Photo courtesy of b k.

Are you an ethical traveler? Irene Lane of Greenloons helps us wade through the marketing jargon to discover which tour operators are actually eco-friendly and sustainable (and how to tell the difference between the two).

Interested in more responsible travel articles? Please visit our Global Ethics section.

1. What is Greenloons, exactly?

Greenloons is a premier online resource that makes it easy for travelers to book vacations with travel companies that have gone the extra mile in terms of social responsibility, environmental accountability and economic transparency.

Our mission is to educate travelers about eco-tourism and easily connect them with eco-certified, vetted and just plain meaningful and awesome vacations around the world. In addition to searching and booking an eco-certified vacation, travelers can share their experiences, questions and concerns about eco-tourism as we are in the unique position to be able to share this feedback with international organizations that are responsible for strengthening international eco-tourism standards.

2. What inspired you to start Greenloons?

My academic and professional background, consisting of science, finance, consulting, research, software implementation, customer service, and politics, enabled me perhaps to come into the travel industry with a different mindset. I actually started the company while completing my Certificate in Sustainable Tourism Management. Given that tourism is the largest industry in the world, I saw the potential for authentic eco-tourism to alleviate poverty, conserve wildlife and habitats, bring greater cultural understanding, and of course affect climate change.

When I dug deeper, I began to understand that there was a lot of misinformation about eco-tourism and very little transparency about the “green travel” industry. For example, the mass media at the time was incorrectly equating eco-tourism to other types of tourism including green, sustainable, cultural, adventure, responsible, and nature tourism. They are all distinctly different. Eco-tourism is about preserving ecosystems, educating visitors about conservation, empowering localities, and operating sustainable tourist attractions. Sustainable tourism, on the other hand, does not focus on the preservation of the natural habitat or providing economic benefits to the host destination. Instead, the spotlight is allowing a smaller number of tourists to experience a natural habitat so as not to disturb the animal’s normal mating, feeding, or migratory patterns. These terms are being used interchangeably, which is causing consumer confusion.

Secondly, the industry itself has created an intricate web of green awards, certifications, and rankings that in some cases are just self-assessments performed by the tourism company itself and other cases, very rigorous independent audits of a company’s entire operations. Again, the message was getting muddled because consumers were hinting that they were willing to pay more for “green travel”.

So, I decided to start Greenloons so that it would be easy for eco-conscious travelers to figure out how to choose vacations in which companies were not just talking the talk, but walking the walk when it came to exemplifying the foundational components of ecotourism.

3. What are some simple ways travelers can start traveling in a more eco-conscious manner?

Ecotourism is much more than thinking about the environmental aspects of travel (i.e. recycle plastic, reuse towels), it is about considering the social and economic benefits of your travel choices. My top 4 tips are:

1) choose lodgings/accommodations/hotels that are eco-certified, which means there has been an independent verification of “green” or “eco” claims. If there isn’t a certification, ask the following questions:

a. Is nature, culture or ecotourism an underlying philosophy for all its business activities?

b. Is the hotel contributing actively to nature and culture conservation?

c. Is the hotel run as sustainably as possible, constantly balancing ecological, cultural, social and economic considerations?

d. Is the hotel contributing positively in the local community, using the local workforce, local products and services, working for increased collaboration and showing a general responsibility towards the community?

e. Is the hotel offering memorable experiences and creating meeting places that give employees and guests insight into local culture, community and environment?

2) use trains or efficient boats over automobiles and planes, if possible to get to your destination. If that is not possible, consider carbon offsetting with a CDM Gold Standard carbon offsetting project.

3) choose activities that are light on the planet and are led by a professional guide who can reach you about the local ecosystem, history, culture, etc.

4) support local food providers. In many cases, local food is cleaner, tastier, and certainly did not travel as far to get to your plate.

