Before You Book: Eco-Friendly Hotel Or Just Greenwashing?

can of green paint and brush

velo_city, Flickr

We’ve all stayed at hotels that proudly boast, via little signs on the bed and/or bathroom sink, that they’re doing their part to save the environment. Don’t want towels changed in order to save water? Just hang ‘em up, and the housekeeper will know that you’re a carbon footprint-savvy traveler.

Sure. I can count on half of one hand the number of hotels that have actually paid attention to the location of my towel. I’ve seen countless housekeepers dump the contents of in-room recycling bins into their trash bags. I don’t have any expectations at motels, but when it comes to boutique, “eco-friendly,” or high-end properties making these claims, I find it infuriating.

My focus as a writer and traveler is on sustainability issues, and I’m overjoyed that an increasing number of hotels are more aware of their environmental impact. What doesn’t thrill me: the amount of greenwashing, or false eco-claims, that take place in the hospitality industry. This problem isn’t unique to hotels, but it’s prevalent.

African man holding fish

safari_partners, Flickr


We’re living in an era of climate change. Lowering our individual and collective carbon footprint should be something we do, to the best of our abilities, on a daily basis. Hotels are hip to the fact that an increasing number of travelers have an elevated eco-awareness, and they want to capitalize on that.

In the absence of a word-of-mouth or written recommendation, it can be difficult to ascertain a hotel’s eco-integrity (although certain chains are well-known for their green policies; a 2012 Reuters report cites chains like Six Senses Resorts & Spas, Taj Resorts, Kimpton Hotels and Marriott).

Sites like Green Traveler Guides, however, (full disclosure: I’m a contributing editor) exist as unofficial industry watchdogs, reviewing properties and assessing their green policies. If you’re looking for a hotel or resort that’s genuinely green, sites like GTG feature properties that are both green and great, as well as provide tips on how to be a more eco-minded traveler. Other resources include sites like Green Lodging News.

hotel with exterior living wall

Rev_Stan, Flickr

For a quick study, here’s a checklist of what to look for when researching hotels:

  • If the only mentions refer to buzzwords like “organic,” “local,” “eco-friendly,” “eco-lodge,” or “environment,” caveat emptor. There’s no law that prohibits the use of green jargon; it’s up to you as a consumer to do your homework.
  • Is there a bona-fide recycling (bonus points for composting) program?
  • Does the property employ locals/incorporate and support local culture and community? How?
  • Is the property built and furnished with natural and/or reclaimed or renewable materials wherever possible?
  • Are there green options for guests, such as bike rentals and local culture-based activities?
  • Does the property have green certification from a legit international or domestic organization or program?
Laurel Miller, Gadling
  • Does the property use alternative fuel or electric carts for guest transit on-site and off?
  • Are bathroom amenities and cleaning agents chemical-free? Bonus points your in-room goodies are locally made.
  • If there’s on-site dining, is the food seasonal and sourced locally whenever possible (which reduces fossil fuel output as well as promotes local food security)? Do family farmers, ranchers and fisherman supply ingredients? Is there a chemical-free on-site rooftop or other garden from which the restaurant sources product?
  • Does the property have a “living roof” or walls?
  • Is the property using alternative resources for operations? Examples include solar or wind power, geothermal heating and reclaimed water systems.

“Gringo Trails”: What Are Travelers Doing To The Places They Visit?

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.” –- Agent Smith, “The Matrix

Agent Smith could have been talking about the “morning after” footage in “Gringo Trails,” a new documentary by Pegi Vail and Melvin Estrella. The camera wanders down Thailand’s Haad Rin Beach after the Full Moon Party. The beach is littered with trash — water bottles, clothing, plastic bags -– and crashing partiers. Garbage sloshes up on the sand in the gentle surf. This beautiful stretch of sand, once completely unknown to travelers, is now punctuated with rubbish. The film illustrates some hard truths about mass travel, but I found it especially painful to watch this segment. It was embarrassing to the see the awful disregard for this once beautiful place. And it was sad, a weighty head-shaking sadness that left me questioning the results of my own backpacker traveling days. Was I this unaware? Did I spread the virus?
“Gringo Trails” looks at the impact backpackers have on places like Haad Rin. How were these places “discovered,” and how did they change as a result? What effect does the influx of tourists — the kind who insist they are not tourists — have on the environment and on the people? Are these travelers even aware that they leave their fingerprints all over the economy, the culture and the ecosystem of the places they visit?

