Travelling Lightly

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By Karen Rutter

‘If you take the effort to recycle your glass at home, would you want to stay at a hotel where they can’t be bothered?’

Holidays used to mean hopping on a plane, sprawling on a beach sipping piña coladas, and getting a suntan. But that was before we wised up to ozone holes, carbon footprints and global warming. Or, as one wag puts it: “Once we went on holiday to become brown. Now we go to be green.”

Green TourismEco-Tourism and Responsible Tourism have become buzzwords in the ever-expanding travel and leisure sector. As society in general has learnt that recycling one’s garbage and reducing water usage is a Good Idea, so too have businesses started to adopt more sustainable practices. And, as consumers become more discerning about where they spend their bucks, the tourism and leisure sector is becoming more savvy about what travellers want—and how to promote more environmentally-friendly holiday models. Simply put—if you take the effort to recycle your glass at home, would you want to stay at a hotel where they can’t be bothered? 

What is green tourism?

Green doesn’t have to mean tacky or shabby. It doesn’t mean you have to knit your own bedspread out of recycled lentil sprouts before you can go to sleep. It can mean stylishcreative and fun. It can be about people with big brains working out the best way for a building to function—using solar, or wind, or worm energy—and how to make that a pleasurable experience for you, the traveller. It can be about local communities getting involved in projects that improve their surrounds and their futures. Simply put, green tourism can mean tourism that benefits people and help protects the environment.

A cynic could describe green tourism as offering not only a good time, but to make us good people. Maybe so—but what’s wrong with that?

What is responsible tourism?

A little different from green tourism. Responsible tourism mostly refers to holidays that care about local communities and culture as well as wildlife conservation and the environment. I’ve personally made use of the website www.responsibletravel.com and found myself staying in a cottage on a marine-protected beach in Cirali, Turkey—where turtles come to lay their eggs. The food was all organic and we ate alongside Turkish families. It was a good recommendation.

According to www.responsibletravel.com co-founder, Justin Francis, “If you travel for relaxation, fulfilment, discoveryadventure and to learn—rather than simply to tick off ‘places and things’—then responsible travel is for you.”

You could end up staying in a yurt in Lanzarote, or hiring a former scout hall on the Isle of Wight. And why not?

Why do people choose these options?

• People are more conscious of their impact on the environment than ever before.

• They want to “do the right thing”.

• They want a healthier holiday—in terms of food, the outdoors, and activities.

• They’re following green policies at home and want to have the same on holiday (or even if it is a business conference).

• They’re curious—there are so many destinations and places to stay which are a little bit out of the ordinary.

Why would businesses 'go green', or 'be responsible'?

• To improve bottom-line profits, eliminate waste and improve their business carbon-footprint

• To be more sustainable and have a low impact on nature 

• To involve local communities for mutual benefit

• To keep up with consumer demand.

What are the criteria to look for?

Accommodation

• What sort of energy/power is used—gas, solar-power, low-energy bulbs?

• What sort of water system is in place—re-usable, for example?

• What kind of recycling takes place?

• Does the venue grow its own herbs, vegetables, and so on, and is there an emphasis on indigenous, water-friendly landscaping?

Community

• Is the hotel or venue locally owned and operated and/or staffed by local employees?

• Are there any special initiatives at the venue that benefit staff and their families (for example, schools, skills programmes, and other similar initiatives)?

• How does the community interact with guests—cultural programmes, walking tours, and so on?

• Does the venue make use of local initiatives in terms of the supply chain—for example, laundry and food supply?

Feel good factor
This is something you can evaluate yourself—check out websites such as Tripadvisor.co.za for feedback; ask friends who have been to the venue you are looking at; and check the response from staff if you phone or email about green or responsible criteria. Does the venue have a healthy feel to it? Do staff members seem involved and happy? Can you notice the effect of eco- and green initiatives?

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Green or responsible holiday options for you

There are a number of reputable sites you can find online. Try responsibletourism.comand fairtrade.travel. If you’re doing your own research, make sure you know what you want before you get packaged off on a ‘scenic’ self-stay in De Aar where the cottages have no electricity and the outside loo is described as ‘eco-friendly’.

Western Cape

The commercial and industrial area around the Cape Town International Airport may seem the least likely place to locate eco-friendly accommodation—but the newly-opened Hotel Verde has just been voted “Africa’s greenest hotel”. The chic space is filled with South African art works, and a number of unusual features including an indoor garden of live plants growing vertically out of a wall; a music corner where guests can pick up a guitar, play a marimba or tickle the ivories if they wish; and a library premised on an honesty system. The restaurant urges you to try their honey—harvested on the premises—while an outside stroll will take you through a restored wetland to a fresh eco-pool and short jogging trail. But that’s just the aesthetics—from a practical point of view, the way in which the hotel is run is impressive. There’s onsite recycling, hydroponic compost production, and re-use of products where possible. All suppliers are local and close to the hotel—within 160km—to reduce the carbon impact. There’s a vertical aquaponic herb and veggie garden. The gym uses energy-generated equipment, fed when guests use the cycle machine. Water from showers and baths is recycled for use in toilets—and there are only eight of the 145 rooms that have baths; the rest are all showers. There’s a vegetated roof garden, and wind turbines producing renewable energy. Energy-efficient LED lights are used throughout, and photovoltaic panels provide power.

