Roads less travelled

 

Despite everything, the debacle of Copenhagen has planted seeds of change. Green is going mainstream, and ecoholidays are seen no longer as ethical musts but as fantastic experiences in their own right, writes CATHERINE MACK

AS WE SORT the last scraps of wrapping paper, the cards and the wine bottles into their recycling bins, and say goodbye to a recession-struck year, we can look ahead, optimistically, to a year where green is great.

The debacle of Copenhagen has, despite everything, planted seeds of change. Green is going mainstream, and ecoholidays are seen no longer as ethical musts but as fantastic experiences in their own right.

As green travel moves rapidly from niche to norm, many tourist boards and leading tour operators are realising that people who offer superb experiences, without compromising their commitment to local environment, economy and culture, are on to a good thing. As more businesses are supported by destinations up to speed on such things, they help to create even better holidays for all of us.

For example, in New Zealand, a tiny Maori community now runs one of the country’s most successful tourism businesses, an entirely community-run whale-watching company (whalewatch.co.nz). Thailand’s community-based tourism initiative has key players signed up as partners, listening to the needs, interests and passions of local people (cbt-i.org).

Italy has kept tourism firmly in the hands of rural residents not only through its agritourism movement (en.agri turismo.it), but also as pioneers of the world-famous Slow Food ethos, which aims to “counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat and where it comes from”. In Ireland, too, slow food is rapidly becoming part of the food culture (slow foodireland.com) and, consequently, part of tourism.

Cycling is no longer just for Lycra-clad yellow-jersey travellers, either, and, along with Dublin, many European cities have free or cheap bike-hire schemes. Join the citizens on a saddle in Paris, Barcelona, Seville, Frankfurt, Berlin, Cologne, Oslo, Lyon, Rennes, Seville, Cordoba, Girona, Brussels, Vienna, Oslo or Copenhagen.

Most decent green accommodation providers have bikes available, or at least organise bike hire, as well as providing information on local cycling trails.

Travelling between these cities without stepping on a plane has become a breeze, too, with European train use on the up. Admittedly, that breeze turned to a temporary Christmas snowstorm, when Eurostar disrupted holiday travellers by coming to a standstill. Assuming it will move to avoid a repeat of such chaos, this link between London and Paris, Lille or Brussels is, usually, the most civilised way to cross the Channel. If you haven’t experienced the two-and-a-quarter hour trip from London to Paris yet, then it’s a must for 2010 (from €44 one way). It’s even better for Brussels, at one hour 51 minutes door to door (from about €50 one way; eurostar.com). Also, the opening of high-speed lines between Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne in December means London to Amsterdam is now doable in four hours and 16 minutes.

As the feelgood wave gathers speed, however, it also drags a lot of rubbish with it. Businesses that change their practices from dodgy to do-good overnight are often to be avoided. Some of the green policies being copied and pasted on to websites are laughable. “Ecoresorts” with four swimming pools, a golf course and a spa equate “eco” with planting a few trees or giving books to a local school.

Look out for well-certified businesses, with proven records in responsible tourism. To boast ecocredentials, providers should have had detailed visits from experts in the field and been certified accordingly or awarded accolades for their work.

Similarly, if a place shouts about being green but has no evidence of low-carbon transport options, then you can often question its validity.

Here are just a few from the rich crop of the latest providers for 2010 that might get those travel juices going.

Camp it up

Glamping, or glamorous camping, allows you to leave your two-man tent in the shed and discover the wonders of yurts, tepees, geodesic domes, circus tents and even nomadic bivouacs. The glampest site around is goglamping.net – also worth following on Twitter to keep up with regular updates of canvas creations around the globe (twitter.com/Glamping). Not listed on its site, but just reopened for this skiing season, is one so green that it is pure white. Check out the jaw- dropping beauty of Whitepod, hidden in the Swiss Alps (white pod.com).

Circuit breaker

Travelling ethically on a land mass as vast as the Indian subcontinent has been made so much easier with the recent creation of the Green Circuit (the greencircuit.net). Five local tour operators in India and Nepal, all specialists in deep-rooted community-based responsible-tourism initiatives, have collaborated to provide a wide range of natural and cultural heritage trips. From the Blue Yonder, in Kerala (theblue yonder.com), to Social Tours, in Nepal (socialtours.com), experiences vary greatly, including a yak safari into the trans-Himalayan deserts, monitoring elephant-migration corridors in eastern Himalaya and learning traditional drumming with villagers living along Kerala’s River Nila.

Walk on by

In Ireland, one of many dynamic green hostel devotees, the Wicklow Hostel (wicklowhostel.ie), reopens its doors just in time for Tinahely Walking Festival, on April 17th, after a long process of sustainable building renovation to get this converted schoolhouse up to top-notch green spec. From traditional hemp-and-lime plastering to a new cedar-clad timber-framed extension with geothermal heating, this will soon take pride of place on Ireland’s green map. Located on the Wicklow Way, the hostel will open to coincide with three new looped walks, making the hostel, and the town itself, a hikers’ hub. There are also planned courses in cookery, literature, creative writing, fly fishing, stone sculpture and wood turning. The Wicklow Hostel is expected to attract a lot of much-deserved international attention.

Thatched treat

Travelling from Ireland to Wales will become easier this year, with the return of the Cork to Swansea ferry on March 1st, operated by Fastnet Line (fast netline.com). Travel by foot to discover the wonders of walking in Wales, for example. One of the most quirky, ethical accommodation providers, awarded many accolades for its commitment to restoration and heritage, is Under the Thatch. Browse through its heavenly hideaways at underthethatch.co.uk. Another exciting development will be the spring launch of a 50-minute high-speed ferry link across the Bristol Channel from Swansea to Ilfracombe, in northern Devon, a journey that takes at least four hours by road. This opens up a world of cream teas and uncrammed beaches, superb coastline and moorland cycling (severnlink.com). For green places to stay in this area see greentraveller.co.uk.

Over the rainbow

Many African countries are dependent on tourism for vital income, and Rainbow Tours is one of the most respected and well-established ethical tour operators to take you there (rainbowtours.co.uk). One of its most exciting trips this year is to Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, recently rescued from the ravages of civil war and now safe in the hands of conservationists. The dying populations of lions, oribi, reedbuck and waterbuck, to name but a few, are being restocked – in 1992, when the war ended, only 50 of 14,000 buffalo remained, and just nine of its 3,500 zebra. Rainbow Tours has access to a bush camp on the banks of the Musicudzi River, run by the first safari operator licensed to work inside the park. After the destruction of two decades of war, the flora and fauna are returning – and so, too, can the tourists.


Catherine Mack writes Go's Ethical Traveller column. See also ethicaltraveller.net and twitter.com/catherinemack. She is author of Ecoescape Ireland(ecoescape.org)