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Travel without a trace: The growing popularity of sustainable tourism

An increasing number of travelers are making an effort to preserve the environment, culture and economy of their destinations. (AP Photo/Kent Gilbert)

WASHINGTON — Just because you’re taking to the skies for that much-needed vacation doesn’t mean your carbon footprint needs to soar as well.

This summer, travelers are considering more than five-star hotel ratings and nearby Yelp restaurant reviews when planning a getaway. There’s a growing interest in destinations that conserve water, generate their own energy and grow their own food.

According to a recent Booking.com survey, more than half of 32,000 global travelers say they are likely to choose a destination based on its social and environmental impact. This trend is referred to as sustainable tourism, and Ismat Mangla, a reporter for International Business Times, says there’s more to it than “just going green.”

“The idea of sustainable travel is basically when you travel, you are aiming to preserve the environment, the culture, the local economy of the place that you’re visiting,” says Mangla, who covers travel and recently wrote on the topic. “We’re seeing people care about it a lot more these days.”

Although sustainable tourism has been around for a while, it’s seen a boom in recent years — and that boom is coming at the perfect time.

International tourism is on the rise. By 2020, international arrivals are expected to reach approximately 1.5 billion. Unfortunately, with mass tourism comes environmental damage, including soil erosion, pollution of land and oceans, increased strain on water resources and natural habitat loss, The New York Times reports.

However, not all trips need to leave such a negative impact.

“Anytime you’re getting on a jet plane and burning crazy amounts of fuel to get somewhere, you’re leaving somewhat of a big footprint,” Mangla says. “But there are ways to minimize the damage that you might do to a country’s environment or local economy.”

Sleep soundly at sustainable accommodations

From big brands to boutique businesses, many domestic and international hotels incorporate sustainable practices into their everyday operations. Some strive to cut down on water usage by offering guests the option to forego daily laundering of sheets and towels. Others save electricity by requiring a room key to turn on the lights and air conditioning.

“It really is becoming a trend that a lot of hotels are getting into,” Mangla says on sustainability efforts.

Of course, there are more innovative approaches to sustainability. Starwood Hotels and Resorts, for example, have fitness centers with bikes and machines that come equipped with pedal-powered charging stations for phones and other devices. The Fairmont Washington keeps bees on its roof and features the homegrown honey in its restaurant.

Opting for a hotel or inn that employs locals is another way to ensure your trip is sustainable. According to research by the UN Environment Program, 80 percent of spending by vacationers on all-inclusive package tours often benefits headquarters in the travelers’ home country, and not the destination’s local economy.

Staying sustainable with food, activities and excursions

It’s not just about where you stay: what you do when you’re on vacation can also make your trip more sustainable.

Instead of visiting the grocery store to pick up snacks or ingredients for a meal, visit a local farmers market or roadside stand. It’s less likely the food being sold traveled thousands of miles to get to its destination.

Avoid chain restaurants or Americanized restaurants if you are abroad, and seek out locally owned cafes and eateries. You’ll get a more authentic dining experience and contribute to the local economy at the same time.

If you’re off to see the sites of the city, consider a bike tour over a bus tour. Prefer a more adventurous view? Zip line through the rainforest’s canopy or take a white-water rafting trip over an ATV tour. Kayak and surf the ocean, rather than cruise it.

Some guided tours even donate directly to noteworthy causes. Premier Tours, a company that organizes safaris in southern and eastern Africa, donates $25 for each customer to the Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust. Journeys Within Tour Company arranges trips to Cambodia and takes clients on tours of projects they can help finance.

Booking a sustainable trip: research is required

Ready to book your eco-minded trip? Mangla suggests building in some extra time for research. Hotels and tour companies may tout themselves as sustainable, but fall short when it comes to action.

There are a few tools you can use to help you in your search, however. The World Responsible Tourism Awards honor individuals and organizations leading innovation in the sustainable tourism industry. Trusted guides, such as Lonely Planet, can also be a great resource for researching sustainable destinations and accommodations.

Of course, Mangla says one of the best things to do if you have a question on a hotel or tour group’s practices is to pick up the phone and give them a call. “Sometimes it requires a bit of work,” she says.

However, all the work to book an eco-conscious hotel or a locally operated tour is worth it in the end.

“All of the little things certainly can add up and make a difference,” Mangla says. “And I certainly think it’s worth trying.”

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