Vail and Estrella aren’t issuing a blanket indictment of backpacker travel — Vail was a backpacker herself in the early 1980s. Her message is more educational. “When this type of travel started, we were completely unaware of the implications. But now, 20, 30 years later, we know. We know what happens, and we can share this information so it doesn’t happen in other places.”

The movie opens with the story of Yossi Ginsberg, an Israeli backpacker who was lost in the jungle near the village of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. In 1985, Ginsberg wrote a book about his misadventures and how he was rescued. Rurrenabaque had been a small hub for adventure travelers, but Ginsberg’s book launched an influx of Israelis seeking their own version of that adventure.

The travelers in “Gringo Trails” seem to think of Ginsberg’s story as an amusement park ride, as something they should be able to access. An Israeli girl says, “Everybody wants to experience the life of the jungle . . . to have a little touch like in the book.” “I’m Indiana Jones,” says a Swedish backpacker from the seat of a crowded motor canoe. Ginsberg was lost. His life was in danger; he was lucky to be saved. And now travelers — inspired by his story — can pretend they are having a facsimile of his experience. With meals and camping and guides included.

The movie takes us to a number of different destinations, showing the change that backpackers bring when they open new regions to increasingly organized tourism. We see the archetypal travelers we’ve met in our own adventures: the traveler vs. tourist snobs, the beach hippies, the partiers. There are stories from Pico Iyer, Rolf Potts, Holly Morris and Prince Sangay Wangchuk about the tension between travelers’ values and the native values of the places we visit. Vail and Estrella take us around the world and show us, in archival footage shot over many years, exactly what we’ve done to the planet by being everywhere on it.

“The idea of adventure, to be in the jungle and surviving is an idea that spans a lot of different cultures, but most people don’t take it to the extreme,” says Vail. “They like the idea that they’re having this adventure, that they’re somehow surviving in the jungle . . . but I don’t think they think it through. They don’t really want to have that experience. People conflate the images. . . . it’s the completion of all these stories in the media that affect what our destination perspectives are and what we’re looking for.”

There’s a painful tension between the desire to have a great adventure — to share that adventure — and to protect a place as it is when we find it. In “Gringo Trails,” Costas Christ, editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler magazine and an early advocate of ecotourism, tells the story of “finding” Haad Rin in 1979. He admonished some fellow travelers, Germans, “Whatever you do, don’t tell people about this place.” In 2013, an estimated 30,000 people attended the Full Moon Party on Haad Rin Beach. Christ’s Germans may not have told, but the story got out.

In “Gringo Trails,” Vail travels around the world to show how travelers are affected by the romance of packaged travel stories in the media as well as through word of mouth. Adventure becomes a commodity. “It’s good value,” says Lina Brocchieri about her excursion to untouristed and exotic Timbuktu. She’s presumably speaking of the cocktail party caché she gains in mentioning her travels to this place so weighted with the extraordinary. But the reality of her experience is sobering and enlightening. Her presence makes no sense to the locals, and she begins to wonder why she is there.

“Romanticization is writ large . . . versus the reality of how people are living, the poverty,” says Vail, speaking of our preconceived notions as travelers. “I was hoping the film would have people think before they go.”

The film offers up some suggestions but no easy solutions to the change we invoke by merely being present in these faraway places. Ecotourism. Government regulation. A discussion of Bhutan’s visa program shows how the country has chosen to restrict travel to protect its cultural heritage. Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with us as travelers. Our “high-value” experiences cost us money, but what’s the expense to the places we choose to visit? How do we reconcile our romantic images of the world with the truth of what our presence in those places means?

Adventure travelers and backpackers are often the front line. We crack these places open to the rest of the world. At our worst, we are looking for easy social mores, cheap booze, accessible drugs and a line on our résumés. How strange that we should fall into the role of de facto ambassadors for these places. But at our best, that’s what we are — ambassadors. “Gringo Trails” leaves the traveler shouldering the weight of that responsibility. How are we going to interpret the stories we hear, and what stories are we going to tell?

