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The U.A.E. has the world's largest ecological footprint - the Arabian desert, after all, is not a sustainable place to build major cities, and certainly not on the scale that Dubai and Abu Dhabi have embarked on. High temperatures and lack of water long precluded the development of arid landscapes. However, with the advent of air-conditioning, desalination plants, and modern transport, cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi continue to grow into sprawling urban centers. In places like these where summer temperatures often top 100°F (37.8°C), massive amounts of energy must be used to keep the populace cool.

The major projects here - whether it's hotels, malls, golf courses, skyscrapers, roads, man-made islands, entertainment complexes, real estate development, or other infrastructure projects all tax the environment - and until recently there's been little consciousness about their environmental impacts. Profligate water and electricity usage further strains the environment. Dubai is well known for its beach resorts, golf courses, and parks, but keeping that landscape green requires an inordinate amount of water. The U.A.E., in fact, has the world's highest per capita water use.

Sustainable tourism remains a fledgling industry in Dubai, but the local government is beginning to take a closer look at its advantages. The Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing launched a "Green Tourism Award" program recently to encourage innovations in eco-tourism (for details, visit www.green.dubaitourism.ae). This initiative includes efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the tourism sector's sprawling developments, and supporting activities that encourage a celebration of the U.A.E.'s natural assets.

Eco-friendly outdoor activities include traditional desert safaris, hiking and camping in the Hajar Mountains, scuba and snorkeling outings on the U.A.E.'s Eastern coast, and bird-watching adventures. With over 400 species in the U.A.E., there are extensive bird-watching opportunities in places as diverse as Mushrif Park, Emirates Golf Club, Jebel Ali, and Hatta (visit www.dubaitourism.ae for more information). You can also enjoy an eco-friendly desert immersion at Al Maha Desert Resort, perched on the slope of a huge dune located within a desert conservation reserve of 233 sq. km (90 sq. miles/5% of the landmass of Dubai). For a more hearty experience, expedition companies will take you out for a trek in the Hajar Mountains, with base camps set up from abandoned Shihhi villages (a tribe of the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah and neighboring Oman). For more information, see: www.arabiahorizons.com/Hajar-Mountains-Safari/.

The best scuba and snorkeling sites are found in the emirate of Fujairah, as well as off "Snoopy Island" on the Gulf of Oman, where tropical fish flitter around an extensive coral reef. For the more adventurous who want to explore an array of fascinating shipwrecks located further south on this stretch of the Eastern coast of the U.A.E., there are plenty of opportunities (visit www.scuba-2000.com).

The Desert Islands Abu Dhabi (www.desertislands.com) will form a collection of eight islands off the capital's coast with dynamic wildlife reserves, untouched marine ecologies, and archeological sites - all meant to develop sustainable tourism in the country. Once completed, activities will include nature and wildlife drives and hikes, mountain biking, kayaking, snorkeling, falconry, and archery. Yas Island is one of the first islands in this project to be completed.

The Abu Dhabi government is also positioning the emirate as an innovator in renewable energy technology, launching the first ever World Future Energy Summit in 2009. This event, to be held each January, draws an international crowd and features exhibits on clean energy, with a line-up of impressive speakers that have included Tony Blair. For more information, visit: www.worldfutureenergysummit.com. Abu Dhabi has also won the bid to host IRENA, the world's first multilateral renewable energy agency. For details, see: www.irena.org.

Abu Dhabi's Masdar City project - an ambitious enterprise funded entirely by Masdar, the clean technology investment fund of the Abu Dhabi government -represents the world's first carbon neutral, zero waste city. It features fanciful technological innovations including jazzy people-moving devices and fascinating state-of-the-art cooling technologies meant to keep the city inhabitable without guzzling energy. Masdar City will host the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology - a sister school to MIT that will become a center for innovation in green technology. While behind schedule on construction, parts of the city are open, and it's worth inquiring about a visit if you are in Abu Dhabi. For more information, visit: www.masdarcity.ae/en/index.aspx.

General Resources For Green Travel

In addition to the resources for Dubai listed above, the following websites provide valuable wide-ranging information on sustainable travel:

  • Responsible Travel (www.responsibletravel.com) is a great source of sustainable travel ideas; the site is run by a spokesperson for ethical tourism in the travel industry. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) promotes ethical tourism practices, and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world.
  • In the U.K., Tourism Concern (www.tourismconcern.org.uk) works to reduce social and environmental problems connected to tourism. The Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) (www.aito.co.uk) is a group of specialist operators leading the field in making holidays sustainable.
  • In Canada, www.greenlivingonline.com offers extensive content on how to travel sustainably, including a travel and transport section.
  • In Australia, the national body which sets guidelines and standards for ecotourism is Ecotourism Australia (www.ecotourism.org.au). The Green Directory (www.thegreendirectory.com.au), Green Pages (www.thegreenpages.com.au), and Eco Directory (www.ecodirectory.com.au) offer sustainable travel tips and directories of green businesses.
  • Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Cool Climate (http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu) provide info on "carbon offsetting," or offsetting the greenhouse gas emitted during flights.
  • Greenhotels (www.greenhotels.com) recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements. Environmentally Friendly Hotels (www.environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com) offers more green accommodation ratings.
  • For information on animal-friendly issues throughout the world, visit Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org). For information about the ethics of swimming with dolphins, visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (www.wdcs.org).
  • Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a list of questions to help you determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program. For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org and www.idealist.org.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.