More travellers are choosing green. Picture: The Washington Post.

If you travel, you will leave a charcoal smudge in your wake. You can't help it. Planes spew carbon emissions, hotels guzzle gallons of water to launder sheets and towels, and thirsty travelers chug-a-lug plastic bottles of water. But don't let the guilt dampen your vacation. Eco-friendly travel practices can lift the remorse and lighten the blemish on Mother Earth.

Green travel is not a passing trend but a portable lifestyle choice. According to a TripAdvisor survey, nearly two-thirds of travelers plan to make more environmentally sound choices over the next year. A majority of respondents said that they turn off the lights when leaving their rooms, participate in the hotel's program to reuse linens and towels, and recycle on-site. Travelers can do much more by building an eco-trip block by block.

"Sustainable travel is all about creating a positive effect on the communities you visit," said Jon Bruno, executive director of the International Ecotourism Society. "Leave the place better than you found it."

Easy, right? Not always.

Environmentalists often tout arcane terms such as low-VOC paint, warm-mix asphalt and aeroponic gardening. Eco-extremists can make you feel guilty for wanting a hot shower and lightbulbs that don't cause eyestrain. And less-than-honest properties and tour operators embellish their Earth-friendly achievements, an act of falsehood called greenwashing.

But don't let these challenges deter you.

"When our choices align with our eco-interests and values," said Dawn Head, owner and editor of the online resource Go Green Travel Green, "it doesn't feel like we are making sacrifices to be green."

For guidance on planning the ultimate eco-trip, we turned to a panel of green-travel experts. Follow their tips and watch your footprints turn greener with each step of your journey.

Choosing a green destination

No destination is a Green Giant; they all make environmental missteps. However, some countries and cities demonstrate a deep commitment to Earth-friendly policies and practices. Ask for a recycling bin and they'll point to three.

Bruno, whose organization promotes ecotourism, commends the efforts of Namibia, where its constitution includes habitat conservation and the protection of natural resources, and Ecuador, which placed 97 percent of the Galapagos's landmass under the watchful gaze of its national park service.

Bruno is keeping an eye on Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic with a burgeoning outdoor culture (skiing, mountaineering, white-water rafting, birding); alternative lodging, such as yurts and cooperative-run guesthouses in the Nuratau-Kyzylkum Biosphere Reserve; and more than 1,000 native varieties of apples. In Brazil, he praises the ambitions of the town of Bonito, the Portuguese word for beautiful.

Everyone and their science teacher seems to publish an annual list of the world's greenest destinations. Dual Citizen, a consulting firm, released the fifth edition of its Global Green Economy Index last year. Of 80 countries and 50 cities surveyed, the company anointed Sweden the top green banana, followed by Norway and Finland. Among developing countries, the report singled out Zambia, Ethiopia, Brazil and Costa Rica, but noted that the two African countries need to burnish their "perception ranking." 

But don't judge a destination by its ranking, or lack thereof. When researching a vacation spot, look for places that naturally embrace the green lifestyle. Telltale signs include a robust public transportation system, acres of parkland, walkable neighborhoods, designated bike lanes, farmers markets and volunteer opportunities. Your discoveries will bounce you all over the map, from Tokyo to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Cape Town, South Africa, to Adelaide, Australia.

Choosing a green mode of transportation

Many adventure-tour operators, such as Backroads and VBT, arrange cycling, hiking and walking holidays. Bonus points if you can reach the starting point by bike or foot.

Next in line are trains and buses. However, their impact on the environment depends on such factors as route, fuel type and passenger load.

"Among land transport, trains are generally very environmentally friendly," said Randy Durband, chief executive of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. "In terms of non-rail transport, the larger number of passengers per vehicle is best." For Durband, the magic number is 40-plus.

The greenest rides typically run on electric power or alternative fuels and boast a high occupancy rate. Switzerland is leading the caravan with its hybrid buses and trains powered by hydroelectricity; Japan is running close behind.

And now for the black sheep of the chartreuse bunch: airplanes.

"There really aren't any green ways of flying," Head said. "Just minimize as much as you can."

To shrink your carbon footprint, the experts offer a litany of suggestions. Travel less but stay longer. Select a full flight on a large plane in a fuel-efficient fleet. 

Choosing a green hotel

Most major chains and many independent hotels operate in-house green programs. (Durband tips a hat to Accor and IHG.) Look for a fact sheet online, or call the front desk and unleash the questions. Ask them how they dispose of their graywater and if they compost. Inquire about the bathroom fixtures and toiletries, in-room recycling bins and the provenance of the restaurant food.

You can also search for hotels approved or accredited by respected certification programs, such as Green Key, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED certification. The most holistically green hotels support the three pillars of sustainable tourism: environmental, social and economic.

As a guest, you can also advance the cause without much effort.

"Making environmentally friendly choices on your own during your stay can have a long-term impact on the environment and only takes small changes," said Rhiannon Jacobsen, vice president of strategic relationships at the U.S. Green Building Council.

Some ways you can help: Participate in the hotel's linen-and-towel-reuse program and always flick off the lights when you leave the room. Skip the bottles of water in your room and refill your own beverage container. Decline housekeeping and, depending on the hotel, score a food-and-beverage credit. Use water glasses and coffee mugs instead of plastic or paper ones. At breakfast, ask the staff for real tableware instead of disposable plates and utensils. Avoid buffets, which result in mounds of wasted food. Recycle.

One success story: In the 1980s, a guest at the Bucuti & Tara Beach Resort in Aruba shared his disappointment with the bar's use of plastic cups. Owner Ewald Biemans agreed and eliminated the wasteful materials. Since that one exchange, the resort has racked up numerous awards and accolades for its environmental practices. Last year, Green Globe, a certification board, named the property the "Most Sustainable Hotel & Resort in the World." The resort scored a 98 out of 100.

Choosing green activities

The Earth-friendly options are legion: You can sail, snorkel, scuba dive, hike, paddleboat, paddleboard, kayak, bike, swim, bird-watch and play I-spy-a-monkey in a tree. Visit a crafts or food market, and don't forget to bring a reusable bag for purchases. Take a tour that employs local guides. Give yourself an extra pat on the back if the company donates some of its proceeds to a local conservation group or charity.

You can also lend a hand during your holiday. "The green movement has changed from how to preserve and protect to how to use less and do good when you're there," Head said.

Source: The Washington Post.