Project Green: What Is the Meaning of Eco-travel?

Consultant Ushma Pandya is on the road for much of the year. So when she travels, the New Yorker takes a number of steps to keep her carbon footprint small. Pandya, 33, packs light (thus, theoretically, saving airplane fuel), stays at major hotels with well-articulated green policies, rents small or hybrid cars, turns off the heat or air conditioning when she leaves her hotel room and writes notes to make sure the hotel staff keeps it off, brings her own toiletries in refillable bottles and chastises the housekeeping staff if they change her sheets or towels during her stay. "I'm always careful about the amount of waste I generate," she says.

Pandya's actions are admirable. But do they make her a sustainable traveler? That depends on whom you ask. Ecotourism groups say that only responsible nature travel meets their criteria. Advocates of "sustainable tourism" say it's not a matter of destination but of giving back to the local community and culture. Meanwhile, hotels that do little more than leave guests' sheets and towels unwashed proclaim themselves stewards of the environment. "A lot of people want to use terms like 'ecotourism,' because it's cool and hip now, and that's created confusion," says Ayako Ezaki, director of communications for The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), which defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." This fall, her organization will help unveil new global criteria for sustainable travel, to keep greenwashing at bay.

For years the idea of ecofriendly travel was linked with trekking through wilderness and diving with sea turtles in exotic locations. Today a hotel in Times Square is just as likely to call itself green as a lodge in the Costa Rican rain forest. "Green travel has gone from a trend to a part of mainstream consumer and corporate culture," says Brian Mullis, president of Boulder, Colo.-based Sustainable Travel International. As ecofriendly travel has grown more popular—78 percent of Americans consider themselves environmentally conscious, according to a 2007 survey by the Travel Industry Association—some organizations worry that its meaning is being watered down.

In October, 20 groups, including TIES, the UN Foundation and the Rainforest Alliance, will release a new standard for the term "sustainable tourism." A draft of the criteria, posted at sustainabletourism, mandates that sustainable-travel companies maximize benefits to the local population and culture through their businesses and take steps to remain carbon-neutral. "The challenge with the word 'green' is it tends to be limited only to environmental aspects of travel," says Ronald Sanabria of Rainforest Alliance. To Kate Dodson, deputy director of sustainable development at the UN Foundation, a trip to Washington, D.C., would be sustainable if one patronized local businesses, including farmers markets and craft boutiques, stayed at an energy-efficient hotel that took steps to benefit the local community, took public transit and went for a hike at Rock Creek Park.

Until recently, Americans would have been hard-pressed to find a travel company that hewed to Dodson's or Ezaki's principles. Now more hotels are implementing such programs. TIES counts more then 400 U.S.-based travel companies as members, up from 240 in 2003. One is Alaska Wildland Adventures, which relies on local labor and contributes 10 percent of its pretax earnings to environmental organizations. The Fairmont hotel chain donates linens and toiletries to local soup kitchens, and its Toronto property is breeding 10,000 bees on its rooftop to help regenerate the local pollinator population.

But environmental groups cheer every effort that travelers make to go green. Next Christmas, Rachel and Eric Ellerman of Milwaukee will travel to Hawaii, where they'll stay at local B&Bs, hike and relax by the beach. Is their trip ecofriendly? Yes. But that's not how they think of it. "We've never called it ecotraveling," says Rachel, 30. "Our typical trip is a lot of backpacking and camping. We enjoy nature, and we think that that's how we really relax, by getting away from it all." Perhaps that's the best definition of all.