Being an eco-friendly company means more than just having a rainwater tank and fresh tofu on the menu. How can you avoid getting sucked in by greenwashing operators and phony eco hotels more concerned with attainable profits than sustainable travel? The trick, it seems, is all in the tick . . . By Kris Madden and Kerry van der Jagt.

Moral dilemmas are all too common when you’re on the road – although in the good old days, a major crime consisted of nicking something from the mini bar, forgetting to send a postcard or playing George Michael in the car. For the modern-day traveller, the biggest sin (aside from wearing Crocs) appears to be an implied responsibility for screwing up the entire planet.

The words “green” and “guilt” were made for each other, but salvation is available in the form of ecotourism. In the name of protecting the environment, this means using low-impact ways of getting around, staying in places that are eco-friendly or eco-accredited, and offsetting any extra emissions that can’t be avoided. The challenge for the eco-conscious traveller, with their new green legs and biodegradable hiking boots, is making sense of it all. Read on to learn how you can sort the trees from the forest.

Eco-certification: getting that all-important tick

Many travellers are willing to change their plans and pay more to ensure their holidays are as environmentally friendly as possible. As a result, “greenwashing” – the practice of making unsupported claims to have your business appear clean and green – is now widespread.

One way to tell authentic eco-friendly operators apart from those just cashing in on a marketing opportunity is to check whether they’re certified by an independent body. The most trusted in Australiais the ECO Certification Program developed by Ecotourism Australia, a not-for-profit that aims to assist tourism operators to not only become environmentally sustainable, but socially and culturally responsible as well.

The reality is that, no matter what we do, our mere presence will have some impact on the environment. But the goal is to try and keep it small. There are currently around 800 legitimate certified products in Australia, covering accommodation, tours, cruises and attractions – each falling under a different level of certification: nature tourism; ecotourism; and advanced ecotourism.

Climate Action Certification was also introduced in 2008 to rate the efforts of operators to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions and offer solutions for making changes.

“Legitimate accreditation gives people the assurance that they’re supporting a business genuinely committed to environmental best practice,” said Kristie Gray of Ecotourism Australia. “The accreditation schemes of quality aren’t just a ‘tick’ you can purchase – they should be independently audited and backed up by a program that ensures ongoing compliance.”

For companies that aren’t “eco-tourism” businesses, such as some luxury hotels, restaurants and transport companies, the Australian Tourism Accreditation Program is a voluntary one endorsed by the Federal Government and most State Tourism Organisations for those who have documented and active quality standards – including environmental management policies and procedures. Those that pass the test are allowed to use the “big tick” logo.

However, even a laundry list of environmental checks may not make a travel business truly green. Rather, it’s a principle ingrained in the company culture, almost to the point where it goes without saying that everything the business does takes sustainability into consideration.

Being a “green traveller” means being informed about what to look for, and being comfortable enough to ask some hard questions about a company’s environmental claims – such as whether they have an environmental policy, and if they support any projects that benefit the local community, as well as if they’re certified. That way you’re more likely to avoid being scammed by greenwashing, and less likely to have your carbon footprint become a carbon gumboot.

Further info: www.ecotourism.org.auwww.ec3global.comwww.tourismaccreditation.org.au

Carbon offsetting: the ultimate guilt trip

Of all the odd notions associated with ecotourism, carbon offsetting must be the wackiest. The idea is that you pay another party to “offset” your carbon emissions by planting trees (which absorb carbon dioxide) or investing money in renewable energy projects. Simply put, you pay someone else to clean up your mess. Consumers inAustraliacan choose from more than 70 organisations to atone for their sins, including Climate Friendly, Carbon Neutral, Elementree and Green Fleet.

Back in 2008, Climate Friendly was ranked No.1 in the Carbon Offset Watch report released by the Total Environment Centre, Choice and theUniversity ofTechnology,Sydney. Their best selling point is that they reduce emissions at the source by supporting innovative renewable energy projects such as wind and solar technologies. Clients include Earthwatch Institute, World Wildlife Fund, World Expeditions, Peregrine, Greenpeace and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

With credentials like these, Climate Friendly is a redoubtable choice. Take a typical trip fromSydneytoCairns. For a family of four, the online calculator says a one-way flight will produce 2.07 tonnes of CO2 and cost $45 to offset. The same trip in a large car will produce about 0.72 tonnes and cost $15.84 to offset.