“I like seeing the changes,” says Vail, “in how people apply what they have learned. You can do something. Instead of just traveling through and gaining experiential capital, we can give back. It’s middle-class, upper-middle-class, travelers, if they say they’re on a budget or not. So there’s disparity between classes and cultures. Now, I think a lot of people are coming back are doing something.”

“It’s a fine line between the joy and the incredible experience of travel with the reality of local lives. I hope we can enjoy the film, think about why we love to travel and also, think responsibility. The hope is that it’s opening a conversation. This is a tremendously important topic. And it’s urgent, given that we’re all over the place in the world.”

“Gringo Trails” premieres on October 19, at 8:30 p.m. in the American Museum of Natural History during the Margaret Mead Film Festival. There’s a screening at North America’s largest environment film festival, the Planet In Focus Environmental Film Festival in Toronto November 21-24. Additional screening dates will be available on the Gringo Trails website.

Could A Malaria Vaccine Be On The Way?

malaria
USAID and the President’s Malaria Initiative support the distribution and use of bednets to protect against malaria. Bednets are important for children and pregnant women who are most vulnerable to the disease. Photo: Alison Bird/USAID

The UK drug company GlaxoSmithKline is applying for regulatory approval of the world’s first malaria vaccine, the BBC reports.

The move comes after tests that the company said were promising. For the past several years, GlaxoSmithKline has conducted tests of its vaccine on almost 15,500 children in seven African countries. The company reports that 18 months after vaccination, there was a 27 percent reduction in malaria cases in infants aged 6-12 weeks and a 46 percent reduction in children aged 5-17 months.

Now it’s applying to the European Medicines Agency to start marketing the vaccine. GlaxoSmithKline’s research was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the company says it will make the vaccine affordable for poorer nations.Ninety percent of the world’s malaria cases are in the poorer regions of sub-Saharan Africa where the vaccine was tested. Globally, malaria kills 800,000 people a year. It’s also a major hazard for adventure travelers. While antimalarial pills are generally effective, they can have serious side effects. A vaccination would go a long way to easing the burden on people who choose to visit the tropics.

Approval for the vaccine could come in 2014. Unfortunately, the percentages the company is quoting do not indicate that it will be as effective as many of the vaccines we are used to. Other measures are still needed like the education of the public of the dangers of standing water and the need to use mosquito netting. More innovative methods for fighting the disease like infecting them with bacteria are also being studied.

Hopefully GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine will be just the first generation of a series of improving vaccines that will one day relieve the world of a dangerous disease.

Yawning Travelers Rewarded With Free Coffee In Airport Ad Campaign



Goodness knows the number of times we’ve walked through endless airport terminals feeling like a zombie – jet lagged, disoriented, and in need of a serious caffeine fix. Well, a new airport advertising campaign is rewarding bleary-eyed passengers with a free cup of joe, just for yawning.

The Douwe Egberts company placed a coffee vending machine with facial recognition technology in South Africa’s O.R. Tambo International Airport. The machine was activated by yawning, and any passenger who figured out the trick was gifted a steaming hot coffee.The coffee campaign is just one of many kooky tactics being used by advertisers to target airport passengers. According to CNN, companies believe fliers are the perfect captive audience for advertising –- after all, we’re trapped in the airport, feeling stressed, bored and ready for a distraction. Not to mention that if you can afford a flight, you probably have a higher degree of disposable income to spend on whatever advertisers are trying to tempt you with.

The strategy is exactly what Heineken was banking on when it launched it’s “Dropped” campaign at New York’s JFK airport a few months back. The company gave travelers the chance to drop their current travel plans, spin a “departure roulette” wheel and travel to a new destination instead.

The Way Of Kindness

India Buddhist Festival
AP

In his preface to a collection of stories called “The Kindness of Strangers,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote, “Kindness and compassion are among the principal values that make our lives meaningful… At any given moment there must be hundreds of millions of acts of kindness taking place around the world.”

That theme infuses the five travelers’ tales Aol Travel is highlighting this week, all portraying acts of unexpected kindness in a globe-embracing spectrum of settings, from Syria and Liberia to India, Greece and Russia. These acts are not dramatic or headline commanding, but small, everyday kindnesses.

Read all these stories at Aol Travel.