Ecofriendly travel is a different concept to ecotourism. Ecofriendly tourism means traveling in a manner which minimizes the environment impact of your vacation, whereas ecotourism is traveling to enjoy Mother Nature's splendor (birdwatching, safaris and the like). Responding to widespread concern about climate change and global warming - as well as growing anger at the trash, pollution and congestion mass tourism typically leaves in its wake - the travel industry has begun offering vacation options which are fun and relaxing yet not so damaging to the environment.

Holidaymakers on a beachCredit: Wikimedia Commons

However, taking a vacation overseas still usually involves a flight on a jet airliner, and once in your destination country you're certain to take trains, buses and taxis. One of the easier ways to reduce your carbon footprint, therefore, is to select a "green hotel" - a place to stay which has been designed to be sustainable, and where the facilities and operating procedures minimize energy and water use, yet still provides comfort and safety. 

Many hotels are very wasteful

Compared to a private home, the average hotel uses exceptional amounts of water and energy. Because bedding is laundered more often, grounds and gardens are kept clean and well-watered, and room occupants are less likely to consciously conserve water ("We're paying US$160 per night, so we're entitled to flush the toilet each time we take a leak!"), hotels typically get through three times as much water per person per night as a conventional house or apartment. The same factors lead to very high electricity consumption: lobby and corridor lights burn through the night, while parts of the hotel are air-conditioned even when no one is around.

What's more, all that laundry means massive amounts of detergents and cleaning chemicals are used and, often, released into the local ecosystem. Find environmentally-friendly lodgings which are genuinely ecofriendly - as opposed to places which are engaging in cynical greenwash - often requires some research.

Internet searches often throw up the Green Hotels Association (GHA, based in Texas). The GHA aims to help hoteliers become more sustainable, rather than assist tourists looking for inns which respect the environment. In the words of the GHA's website, the association "does not certify, nor do we recommend certification. Certification is very expensive and very time consuming."

Far more useful is the Green Key Eco-Rating Program, which is growing in popularity in Canada, where it started, and also in the US. Qualified hotels, motels and resorts are given between one and five Green Keys depending on how well they do in various fields such as employee training, supply chain management, power and water conservation, land use, management of solid waste and hazardous waste, as well as food and beverage operations.

Other sustainable-hotel certification systems include Green Globe International and the Audubon Green Leaf Eco-Rating Program. To ascertain if a hotel building was constructed or renovated in an environmentally-friendly manner, check to see if it has a LEED rating. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and judges manmade structures by their water and energy efficiency, carbon emissions, construction materials and indoor air quality.  Any hotel with a Gold or Platinum rating can be considered very ecofriendly. LEED was launched in the US in 1998 but the standards are now applied as far away as India.

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Questions to ask before booking

Even if a hotel has no green certification and doesn't belong to any sustainable-tourism grouping, it may well follow ecofriendly practices. What's more, asking the following eight questions before confirming your reservation may encourage the hotel's management to follow green policies even if they didn't beforehand.

1. Is shampoo and soap presented in small, disposable containers or are the bathrooms equipped with bulk dispensers? The latter obviously reduces garbage.

2. Do you offer any discount or incentive to guests who bring their own toiletries?

3. Do you provide disposable plastic/paper cups in guest rooms, or glass or ceramic cups? If the latter, are they wrapped in plastic? The wrapping isn't necessary, of course.

4. Has the hotel installed low-flow showerheads, low-flush or dual-flush toilets and sink aerators to save water?

5. If the hotel has a swimming pool or jacuzzis, how is the water heated? Solar thermal panels are the greenest solution.

6. How does the hotel encourage guests to recycle? Do guestrooms have separate trash cans for recyclable and non-recyclable waste? Is clear information provided about what can and can't be recycled?

7. What is done with leftover food? If it can't be donated to a not-for-profit organization (for example, one which feeds homeless people), it could be composted and used in the hotel's gardens.

8. Does the hotel use unbleached recycled paper and soy-based inks, which are better for the environment than traditional petroleum-based inks? Has there been an effort to cut paper use by making documents smaller?

Do remember that the more potential guests enquire about sustainability, the greater priority it becomes for hotel owners and operators. It's within your power to get the ball rolling and make a difference.

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