pools, using solar energy to light signs and walkways, and replacing water-intensive lawns with drought-resistant native


Many hotels are making large strides in environmental progress. A pioneer in the field, Saunders Hotel Group, created SHINE (Saunders Hotels

Initiatives to Nurture the Environment) at its environmental award-winning Boston properties: The Lenox and Copley Square Hotels, and the Comfort

Inn and Suites near Logan Airport. With ninety initiatives including state-of-the-art ozone laundries and energy-management systems, the SHINE

program annually saves 1.7 million gallons of drinking water, eliminates 37 tons of trash, conserves 110,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, and saves

175 trees through paper recycling. Another notable eco-hotel is the 193-room Sheraton Rittenhouse Square Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Green features include recycled granite flooring; furniture made from recycled wood pallets; improved indoor air quality; and organic, natural, and

chemical-free mattresses and bedding.

In many cases you’ll have to do some sleuthing to find out how eco-friendly an establishment really is. When you call to make reservations, ask

the booking agent or hotel manager:

  • Does the hotel offer the option to reuse sheets and towels instead of having them changed daily?

  • Does the property have an efficient, energy management system in the guestrooms?

  • Is there recycling in guest and function rooms, as well as behind the scenes?

  • Does the hotel use energy-efficient lighting?

The Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) has created a Best Practice Survey as part of its Green Hotels Initiative.

Criteria include efforts toward environmentally preferable practices and staff education. Use the survey to get ideas about other simple questions to

ask about energy efficiency, environmental purchasing, water conservation, and more. Learn more about the initiative and check out the survey at

Also, whenever you travel, you can take along the Green Hotels Initiative’s Guest Request Card. Printed cards can be ordered from CERES’s

website or a printable version can be downloaded at

target="_blank"> Let hotel management know your preferences for waste-minimizing and

energy-reducing measures and give them feedback on how well they met your expectations. “Customer comments, either written or verbal, are

important to any lodging establishment,” reports Tedd Saunders, executive vice president of environmental affairs for the Saunders Hotel Group.

Cruise ship blues

Cruise ships—the fastest growing segment of leisure travel—leave behind plenty of nasty debris in their wake. In his book Cruise Ship Blues

(Consortium, 2002), Ross Klein exposes the darker side of cruising. From environmental to social considerations, the cruise industry could use a

sustainability makeover. A typical cruise ship carries anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 people and is essentially a mini-city, complete with shops,

casinos, recreation facilities, photofinishers, and more. On land, an operation of that size would have to answer to the Environmental Protection

Agency on standards such as sewage treatment, but cruise ships are exempt, most sailing under the flags of foreign nations. An average vessel

generates 30,000 gallons a day of raw sewage, which can be dumped straight into the ocean as long as it’s more than three miles off a U.S. shore.

Royal Caribbean International estimates that on a seven-day cruise, a ship produces 141 gallons of photo chemicals, 7 gallons of dry-cleaning waste,

13 gallons of used paints, and 3 pounds of medical waste. That doesn’t include the 255,000 gallons per day of graywater from showers, sinks, and

laundry, carrying chemicals and detergents into the sea.

Over the years, cruise lines have been fined millions of dollars for illegal dumping, yet penalties on the most egregious offenders have not led to

any dramatic improvements. Royal Caribbean was fined more than $30 million from 1998 to 2000 for myriad environmental offenses, including oil and

hazardous waste dumping and falsifying records. In 2002, Carnival Corporation was fined $18 million for illegal oil discharges. It is a sad irony that

these companies don’t take more of a leadership position in protecting the very waters and ports of call in beautiful surroundings that enable their

businesses to flourish.

These floating resorts also have less-than-perfect records on customer friendliness. Complaints go far beyond the disappointments of wily

advertising and unmet expectations; in fact, cruises can be downright hazardous for passengers and on-board staff. The close quarters can harbor

unwanted germs such as those that cause illnesses like the much-reported Norwalk virus, a transmittable gastrointestinal ailment. Cruise ships have

also been called “sweatshops at sea,” regularly employing low-paid on-board staff who frequently work eighty hours a week for ten or twelve months

straight. Because many ships are registered in countries such as Panama and Liberia, cruise ship workers are functionally exempt from widely

accepted and enforced labor standards, environmental regulations, and tax codes.

Disappointed? You still might be able to take that cruise of your eco-dreams if you do your homework and ask questions. Take a look at Ross

Klein’s website,, for updated information on cruise industry developments regarding labor, the environment, ship safety, and

security. Search out respected organizations such as World Wildlife Fund and National Geographic, which offer smaller scale but sustainable and

nature-oriented cruises. These types of eco-cruises won’t give you that “floating city” feeling, and by redirecting your travel dollars toward more

mindful operators, you’ll send a message that all cruises should have a conscience.



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