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Ecologist guide to green travel

Eifion Rees

6th May, 2010

From 'staycations' to conservation holidays - everything you need to know to plan a green vacation

Ask the average Briton to choose between going green and going on holiday, and it's unlikely you'd hear the answer over the twin slams of suitcase lid and front door. Whether or not the perennial tabloid clamouring about "Workaholic Britain" is true, it's fair to say we feel we earn our holidays. Increasingly we've come to demand them as a right.

Fuelled by growing wealth, lower prices and technological advances that have shrunk the world, tourism is now a multi-billion-pound industry relied upon by developed and developing countries alike. Like it or not, holidays are here to stay.

Green holidays

But they don't have to be either-or propositions. As awareness of environmental matters grows, green holidays are on the rise. From solar panels to ground-source heat pumps, the hospitality industry is burnishing its eco credentials, proof that habits are changing.

Aware of the damage wrought by aviation, many of us are also seeking alternative ways to travel abroad - or staying at home.

So how to enjoy a holiday without compromising your green principles too much? Opt for the mode of transport with the lowest carbon footprint, pick sustainable and ethical companies, deal with green travel agents, stay in a homestay, choose eco hostels, hotels and resorts where possible, and spend money and make friends in the local community. The challenge is to rethink the concept of the holiday so it works in everyone's best interest, and it starts here.

Why carbon offsetting doesn't cut it

The world's first carbon-offset programme was launched in 1989: a 183MW coal-fired power plant in Connecticut was given the go-ahead provided its owners plant 50 million non-native pine and eucalyptus trees in highland Guatemala.

How could something good grow out of such inauspicious beginnings? The answer: it couldn't. Carbon-offsetting has been discredited in recent years. One of the first travel agencies to introduce offsetting back in 2002, ditched the scheme last year, saying the priority must be on reducing emissions rather than mitigating them.

Can flying ever be green? Ecologist editor Mark Anslow poses the question bothering every holidaymaker with an environmental conscience. And what if your holiday is in fact with rarely-seen family on the other side of the world? Matilda Lee investigates the issues around defining unnecessary travel. For more on flying in a holiday-addicted world and leaving a positive footprint, read former Ecologist editor Jeremy Smith's blog.

Packing in the most amount of people per emissions, buses are the greenest way to travel long-distance. For destinations across Europe, try Eurolines, Busabout and Trailways Europe. If you're holidaying within the UK, try National Express and Megabus, which also operates in the US and Canada. Take the Greyhound for more bus travel Stateside.

It's amazing how many continents are accessible by train from the UK. With a little planning and an awareness that holidays are as much about the journey as the destination, you can travel by rail to Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Visit the Man in Seat 61, a website run by former rail worker Mark Smith.

Stay at home

The greenest holidays are often the ones we take at home. For a selection of eco cottage conversions in Wales, try Under the Thatch. Greg Stevenson's award-winning company has more than 60 green properties for choose from.

Organic Places to Stay offers exactly what it says on the tin: accommodation where meals are prepared using organic produce, or self-catering on organic farms and smallholdings. Yurts are a great, low-impact alternative to camping - try Yurtworks in Cornwall or for a selection of yurts at home and abroad, including France, Spain, Portugal and Greece, visit the Yurt Holiday Directory.

If you're looking for a cycling holiday, sustainable transport charity Sustrans is place to go for more than 8,000 miles of signed cycle routes, as well as information about the National Cycle Network.

For other environmentally friendly places to stay in the UK and Ireland, visit Ecoescape, Natural Discovery or Green Traveller. Visit the cleanest Blue Flag beaches - there are 173 to choose from. The Green Tourism Business Scheme rates hotels and other tourism-related companies on their eco credentials.

Conservation holidays

"First, do no harm" is the principle maxim of medical ethics, and the same rule applies to green holidays. More and more of us want to go beyond that, however; to do some positive good rather than simply not doing bad.

Conservation holidays are growing in popularity among those looking to get more out of their breaks while at the same time putting something back. Become an assistant warden on Skomer Island, off Pembrokeshire - a National Nature Reserve and European Special Protection Area. Or help charity Trees for Life restore the mighty Caledonian Forest, and the wealth of flora and fauna that depends upon it.

A range of other organisations offer conservation holidays, including the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, (01302 388883), the Waterway Recovery Group, which works to restore derelict canals (01494 783453) and the RSPB (01767 680551).

Eco hotels, homestays and volunteering abroad

There is a growing appreciation that people - not places - are the key to a great holiday. Rather than staying in sterile hotels or resorts that could be anywhere in the world, green travellers are choosing to stay with local families, contributing by helping out with work on farms and in fields, and receiving accommodation and a deeper understanding of their hosts and host country. It's rare to come home with photographs and new friends.

This model of community-based tourism means villagers and townspeople deciding for themselves how they engage with tourism. It's responsible and sustainable way for them to choose the best parts and opt out of the worst, preserving traditions and the environment while bringing economic growth to their area. Some examples include Ban Talae Nok village in southwest Thailand and Aakriti in India, while for South American try HomestayWeb.

WWOOFing is a great way to see the world. WWOOF - Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms - is an international network of organic farms that offer offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about sustainable living in exchange for volunteer help. Try your hand at ploughing, tilling or caring for animals in Africa, Asia, India, Australia, New Zealand, the Americas and Europe.

If something more plush is to your taste, visit Eco Hotels of the World for a selection of the greenest accommodation. Hotels are independently rated according to five criteria - energy, water, disposal, eco-active and protection - and awarded between one and five stars for each. In order to be rated, they must also celebrate sustainability and conservation, offer environmental training to staff and economic benefit to local communities.


Nowhere is the irony of holidays more apparent than on the world's ski slopes. Millions fly and drive to the high places every year to ski and snowboard, while the climate change occasioned by their flights melts glaciers and sees the snow retreating further up the mountains every year. It gives a whole new meaning to the term "apres ski".

If you really want green skiing, choose homegrown slopes such as Cairngorm near Aviemore and Nevis Range near Fort William over the past few years. For information on green winter wonderland holidays, check out Clean Breaks, a book by Jeremy Smith and Richard Hammond, with details on taking the overnight snow train to the Alps.

Booking green

Father and son team Chris and Jaime Askew attribute the inspiration for their site The Travel Planner to George Monbiot, and aim to promote organisations that offer sustainable, ethical and responsible travel. From off-grid cabins in the Dordogne to green travel advice. was launched with the help of private investors including Anita Roddick, and in 2001 became the world's first dedicated travel agent for responsible holidays.

Eifion Rees is a freelance journalist

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