The Spier wine farm complex, spread out just before you enter Stellenbosch, is justifiably known for its sustainability practices. It’s won numerous green awards and accreditations, including a Fair Trade in Tourism accreditation, accreditation from the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association and a Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Award. While there are many, many initiatives on the sprawling, beautifully restored premises, its approach is centred on two core issues: water and people.

The focus on water includes using water-saving devices on all showers, basins and toilets, as well as in the winemaking process. They have a wastewater treatment plant, which can be used to recycle water. As a spin-off, Spier farming is all bio-dynamic (using recycled water) and over 90 per cent of its solid waste is recycled.

The focus on people includes staff, their family and the local community. Spier has a policy of hiring locally, and providing permanent employment when they can. Farmworkers have their own trust; there is an emphasis on developing staff, plus on health and wellness (including counselling and health care services). The Spier philosophy is all about balance with both the environment and society.

A lot of Capetonians have a close relationship with the Vineyard Hotel, a slice of southern suburbs real estate that snuggles up to the slopes of Table Mountain, allowing for verdant views and al fresco communal spaces. For nearly a decade, the owners (the Petousis family) have been focusing on how to make the hotel more sustainable. Chris van Zyl, Sustainability Manager and horticulturist at the Vineyard Hotel, says it’s been quite a long journey, since about 2004. “We’ve put a green team in place, we use a variety of consultants, there’s ongoing training of staff. We’ve changed to about 6 400 LED lights over the years,” he says. 

Initiatives have included reducing the amount of hotel waste that ends up in landfills, installing a new laundry system that saves kilowatt hours, focusing on “green conferencing”, and, just this year, installing 80 new 250-watt solar panels on the hotel’s pool deck and fitness centre roofs, to help power the hotel. Their efforts have earned them an IMVELO Waste Management Award, amongst other accolades.

Does it have an impact on guests? “We have a questionnaire people fill out when they leave, and around three per cent say our environmental efforts are the reason they come,” says Chris. “But I reckon a lot more just expect the effort—if we didn’t do it, they wouldn’t come back.”

KwaZulu-Natal

Situated in the Maputaland Coastal Forest along the KwaZulu-Natal coast, Rocktail Beach Camp is recommended as an eco-green destination because of its proximity to the Maputaland Marine Reserve, where turtles lay their eggs on the beach at night and the snorkelling is sublime. Added to the natural surroundings—more blue than green, actually—is that Rocktail has forged excellent relationships with the surrounding communities. The Gugulesizwe Joint Venture is the first in South Africa between community, a conservation authority and ecotourism, and involves the surrounding Mqobela and Mpukane communities and iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority. More than two per cent of the community in the immediate settlements (with over 1 500 people) are permanently employed at the lodge, and community-based enterprise is supported to provide a range of additional products and services.

Gauteng

The Surreal Eco Boutique Hotel and Spa Hotel is described as a venue where “green energy fuses with on-trend design”. The hip eco boutique hotel draws its inspiration from serenity, and has a Khoi pond, an organic restaurant and on-tap body therapists to prove it. Situated in Bryanston, it’s run off various solar modules and wind energy. Apparently nearly R3 million was invested to ensure that the hotel runs mostly off the grid, with Eskom providing only single phase. “We know how precious the preservation of our planet is, which is why we have designed and produced a chic boutique hotel, restaurant and spa that is kind not only to the environment, but also to its people. We see all people as holistic human beings who should be treated as such,” says David Hadassin, co-owner.

Guide to Fair Trade in tourism

You may have heard of the Fair Trade Social Movement, which helps producers in developing countries have access to better trading conditions, and promotes sustainability. It focuses in particular on exports from developing countries to developed countries, including coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, and wine. Well, running along similar lines, Fair Trade Tourism (FTT) is a non-profit organisation that promotes responsible tourism in southern Africa and beyond. The aim of FTT is to make tourism more sustainable by making sure that the people who contribute to tourism their land, resources, labour and knowledge are the ones who reap the benefits. Thus FTT-certified businesses are committed to fair wages and working conditions, fair purchasing and operations, equitable distribution of benefits, and respect for human rights, culture and the environment.

Some FTT-certified venues include:

Pakamisa Lodge, situated in its own, malaria-free private game reserve overlooking the rolling hills of the former Zululand in KwaZulu-Natal. Initiatives at the eco-friendly luxury lodge include a large alien vegetation removal project, which provides income for local communities, and a policy of training local employees in eco-tourism practices.

Mashovhela Lodge, in the Morning Sun Nature Reserve, which is a natural heritage site in Limpopo province. The theme of the lodge is based on the Venda culture and all the materials and patterns used in the rooms and restaurant are from the Venda culture. The reserve is registered with Birdlife South Africa and is categorised as ‘Birder Friendly’, with over 540 bird species recorded. Once again, the local community are involved in all aspects of the venue, from hospitality services to cultural consultants.