In layman’s terms, a tonne of CO2 is roughly equivalent to the volume of ten backyard swimming pools. So, for a family of four, their combined flights will spew 25 swimming pools worth of gas into the atmosphere – with the car trip coughing up six pools’ worth. The money you give to offset will earn you carbon credits, which will contribute to the growth of the renewable energy industry and somehow balance out those nasty swimming pools full of CO2.

Yes, it sounds like a cop-out – and no, it’s not perfect – but it is a legitimate way to reduce emissions for the times you can’t avoid flying or driving, or when you can’t reduce your emissions through energy efficiency. As travelling doyen and Lonely Planet Founder Tony Wheeler once told AT: “Better that than nothing at all.”

Success Story No.1 -Australia’s Noah’s Ark: Kangaroo Island

Some 9000 years ago, rising seas separated Kangaroo Island from mainland Australia, creating a veritable life raft for the native wildlife. Even after European settlement, the island somehow managed to escape invasion by pesky foxes and rabbits, and the local wildlife flourished, today far outnumbering KI’s 4400 permanent human residents. The long beachfront at the Seal Park Conservation Park is one of the only places in the world where you can wander within metres of hundreds of rare Australian Sea-lions as they lollygag on the beach.

The first thing that strikes you about the island is that you can drive for a day and hardly see anyone else on the road. There are plenty of spots to find your own private Idaho along the island’s 480km of coastline. It’s seven times larger thanSingapore, and is a microcosm of many Australian landscapes: pristine bushland, white sand dunes and spectacular rock formations that plunge into the wild Southern Ocean.

In fact, KI is said to be the place to see the best of Australia if you don’t have time to see the whole continent. Half the native bushland is just as it was when explorer Matthew Flinders named it in 1802, and more than a third is protected as a national or conservation park. The wildlife here is far more varied than its name suggests. Many of the plants and animals are either threatened or exist nowhere else in Australia. In the space of one day you may well come across koalas, goannas, echidnas and maybe even a sneaky platypus. You can see little Penguins as they waddle home after a day at sea, or swim with the island’s resident pods of dolphins. Twitchers will be in heaven, with some 270 species of birds nesting here, including the endangered Glossy Black Cockatoo, which is found only on KI.

In this land of milk and honey – which comes from the only remaining strain of pure Ligurian bees in the world – you can taste the yummy honey flavoured ice-cream at Cliffords or buy honey-related souvenirs at the quirky Island Beehive in Kingscote.

There are plenty of choices for a bit of “green shut-eye” on the island, including eco-accredited lighthouse cottages, solar-powered houses and log cabins and, if you can afford it, the posh Southern Ocean Lodge.

Need another reason for why it’s rated as one of Australia’s top eco-tourism experiences? Well, KI has long been a shining example of how tourism and conservation can work together. More than a decade ago, when more wilderness-hungry visitors started to discover KI, the community, national parks agencies and tourism industry decided they needed to keep a close watch on the long-term health of their precious treasure.

They developed TOMM (Tourism Optimisation Management Model) to keep an eye on the impact of tourism on the environment. TOMM runs surveys that check things like the health of the environment, the number and type of tourists visiting and the type of experience they’re having, then presents this data in a simple way to show whether the current situation is a healthy one or not. If some aspect isn’t healthy, TOMM suggests what sorts of things could be done to solve the problem. This homegrown model was so successful that it was presented at an international conference organised by the UN and the World Tourism Organisation, with a view to being copied by other countries.

Success Story No.2: Southwest Tasmania

If it hadn’t been for a group of diehard greenies in the ’80s willing to chain themselves to trees in front of bulldozers, the ridiculously stunning wilderness area of southwestern Tasmania would today be underwater.

That campaign against an environment-wrecking hydroelectric power station, one of the largest acts of mass civil disobedience ever seen in Australia (led by Dr Bob Brown), kept the Franklin and Gordon rivers dam free – and now the world’s last expanses of virgin temperate rainforest make up the 1.3 million hectare Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

The Southwest National Park, Tasmania’s largest, is bigger than many small countries. It’s part of a chain of five national parks, which together fill almost a quarter of Tasmania’s landmass. Here, wild platypus, rare birds, reptiles and animals – even perhaps the thought-to-be-extinct Tasmanian Tiger – still live somewhere in its impenetrable depths. Kayaking on the weak tea-coloured waters of the Gordon or Franklin Rivers, it’s easy to imagine you’re back in prehistoric times. Giant Antarctic Beech trees tower along the riverbank, providing an eyrie for sea eagles. The agonisingly slow-growing Huon pines that have managed to avoid the timber loggers’ saw bear witness to tens of thousands of years of history.

