Even the best-intentioned ecotravelers may not be getting what they pay for. As ecotourism grows in popularity, hoteliers are eager to cash in and slap a green label on everything, deserved or not, to draw visitors. The practice, which extends beyond the travel industry, is called "greenwashing," and it is extremely pervasive—a recent study by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found that 99 percent of all products labeled as "green" do not live up to their claims.
The problem lies in the definition of ecotourism and in the different interpretations of what it means to be green. Self-appointed "ecoresorts" run the gamut from accommodations that leave absolutely no carbon footprint to those that merely use energy-efficient light bulbs.
"Providers talk about being carbon neutral. That means that you've offset all remaining emissions through some sort of credible carbon initiative," said Brian Mullis, president of Sustainable Travel International. "What does 'all' mean? Does that mean your office operations? Electricity? Employees' commutes to work? Does it mean all of their guests' flights?"
"Providers are looking for low-hanging fruit," Mullis says. "They want a quick fix that doesn't require a change in behavior."
And while some resorts could strive to attain a higher level of green, others are downright deceptive about their intentions. Advertising materials may trumpet green initiatives, but certain hotels are wolves in sheep's clothing.
"I've stayed at hotels where you can put a card on your bed if you want your linens changed every other day, and on the back it says something like 'Save the planet,' " said Ayako Ezaki, director of communications for The International Ecotourism Society. "Not washing linens every day does not save the planet. And sometimes, they wash them every day, anyway."
To Ezaki, ecotourism is summed up as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." But right now, the industry is stuck in a gray area, with hotels and travel agents looking to cash in quickly but also taking baby steps toward actual environmental efforts as a result.
Travel giant Orbitz, for example, launched the website Orbitz Eco-tourism last year, but its process for vetting hotels could be more rigorous. Hotels can nominate themselves for addition to the list—and all they need to do to be included is meet one of four environmental criteria. Therefore, a hotel that draws all its electricity from solar panels would be listed equally with a hotel that merely uses organic soap or linens. Orbitz also relies on hotels' marketing materials to determine whether they meet its green criteria, though it can dispatch a manager to check up on a property in person if it is suspected of misleading customers. (The site also offers an easy way to purchase carbon offsets for flights, and provides links to travel volunteering opportunities and hybrid car rentals.)
But skeptics are wary of sites like Orbitz Eco-tourism because many other sites have more comprehensive qualification processes. "I would not be comfortable directing our members to that site," says Ezaki, while acknowledging that a good ecotourism site takes time to build. "We're trying to celebrate the small steps, whether it's using energy efficient light bulbs, or purchasing offsets," said Brian Hoyt, an Orbitz spokesperson. "This is just Step One. If this is all we're doing five years from now, you have every right to criticize us. Big ships take a while to turn. This ship is starting to turn."
Industry officials hope that many of the problems of greenwashing could be solved if a single regulating body were created to oversee certification. Right now, there are several independent organizations, including STI and TIES, that certify ecolodges, and each has its own standards and practices.
"A global standard would be very difficult to do," says Ezaki. "There are social and political differences between countries and states. For example, the businesses in Portland, Ore., don't have to sort their recyclables because the city does it, but they don't do that in Washington, D.C."
That's why independent players like Orbitz are seizing the initiative, and the resulting trend could help move the travel industry in the right direction. "If they have a system that encourages those businesses to get better—maybe a rating systems or voting system, so that there's incentive to improve—[hotels] will realize [the site] is not just for them to market themselves as green. Travelers' feedback will reflect on their performance," Ezaki says.
"We're in the early years of how we can turn this industry around," says Orbitz's Hoyt. "We certainly believe we will be at the point one day where, on every travel site, there will people who look to see if hotels are green certified, just like you search for a pool."
Until a comprehensive rating system evolves, though, travelers will have to rely on the listings of nonprofit organizations—and their own personal research. Mullis recommends asking questions of hotel personnel: If authentic green practices are in place, staff members should be able to answer questions about them and tell you about the company's sustainability plan.
"Many companies will position themselves as becoming more sustainable than they are, but if it attracts customers they will become accountable," said Mullis. "The average consumer is well educated and will see beyond the smoke and mirrors."