As soon as we stepped into our luxury safari tents, the bellboy switched on a couple of air conditioners. Outside, a strong breeze was blowing from the adjoining forested valley, but the tent was not constructed to exploit it for cooling. The air conditioners were sucking on the electricity grid (powered by coal-burning, inefficient, polluting and greenhouse-gas-emitting machinery), with massive diesel generators as back-up. We had just checked into a premium “ecolodge” in the heart of Bandipur National Park in the Nilgiris.
Around 800 million to one billion tourists will travel around the world by the end of this decade— including you and me. They will demand enormous quantities of energy, water and other natural resources to support their holidays, leaving a gigantic footprint of waste, pollution, habitat destruction, carbon dioxide emissions and, frequently, displacement of local people and wildlife.
Light step: (from top) The dining tent at Shaam-e-Sarhad; and the Periyar at Thekkady. Photographs : Ramki Sreenivasan
But it doesn’t have to be so. Actually, as travellers and tourists, we can make wiser, more responsible choices of destination, resorts and activities, joining the small but growing band of travellers looking for tourism options with low environmental impact and high social and economic benefits. And no, it’s not just about forgoing clean towels in the interest of “environmental concerns” of hotels that continue to use tonnes of air conditioning.
For evidence that sustainable tourism can be both comfortable and stylish, look no further than Our Native Village (www.ournativevillage.com) in Hesaraghatta, on the outskirts of Bangalore. This nature-focused resort has a swimming pool, like any five-star hotel. But instead of using chlorine, its pond-style pool has aquatic plants and carbon filters to clean the water (100% rain-harvested). Most of its electricity comes from solar panels, windmills and biogas, while guests can ride a bullock cart, milk a cow, fly kites, or play gilli danda or marbles by way of “activities”.
The larger focus of the truly green hotels and destinations is on preservation of the local habitat. At the Eaglenest, Arunachal Pradesh, one of Asia’s top biodiversity hot spots, the local Bugun tribal community-run ecotourism venture Vacations for Conservation (www.kaatitours.com) follows a strict leave-no-trace policy with its campsites. Since travellers come largely for the birds, locals have a direct stake in conservation.
At Shaam-e-Sarhad (www.hodka.in), close to the Pakistan border in Kutch, Gujarat, the Hodka Village Tourism Committee offers accommodation in indigenous mud huts and tents and serves only vegetarian cuisine.
I’d also include Ecotourism Kerala (www.ecotourismkerala.org), an arm of the state tourism department, among the beacons in the fog: They did an environmental impact assessment, asked the Kerala Forest Research Institute to lay down sustainability parameters and developed ecologically sustainable destinations in Kovalam, Thenmala, Alleppey and Periyar.
While I can count only these four sustainable hotels/operators in India, their fundamental principles are eminently replicable. Consider energy management. It’s very easy to supplement grid power with alternative sources such as solar, wind and bio. Water heating can be completely powered by solar energy. And some hotels can turn this into strategy: The ITC Sonar Bangla in Kolkata has implemented energy conservation initiatives such as waste heat recovery, improved pumping systems and better efficiency in the air-conditioning system to become the first hotel in the world to obtain certified emission reductions, also known as carbon credits.
Where lighting is concerned, green hotels use LEDs (light-emitting diodes), which are between two and three times more efficient than compact fluorescent lamps and 10 times more so than conventional incandescent bulbs. They not only last longer, but are also free of toxic mercury. Also, because they produce a “cool” light—traditional lighting produces more heat than light—they significantly reduce air-conditioning needs.
Toiletries management can be a serious green strategy area for hotels. Already, a number of them have replaced small packaged toiletries—associated with massive costs of packaging, transportation and wastage—with refillable dispensers. Of course, the best green travellers carry their own soap!
The construction of the hotel is another factor. As at Shaam-e-Sarhad, local architecture—nurtured by local climatic and seasonal conditions—translates into drastically reduced energy usage. Local and easily available building materials (versus imported ones) directly reduce transportation costs and save tonnes of emissions.
Finally, consider how the hotel or resort cooks for its guests. All cooking fuel needs can actually be powered completely by biogas, made from the bio-waste from the hotel and its surroundings.
Still think it’s impossible to be a green traveller?
10 eco-friendly strategies for travellers
• Fly wise: Plan your trip to minimize air travel. Stay longer in a destination instead of making many short trips.
uTravel light: Pack only what you cannot do without. The lighter your luggage, the lower the resultant greenhouse gas emissions.
• Book responsibly: Do check whether your hotel, tour operator or other service providers have documented and reported environmental initiatives to save energy and minimize waste.
• Before you leave: Turn off lights and unplug household appliances that can be left unplugged while you are away.
• While you are there: Turn off all the lights and air conditioner/heater when you leave your room, and unplug unnecessary appliances.
• Get around green: Use public transport. Walk or cycle. Try non-motorized vehicles.
• Eat local: Reduce your “food miles” by choosing restaurants that buy local produce.
• Save water: Use minimum water for a shower. Don’t let it run while shaving, brushing or washing. Use the hotel’s linen reuse programme.
• Charge your trip sustainably: Avoid appliances that need batteries. If you cannot, get rechargeable batteries.
• Offset the unavoidable footprint: Contribute to a credible carbon offsetting programme to compensate for what you’ve depleted.
Source: The International Ecoutourism Society
Ramki Sreenivasan is a Bangalore-based nature photographer and wildlife conservationist.
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