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The promise of a lighter footprint is everywhere, from luxury resorts (constructed from recycled materials) to Third World guest houses (running on renewable energy), from international airlines (issuing paperless tickets and testing more sustainable fuels) to overland journeys (aboard biodiesel buses). Even A-list celebs are getting in on the game. Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore and Bono all sing the praises of low-impact travel.

While the intentions seem good, it is hard not to question the efficacy of such efforts. Can a week at a "green" resort make a shred of difference in the grand scheme of things when, at any given moment, more than half a million people are aboard carbon-belching airplanes, spewing pollution into the most sensitive part of the atmosphere?

At times, green claims sound like nothing more than marketing gimmicks intended to trick well-intentioned Westerners into booking guilt-free getaways. But despite the hype (and the occasional preachy advocate), the burgeoning practice of green travel is making a real and meaningful difference around the world. And the reasons to support it extend far beyond the size of our individual footprints.

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But first, what is green – or sustainable – travel? There is no universally accepted definition and the standards and certification systems are so many as to be mind-boggling.

The onus remains on the individual to reduce the impact of their travel on the surrounding people and environment. This ethic should encompass cultural and economic issues (for such matters are inseparable from the environment), and should, at its core, stem from a desire to leave every locale in as good or better shape than before arrival. A more apt term might simply be "Conscientious Travel."

Of course, there are plenty of companies ready and willing to help reduce the footprint of your journeys (making it easy to go green) and quality options can be found in every imaginable tourism category, from cruises to foreign homestays, from cooking classes to surf camps. But an activity doesn't need the green appellation to be sustainable. Backpackers, who can rarely afford a green resort, may be among the greenest travellers of all. They tend to fly less often and stay longer in one place, using local transport, sleeping in hammocks and putting their money directly into the hands of people in the area.

What about the charges of hypocrisy? The claims that all the benefits accrued by careful choices on the road are obliterated the moment a plane takes off or a car rolls from the garage?

Naturally the footprint of staying home will always trump even the most diligently planned journey. But to look at the world through such a one-dimensional lens is to ignore travel's other wondrous (but difficult to quantify) benefits.

On an individual level, travel is a basic force for good. In our increasingly connected yet isolated existence, exploring wild lands and foreign cultures can create understandings and shrink differences in ways no Web page can match. I can't help wonder what our world would lose if everyone just stayed home. Green travel's greatest promise lies in the economic incentives it creates, offering leverage no activism can match.

On a community level, when travellers arrive carrying a "green" mindset, their choices (of accommodation, activity, etc.) help to reinforce a sustainable model of local development. Funds, knowledge and resources soon follow, supporting related environmental practices (think recycling programs, beach cleanups, improved sewage and water treatment, protection of local species and habitat). Pride, responsibility and stewardship are fostered. With time, an ever-expanding market segment begins to adopt greener practices.

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Travel ranks among the world's largest industries today, with annual spending estimated at more than $500-billion. Millions are employed within its ranks. As the sustainable segment steadily grows, governments are taking notice and adapting conservation policy accordingly. In places such as Borneo and Belize, the creation of national parks can be directly attributed to the interests of tourism.

One day, green travel will fade from our radar, not because it has become irrelevant, but because, just like seatbelts and smoke-free workplaces, it has become the new norm. For now, while on the road, how and where you spend your travel dollars represent an important opportunity to vote for what matters to you.



Special to The Globe and Mail

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