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Sustainable tourism is conscientious travel. It means being careful with the environments you explore and respecting the communities you visit. Two overlapping components of sustainable travel are ecotourism and ethical tourism. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. TIES suggests that ecotourists follow these principles:

  • Minimize environmental impact.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation and for local people.
  • Raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climates.
  • Support international human rights and labor agreements.

You can find some eco-friendly travel tips and statistics, as well as touring companies and associations -- listed by destination under "Travel Choice" -- at the TIES website, www.ecotourism.org. Also check out Ecotravel.com, which lets you search for sustainable touring companies in several categories (water based, land based, spiritually oriented, and so on).

While much of the focus of eco-tourism is about reducing impacts on the natural environment, ethical tourism concentrates on ways to preserve and enhance local economies and communities, regardless of location. You can embrace ethical tourism by staying at a locally owned hotel or shopping at a store that employs local workers and sells locally produced goods.

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.

Volunteer travel has become increasingly popular among those who want to venture beyond the standard group-tour experience to learn languages, interact with locals, and make a positive difference while on vacation. Volunteer travel usually doesn't require special skills -- just a willingness to work hard -- and programs vary in length from a few days to a number of weeks. Some programs provide free housing and food, but many require volunteers to pay for travel expenses, which can add up quickly.

Before you commit to a volunteer program, it's important to make sure any money you're giving is truly going back to the local community, and that the work you'll be doing will be a good fit for you. Volunteer International (www.volunteerinternational.org) has a helpful list of questions to ask to determine the intentions and the nature of a volunteer program.

Animal-Rights Issues

Whale-watching is increasingly popular in New England, particularly in Maine and Massachusetts. For those who may be concerned about the sensitivity of the animals to these visits, there are a number of animal-rights organizations that provide good information. The organization Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org) is one. For more specific information about the current status of various species of whales, visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (www.wdcs.org).

Tip: It's Easy Being Green

Here are a few simple ways you can help conserve fuel and energy when you travel:

  • Each time you take a flight or drive a car, greenhouse gases release into the atmosphere. You can help neutralize this danger to the planet through "carbon offsetting" -- paying someone to invest your money in programs that reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount you've added. Before buying carbon offset credits, just make sure that you're using a reputable company, one with a proven program that invests in renewable energy. Reliable carbon offset companies include Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Carbon Neutral (www.carbonneutral.org).
  • Whenever possible, choose nonstop flights; they generally require less fuel than indirect flights that stop and take off again. Try to fly during the day -- some scientists estimate that nighttime flights are twice as harmful to the environment. And pack light -- each 15 pounds of luggage on a 5,000-mile flight adds up to 50 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted.
  • Where you stay during your travels can have a major environmental impact. To determine the green credentials of a property, ask about trash disposal and recycling, water conservation, and energy use; also question if sustainable materials were used in the construction of the property. The website www.greenhotels.com recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements. Also consult www.environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com for more green accommodation ratings.
  • At hotels, request that your sheets and towels not be changed daily. (Many hotels already have programs like this in place.) Turn off the lights and air-conditioner (or heater) when you leave your room.
  • Use public transport where possible -- trains, buses, and even taxis are more energy-efficient forms of transport than driving. Even better is to walk or cycle; you'll produce zero emissions and stay fit and healthy on your travels.
  • If renting a car is necessary, ask the rental agent for a hybrid, or rent the most fuel-efficient car available. You'll use less gas and save money at the tank.
  • Eat at locally owned and operated restaurants that use produce grown in the area. This contributes to the local economy and cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions by supporting restaurants where the food is not flown or trucked in across long distances. Visit Sustain Lane (www.sustainlane.org) to find sustainable eating and drinking choices around the U.S.; also check out www.eatwellguide.org for tips on eating sustainably in the U.S. and Canada.

Your Car: Do Leave Home Without It

If you're really green-friendly, options even exist for a vacation in New England without a car (yes, you read that right). Here are four suggestions:

  • From New York City or Boston, take an Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) train to Vermont and explore small towns like Brattleboro for their brick architecture, good restaurants, and quirky shops. Cross the river to hike Wantastiquet Mountain. Another day, rent a canoe and explore the Connecticut River, or get a bike and head off into the hilly countryside. There's a canoe touring center just north of town, and a bike rental outfit or two on the main street.
  • From Boston, take a Concord Coach bus directly to the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (tel. 603/466-2721), high in the White Mountains. Spend a night or two, then backpack for 2 days across demanding, rugged mountains, staying at AMC's backcountry huts (all meals provided). At the end of your sojourn, catch the AMC shuttle back to North Conway or Pinkham Notch, and then hail the return bus back to Boston.
  • Bus, fly, or train it to Portland, Maine, where you can sign up for a guided sea-kayak excursion. The Maine Island Kayak Co. (tel. 207/766-2373) on Peaks Island is reached by a quick and pleasant 20-minute ferry ride (the terminal is at the corner of Commercial and Franklin streets, and offers trips throughout the state all summer long. You can even camp within city limits on remote Jewell Island at the edge of Casco Bay, or head out for a few days along more remote parts of the coast. Portland's museums, restaurants, and bars don't require wheels to each, either.
  • Bus or fly to Bar Harbor, Maine, and then settle into one of the numerous inns or B&Bs downtown. (There's a free shuttle bus from the airport to downtown, and other free buses running around the island from spring through late fall; the bus connects downtown Bar Harbor with more than a half-dozen routes into and around the park, making travel hassle-free.) Rent a mountain bike and explore the elaborate network of carriage roads at Acadia National Park, then cruise along picturesque Park Loop Road. Another day, sign up for a sea-kayak tour or whale-watching excursion. By night, enjoy lobster or other fine meals at Bar Harbor's fine restaurants. Mountain bikes may be easily rented along Cottage Street in Bar Harbor.

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.