Eco-Friendly Exploring

Nowadays when people travel they want to have fun, but feel smug about it too. So a trend that has been sneaking up for years is finally having a genuine impact, and threatens to hurt destinations that remain stubbornly resource intensive.

The luxury offered by top-end hotels and resorts undeniably impacts negatively on the environment. Yet it’s all done in the name of pampering: clean sheets and towels daily; a lavish choice of food; endless hot water for showers and baths; plastic bottles of water; and air conditioning to cool Africa down.

Guests love it, but the planet doesn’t.

Some guests are declaring themselves willing to forego these treats in return for the warm, fuzzy feeling of doing some good. Soon hotels will discover exactly how much luxury guests are prepared to sacrifice in favour of eco-friendly options.

One safari lodge had heated debates about whether it was acceptable to ask their guests to indicate whether they needed clean towels or not. Guests were paying so much money that they wouldn’t expect to make any compromises, the manager argued.

Finally some polite notices went up – and nobody complained. Visitors to the pristine African bush want to feel that they are positively contributing to conservation, even if the only price they pay is using the same soft fluffy towels for three days running.

Lorraine Jenks was a hippy in California in the 1970s, when everything was already green – including what they smoked, she jokes. But when she returned to South Africa in the 1990s as the contracts manager for a major hotel chain, and she found a far less enlightened attitude. “It was very early for South Africa and they used to pat me on the head and call me the green queen,” she remembers.

Yet top-end tourists increasingly choose their holidays by location first, its green profile second, and price as only the third criteria, Jenks says.

She now runs, which lists suppliers of green goods and services for the hospitality industry. “We need to put people who want to do the right thing in touch with people who are doing the right thing,” she says.

She also runs workshops telling industry players exactly what going green involves. “You can’t just plant a few trees and say you’re green. Your furniture, fittings, paint, carpets, food and bed linen should all be as eco-friendly as possible,” she says. “I teach them what makes products eco-friendly, which chemicals they shouldn’t use, and what ingredients their paints shouldn’t have. We put in energy-efficient appliances and fit water-reducing attachments to showers and taps.”

Overall, the eco-option should not be more costly or onerous. “As a long-term answer it’s not expensive. The savings are huge if people are patient, but everybody focuses on the short-term bottom line,” explains Jenks.

Although it’s a major movement globally, South Africans are just beginning. Yet the rising interest was clearly visible at Durban’s annual Travel Indaba earlier this year, when streams of people visited any stand promoting the greening process.

“Worldwide, environmental awareness is the fastest growing niche travel market,” says Greg McManus, Managing Director of environmental management company Heritage. “This isn’t a fad; it’s a way of life.”

South Africans must realise that this is becoming a differentiator in the choices people make, he says. Heritage is an agency that rates hotels based on the environmental impact of everything they do, including water and electricity consumption.

South Africa currently boasts 11 platinum properties. In order to achieve this status, these properties must demonstrate in-depth, sustainable involvement with community projects and recycle at least 80% of the waste they generate.

Last year, the Drakensberg Sun was awarded platinum status and became South Africa’s first hotel to register with the international Green Globe scheme. “The environment is no longer only in our hearts and minds, but is now in our rules and regulations,” says Wayne Wilson, chairman of Southern Sun’s environmental committee. The two-year process involved multiple steps, including installing energy efficient light bulbs and water and sewage purification systems; controlling the electrical consumption of appliances; turning waste food into compost; and running a vulture restaurant.

Although South Africa is doing relatively little by first world standards, it ranks in the developing world’s Top 10 Best Ethical Destinations, according to Ethical Traveler, a global alliance that evaluates countries based on their efforts to protect natural habitats and promote responsible tourism. But it could achieve so much more if its tourism industry embraced the opportunity instead of displaying complacency, Ethical Traveler says.

Many tour operators are reluctant to support destinations that are slightly more expensive due to their ethical principles. Yet going green will flourish gradually, because these initiatives are paying off through great publicity and a resulting rise in bookings.

This is enough to make anyone green with envy.