Green Tourism: 'Leave Nothing But Footprints'

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Sustainable Travel 'One Long Trip Beats Three Short Ones'

In our daily lives we're environmentally and ecologically conscious, buying organic products and using renewable energy. But what about when we travel? In an interview, an expert explains what a sustainable vacation looks like.
About Petra Thomas
Foto: Forum Anders Reisen

Petra Thomas holds degrees in art history and archeology. She is the director of Forum Anders Reisen, an umbrella association for 130 travel agents that specialize in sustainable vacations.Forum Anders Reisen 

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ms. Thomas, if I'm looking to take a sustainable vacation, I'm probably best advised to stay at home on my balcony, right?

Thomas: Pretty much. You don't produce many CO2 emissions on your balcony. But we don't want to discourage anyone from traveling -- we just want to sharpen their awareness of what responsible vacations are.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Most Germans prefer to spend their time off in Germany….

Thomas: That doesn't necessarily mean they're adhering to a certain way of life, but nearby travel destinations that can be reached quickly are generally fairly sustainable. Much of that has to do with the fact that they are accessible by public transportation, such as trains.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is important to consider when planning a sustainable holiday?

Thomas: First of all, everyone should ask themselves: Why am I traveling? Am I looking for a cultural experience or to go to a spa? Then think about which places meet those criteria. You don't need to travel halfway around the world to find a spa -- it's enough to just go up to the Baltic Sea. And when you're packing, it's good to keep in mind that not all countries recycle their trash, so it's best to leave any packaging at home.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what about once you've reached your destination?

Thomas: It's best to frequent locally owned or family-run lodgings rather than international hotel chains. Additionally, you can eat at small restaurants, shop at markets and take three-wheeled rickshaw taxis whenever possible. That way you're supporting the local economy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your website offers long-distance travel bookings. When is it OK to fly places?

Thomas: Taking ground transportation from Germany to India, for instance, is unrealistic. If there's no way to avoid flying, you should always try to book a direct flight. Every takeoff and landing causes additional emissions. Also, one long trip beats three short ones. The ratio of travel distance to holiday duration is an important factor. When it comes to CO2 emissions, a weekend trip to New York doesn't make a lot of sense. After such a long-haul flight, you should plan to stay at your destination for at least two weeks.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But I could buy green airline miles for my New York trip at Atmosfair. Wouldn't that be enough of an indulgence?

Thomas: I don't like the word "indulgence." In its original Catholic meaning, that was how sinners bought their salvation, and that's not at all what Atmosfair is about. The money is invested in regional climate protection projects that use new technology to improve people's lives. The principle is comparable to a customary tourist tax, thanks to which beaches are kept clean, for instance. It's remarkable that such a thing hasn't been implemented yet for air travel.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You run Forum Anders Reisen, which bundles together 130 tour operators and travel agents that have committed themselves to sustainability. Your list of criteria is 12 pages long. What does an operator have to fulfill in order to become a member?

Thomas: Is the journey to get there eco-friendly? Are room and board in the destination country provided by locals, so that the money supports the local economy? Are the local culture and nature respected? And most importantly, we're part of the service industry, so there are many people involved who should be able to live from the work they do and, ideally, also have a say in decisions.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A number of countries that rely on tourism, such as states in the Maghreb region or Egypt, have become politically unstable. What do you recommend: Should people avoid these countries or support them?

Thomas: There's no general answer to that. First of all, no one should travel to any country where their safety is at risk. But the question of whether your money is going to support dictators is one that we should all be asking ourselves. North Korea, for instance, wouldn't be an option because there's no private infrastructure. It's worth looking into whether human rights, protection of endangered species or child labor are issues in a certain country. And not being able to move around freely is a problem, too. However, boycotting a country tends to adversely affect the wrong people. Burma is a good counter-example: Tourism contributed massively to the country opening itself to the outside world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Vacations where people can work on social or environmental projects -- so-called voluntourism -- are becoming increasingly trendy. It sounds sustainable, but in fact it's controversial. How do you deal with that?

Thomas: We had to expand our criteria to encompass this new kind of travel. We're very critical of stays at orphanages, where children are briefly looked after by people who lack any educational training and then left again. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with voluntourism projects in the Black Forest, where you can help collect dead wood after severe storms.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How cheap is too cheap for a vacation if you want to be sustainable?

Thomas: When you look at the price of a trip, it's easy to calculate whether the cost is realistic. Take, for instance, 1,000 euros ($1,119) for an all-inclusive vacation in the Dominican Republic in a four-star hotel. You can safely assume that the hotel personnel are not being fairly compensated. At a price like that, a company is probably skimping on working conditions.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: According to the tourism research association FUR, at least two out of three Germans say that sustainability is important to them while on vacation -- but their bookings suggest otherwise. How can this be?

Thomas: We're very conscientious in our daily lives when it comes to using renewable energy or buying organic food, but sustainable vacations are going to take some time to catch on. One reason for this could be that the package tour market in Germany is dominated by seven corporations that account for 70 percent of sales. It's tough to find sustainable offers.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Have you taken a vacation yet this year?

Thomas: No, but I'm leaving soon. I'm going hiking in South Tyrol -- and I'm taking the train to get there.

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