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The fall of green travel

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  • Survey: Travelers aren't willing to pay a premium for green practices
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By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- Green travel is dead.

I arrived at this unlikely conclusion while talking with Mike Ragsdale, the "town evangelist" for a seaside community in Northwest Florida called Alys Beach. "People think being green means making sacrifices or paying more," he told me. "That's not necessarily true."

Apparently, a lot of travelers feel the same way. A vast majority of them -- 85 percent -- consider themselves to be "environmentally conscious," according to a recent YPartnership survey.

Yet most of them now say they're unwilling to pay a premium for being green. They expect travel companies to be good stewards of the environment in which they operate, according to the study.

No one is saying that being environmentally responsible is irrelevant when you travel. On the contrary, it's that being green is so important that it shouldn't become another marketing gimmick. It should be a part of what you do every day -- part of every travel company's DNA.

That's why green travel as we know it, with the hotel touting its use of recycled water, the airline bragging about its use of alternative fuels or the theme park buzzing about its new light bulbs, is well on its way to becoming history.

Take Alys Beach, for example. You won't hear it use the word "green" to describe the way it went about designing and building the resort's units. But everything from its tiles to its roofs is designed with sustainability in mind.

They're energy efficient and built to last hundreds of years instead of a generation or two. "A few years from now, the standard roof would be in a landfill somewhere," says Ragsdale. "And that isn't very green, is it?"

So where does that leave you? Here are a few thoughts about traveling in a post-green world.

Don't allow a travel company to cash in on your conscience

Being green shouldn't be a reference to the color of your money. But it often is. Several airlines, including Air Canada, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America, now offer programs that allow you to offset your share of carbon dioxide emissions from a flight -- for a small fee. Sounds awfully tempting. But it's absurd. Think about it: Would you be willing to voluntarily pay an extra $30 to your pharmaceutical company to clean up one of its toxic dumps?

If anything, you would think twice before buying another one of that company's products. Which is exactly what travelers ought to do when faced with an offset option: run to the competition. Travel companies should be offsetting their own carbon, not guilting you into paying yet another surcharge for it.

Ask why they're 'green' in the first place

Sometimes the answer isn't so obvious. A fuel-saving initiative might benefit the environment, but it can also help a company's bottom line. A cruise line like Royal Caribbean, which has a fairly aggressive environmental program called "Save the Waves" probably wouldn't have taken such actions if it weren't for a five-year investigation that led to the company pleading guilty in federal court to dumping thousands of gallons of oily bilge, dry-cleaning fluids and photo-developing chemicals into the ocean.

Also, how geographically consistent is a company's commitment to the environment? A ship's foreign registry allows it to avoid many American regulations. Does its greenness extend beyond U.S. territorial waters?

Pay attention to what they don't say

It's unbelievable that hotels continue to advertise the fact that they're "green." At a time like this, shouldn't they all be embracing basic concepts like sustainability and good environmental stewardship? A recent press release caught my eye, noting that the Doubletree Hotel Palm Beach Gardens had become an official member of the Florida Green Lodging Program. Among the improvements: in the past year, all guestroom and corridor lighting was replaced with compact fluorescent lights for energy efficiency.

"The hotel has also implemented an extensive recycling program," according to Doubletree. That begs the question: What did they do before then? Do you mean to tell me that you were consuming energy like there was no tomorrow as late as 2007? And that leads to yet another question about any hotel that's a late adopter: Why should we reward you with our business?

Look at a company's entire environmental record

Travel companies want us to think they're making the world a greener place. For instance, United Airlines says it began practicing new methods for reducing fuel consumption, including charting a more efficient course across the Pacific, which is said to have saved 1,564 gallons of fuel and 32,656 pounds of carbon emissions on a single flight. How wonderful.

But that doesn't make United green, and a look at its entire environmental record reveals it's had its ups and downs. Just a year before, regional air-quality regulators in California fined United almost $400,000 for ignoring pollution requirements and failing to ensure properly functioning filtering equipment at a maintenance facility. When a travel company claims to be environmentally responsible, it's important to look at its whole record -- not just its recent record of greenness. The best companies are consistently, and quietly, green.

Personally, I'll be happy to travel in a green-lightened world. Hotels won't be able to monetize my environmental sensibilities. Airlines will strive for a long-term positive environmental record instead of scoring a few fleeting points with tree huggers. Same for cruise lines and car rental companies.

Kermit had it all wrong. Maybe it is easy, being green.

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. This column originally appeared on MSNBC.com. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org).

© 2009 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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