Tourism can be both an economic blessing and an environmental curse. But as consumer interest in 'green' getaways grows, the travel industry and tourism organizations are putting the spotlight on sustainability.
Berlin's top tourism industry fair is taking a look at sustainable travel
Cruise packages, overseas getaways, trekking tours of the Himalayas - there's no shortage of exotic destinations on offer at ITB Berlin, the world's largest tourism trade fair.
Sustainable travel is a big theme of this year's convention. Travel providers are responding to rising demand for eco-tourism by marketing adventure packages with a "green spirit." Exhibitors from more than 30 countries will feature holiday tours ranging from environmentally friendly trips at eco-resorts to CO2 emissions-free walking, cycling or sailing vacations.
Yet eco-tourism is becoming more than just a niche market for environmentally minded travelers.
ITB Berlin spokesperson Astrid Ehring said that as green travel grows more popular, some tourists are expressing interest in trips that incorporate volunteer programs.
"People are looking more and more for specific products and authentic experiences, and green tourism is a way of getting these kinds of experiences," Ehring told Deutsche Welle.
But travel companies' ability to provide a "real" experience also hinges on preserving the beauty of natural landscapes in popular travel destinations. "We think that (green tourism) is not only a trendy topic, but it's a social necessity - and it's a precondition for long-term economic success," she said.
Promoting the green standard
A number of organizations and non-profits are working to open up natural areas to tourism without damaging sensitive ecosystems. The European Destinations of Excellence, or EDEN project, launched in 2006, encourages countries to adopt healthy and sustainable tourism policies.
The initiative selects locations each year that exemplify sustainable practices. EDEN project manager Francesca Tudini said sustainability was part of the European Parliament's vision for the project from the very beginning.
"We put the point on sustainability," she said. "But it must be sustainability on the economic, cultural and environmental sides."
Though a growing number of countries are participating each year, Tudini said EDEN is planning to do more to promote the designation among tourists and travelers and has already expanded its online campaign to include sites like Facebook and Wikipedia.
The former border between East and West Germany is now a tourist destination
Through the Bonn-based Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Barbara Engels is also involved in efforts to ensure that travel doesn't jeopardize natural landscapes. She described the challenge of reconciling tourism's economic significance with local conservation concerns.
"Tourism is an important source of revenue and jobs in these areas," Engels said. "But as it grows, so do the demands it makes on the area and the influence on nature."
Many rural areas number among the world's top travel destinations, but these landscapes also require broad-reaching environmental protections to ensure their long-term viability.
Preserving natural beauty at home
In Germany, some 50 million people visit national parks each year, yet those spaces represent just a small fraction of the country's protected areas.
At this year's ITB Berlin, Engels and her colleagues are presenting tourism and leisure packages along the "Green Belt," the former border between East and West Germany. The area features miles of pristine natural landscapes, allowed to flourish untouched for decades along the border.
German authorities and tour operators have ample experience when it comes to developing a sustainable tourism industry.
The National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations gave the Bavarian Alps high marks in its latest survey. Published in late 2009, the index incorporates evaluations from a 437-member expert panel, which includes specialists in sustainable tourism and ecology.
Developing economies have a lot to gain in the sustainable tourism market
National Geographic Traveler's report on the survey noted the fruits of conservation efforts in the region: "Balanced tourist development and environmental protection are strengths, even at popular attractions," it read.
Germany's experience with sustainable tourism could serve as a model for other countries facing similar challenges. The Federal Agency for Nature Conservation is one German organization that helps promote such standards.
"A lot of the nature protection projects we support abroad are projects where we have to work with the locals to develop regions sustainably, using nature in a way that doesn't damage it," Engels said.
Pairing economics and environmentalism
The Bavarian Alps have seen tourism paired with environmental efforts
Environmentally minded policies are all the more important considering tourism's effects on economic prosperity worldwide. According to the UN World Tourism Organization, developing nations took in one third of the $735-billion-global-tourist industry in 2006.
Such countries are particularly well suited for green tourism opportunities due to the presence of untouched natural preserves.
Studies conducted by Ulysses Web Tourism, a tourism research and consulting company, indicate that ecological and economic factors aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.
Certainly, mass tourism can complicate efforts to blend travel and sustainability. Yet Ulysses' director Dr. Dominik Rossmann said tourism and conservation efforts are actually closely linked, particularly as environmental policies are crucial in preserving natural spaces.
"Tourism only functions in an intact environment," he said. "Nobody wants to spend their holidays in a scrapyard or catastrophe-stricken area. People want to take beautiful impressions back from what, for them, is the best time of the year."
Getting there, the green way
Tourism is known to run the risk of destroying the very natural beauty it seeks to behold. Yet a holidaymaker's choice of destination and means of transport can have a significant impact on the environment.
Some consumers purchase carbon offsets to minimize the effects of air travel
On the personal level, Rossmann set an individual's "emissions" level at 3,000 kilograms of CO2 per year. "Flying to Mexico or South America already uses up two years' allowance for one holiday," he said.
The UN World Tourism Organization estimated that the tourism industry accounts for five percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions annually.
But consumers also have more choice when it comes to green travel. Carbon offset programs allow travelers to compensate for air travel emissions by donating to climate protection initiatives, such as reforestation projects.
Yet Herbert Hamele, president of the Saarbruecken-based European Network for Sustainable Tourism Development (ECOTRANS) said carbon compensation options are not standardized according to the same scientific basis - and not all travelers are aware of such programs.
"The difficulty is that on the one hand, many people do not know that this opportunity exists, and on the other hand, they are voluntary," he said.
Though few travelers choose to buy carbon offsets voluntarily, Hamele said such programs could help raise awareness of the issue over time and prepare travelers to change their behavior.
Promoting environmentally friendly consumption
More selective vacation recreation can help reduce tourism's impact
Travelers can also reduce tourism's environmental burden by adopting ecologically friendly behavior during their trip. Rossmann listed a few basic rules to help keep holiday trips "ecologically correct."
A good starting point involves reducing waste - or even bringing it back home. "You can also try to reduce your water consumption," he added. "Here in Europe, we're used to using a very high amount of water, and that puts pressure on any ecosystem."
When it comes to recreation, Rossmann encouraged travelers to engage in more moderate consumption of popular tourist activities: "I don't need to go over the top with too much water skiing and paragliding."
Yet even people who aren't prepared to change their holiday habits for the sake of the climate or the environment could be susceptible to another kind of pressure:
"If flying gets more expensive again, whether it's because of the environment or the price of oil, the demand for overseas trips will drop," Rossmann said. "It's less a matter of a growing environmental consciousness than it is hard economics."
Authors: Irene Quaile, Amanda Price
Editor: Nathan Witkop