Thanks to Bob and his merry band of eco-warriors, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area today has more natural and cultural values than any other region on Earth. This is one of the only places in the world where you can spot one (or maybe two) of the 200 remaining Orange-bellied Parrots, and a conservation sanctuary at Birch’s Creek makes it possible to sneak up on the little critters as they alight on the purpose-built feeding platform. Parts of this wild terrain are more than 50km from the nearest road, so the only access is by foot, air or sea.

If you’re an experienced walker, two tracks cross this wilderness. The 54km Port Davey Track runs fromLakePedderto Melaleuca and typically takes four to five days to plod. The 66km South Coast Track runs from Melaleuca along the southern coast ofTasmaniato Cockle Creek, but it’s one hell of a hike. Be warned, it can get very wet, wet, wet here. Up to 3000mm of rain falls per year, and the views can only be seen about one day in every five. This fickle weather occurs because the area fronts the wild Southern Ocean, next stop Antarctica.

Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park is the starting point for the world-famous Overland Track, a magnificent six-day walk that will take you through the heart of dappled-green rainforest; glacial tarns that seamlessly mirror snowy mountaintops – and, in summer, picture-perfect alpine meadows exploding with wildflowers.

Not everyone wants to take a backpack and camp overnight, so for those softies who like their creature comforts, there’s the option of shorter walks – or, if you’re a real girl’s blouse, scenic flights from Hobart. At the northern edge of the wilderness, Lake Pedder was once considered the ecological jewel of the region – that is, until it was flooded to become part of the Gordon River power development. But still, the knee-trembling views from the Gordon Dam Lookout are well worth the climb up.

Thanks to Bob and his merry band of eco-warriors, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area today has more natural and cultural values than any other region on Earth. World Heritage bods gave it its status in 1982 after it blew them away by satisfying more criteria than any other World Heritage property on the plane.

These also get the Green Light from AT . . .

1) LORD HOWE ISLAND // A two hour flight from Sydney brings you to one of the most beautiful islands in the Pacific and one of the most eco-conscious places in Australia. www.lordhoweisland.info, 1800 240 937
2) BAY OF FIRES WALK // Four-day guided walk along the rugged east coast of Tasmania, staying at Forester Beach camp and the award-winning Bay of Fires lodge. www.bayoffires.com.au, (03) 6392 221
3) CAPE YORK TURTLES // Join a group of volunteers on a Cape York turtle rescue camp in the Aboriginal community of Mapoon on Cape York Peninsula. www.capeyorkturtlerescue.com, (07) 4069 9978
4) FRASER ISLAND // The World Heritage-listed Island is a sandy, 123km-long sanctuary off the Qld south coast famous for ancient rainforests, dunes, wildlife, beaches and perched freshwater lakes. www.fraserisland.net
5) CONSERVATION VOLUNTEERS AUSTRALIA // CVA provides eco-tours that combine conservation activities with visits to pristine areas right across Australia. www.naturewise.com.au, 1800 032 501
6) DISCOVERY ECO TOURS // An award-winning small group tour operator providing guided tours in the NT focusing on natural and cultural heritage. www.ecotours.com.au, (08) 8953 7800
7) CRYSTAL CREEK MEADOWS // Outstanding luxury eco-cabins in Kangaroo Valley, the first in NSW to earn Climate Action Certification. www.country-accommodation.com.au, (02) 4465 1406
8) SAL SALIS NINGALOO REEF // An exclusive safari camp hidden in the white dunes of WA’s Cape Range National Park overlooking the Ningaloo Marine Park. www.salsalis.com.au, 1300 790 561
9) HIDDEN VALLEY CABINS // A 1.5hr drive northwest of Townsville on the western slope of Qld’s Paluma range, Hidden Valley Cabins are one of a growing number of carbon-neutral resorts, and operates on 100 percent solar power. www.hiddenvalleycabins.com.au, 1800 466 509
10) GREAT BARRIER REEF MARINE PARK // You all know this one: 2300km from Bundaberg to Torres Straight, the GBR is the largest tropical reef ecosystem in the world. The GBR Marine Park Authority follows a strict charter of Responsible Reef Practices. www.gbrmp.gov.au

 

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