4. What has been your favorite destination thus far in your travels in terms of ecotourism?

In my opinion, the most valuable part of travel is the cultural exchange between visitors and hosts, and destinations like Alaska, Australia, Peru, and Botswana do a great job of this in that experiences are enriched with conservation programs and authentic interactions that explain their heritage. For example, in Alaska, travelers learn about indigenous wildlife and why it is so important to curb environmental degradation (i.e. soil erosion, air and water pollution and waste) while in Australia, travelers can participate in conservation efforts or study the destructive role of invasive plant species in the wilderness. In other countries, like Peru and Botswana, in addition to learning about conservation efforts, travelers are introduced to alternative energy concepts to prevent the depletion of natural resources, such as an eco-lodge harnessing wind or solar power for their operations. With eco-tourism, I think that travelers come away from experiences understanding the soul of a country – something that’s missing in today’s mass / homogenous tourism offerings.

5. Is there a way travelers can research whether a tour provider is legitimately sustainable?

While not perfect, at the very least, ecotourism certifications provide a point of reference for travelers to compare travel companies who claim to be offering green trips, sustainable trips, eco tours or environmentally-friendly trips. It can be very complicated and time consuming to understand all the eco-certifications and their nuances. But, this is how Greenloons helps in two specific ways. First, travelers can download our exclusive Reference Guide to Ecotourism Certifications or they can read the Eco-Certification series within the Greenloons Blog. Each article offers a detailed explanation of the award process, the evaluation criteria for each certification, and a link to eco-certified hotels and guiding companies.

6. What is one practice you see travelers and/or tour companies partaking in that’s hurting the environment?

In almost all trips, whether as part of the plan or by chance, travelers come across activities that involve animals. While these encounters should connect travelers with nature, sometimes, there are forced interactions with wild animals (i.e. guaranteed whale sightings, swimming with dolphins). Travelers should not attend shows that use wild animals that are forced to perform in an unnatural manner and should only support activities with conservational and protective objectives where animal welfare is above all.

7. How do you go about choosing the green tourism operators you list on your site?

Greenloons only lists vacation experiences from travel companies (and hotels) that have dedicated nature and wildlife tours, established energy and wildlife conservation policies, commitment to host destination economic prosperity, and adherence to environmental standards as set forth by recognized eco-certifications. Additionally, the ecotour operator needs to have received a conservation or environmental award by a legitimate organization – you would be surprised how many companies make up awards and then award themselves!

8. What is your vision for the eco-tourism industry and what are you doing to help reach that vision?

Along with the rise in globalization, unfortunately there has also been a rise in fearing other cultures. My vision for eco-tourism is for travelers to establish deeper, longer-lasting connections with the regions they are visiting, thereby not only learning more about themselves, but about how they can make a more positive impact on the world. This can only happen if there is enough demand AND supply. Therefore, I feel I am contributing to the eco-tourism industry in two specific ways.

From the demand perspective, Greenloons.com has made it easier to book authentic travel experiences and, though partnerships, has created an effective ecosystem of customers, suppliers, regulators and non-governmental organizations all working toward what travel is supposed to be – social, economically and environmental beneficial to local communities. From the supply perspective, I’ve developed a financial / return on investment (ROI) model that takes into account applicable costs and benefits so tourism businesses can more reliably budget, plan, market and anticipate the operations, community, employee and customer changes that come from implementing sustainable processes. In effect, by using this ROI model, tourism businesses around the world can anticipate the specific bottom line financial benefits from implementing eco-tourism certification standards, thereby potentially increasing supply of such businesses.

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About Irene Lane

Irene Lane has written and spoken extensively about sustainable travel and how families can choose vacations that support communities socially, economically and environmentally. She is frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and her blog articles and short pieces also have been published in Green Living Magazine, The PlanetD, Your Life is a Trip and LadyAdventurer among others. In addition to being the founder of Greenloons, which provides sustainable travel tips and information as well as a carefully curated collection of green travel experiences for families, Irene is the only sustainable travel consultant in the United States who can certify a green destination under the internationally-accredited Biosphere certification.

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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