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Tourism is big business. According to the World Tourism Organization, the world's largest and fastest-growing industry generated $856 billion in revenue in 2007, with 903 million international arrivals recorded -- 100 million more people than in 2006. By 2020, the forecast is 1.6 billion. That's a lot of people tramping around our increasingly fragile planet. Faced with the long-term costs associated with this kind of rapacious growth, "responsible tourism" has become the 21st-century tourism buzz phrase, and recent years have seen a rash of new awards recognizing properties and operators making an effort to do the right thing. Even mainstream tourism has taken elements of this on board -- though one cannot help suspecting that discreetly placed signs asking you to reuse your towels are geared more toward conserving laundry costs than the environment, or wondering just how big that percentage of profits donated to local schools really is.

Ironically, the seeds of global eco-tourism were laid in Africa's "nature" tourism. During the 20th century, vast areas, such as the Kruger, were unilaterally set aside for conservation, and local inhabitants were often forcibly removed to make way for reservation areas. This left tourism regions ring-fenced by communities, unable to graze herds, hunt, or forage for building materials and food. As human developments grew, problems were exacerbated. Such forward-thinking pioneers as the Varty brothers in Londolozi and the founders of Wilderness Safaris in Botswana realized that a different approach was called for, and pioneering partnerships between the government, private business, and locals were forged. With a proportion of "safari tourism" revenue now plowed into both wildlife protection and local community development, responsible tourism was born. As revenue grew out of ground-breaking rehabilitation projects such as Phinda in KwaZulu-Natal, where degraded farmland was slowly returned to its original pristine state, others followed suit, particularly in the Eastern Cape.

In 1996, South Africa became the first in the world to adopt responsible tourism as an official policy, and the 2002 Cape Town Declaration, basis for the international World Responsible Tourism awards, was formulated in accordance with this policy, as were the Imvelo Awards, Africa's Responsible Tourism awards (for past winners, visit www.imveloawards.co.za). South Africa is also the only country in the world to have a "fair trade" label for its tourism products. To find accredited operators as well as places to stay (and various links providing tips on how to become a responsible traveler), visit www.fairtourismsa.org.za. Note that the accreditation is stiff (and rather pricy), with stringent criteria including fair wages, working conditions, distribution of benefits, and so on. For more ideas on how to green your vacation, visit www.icrtourismsa.org, the website for the International Centre for Responsible Tourism South Africa.

Wilderness Safaris, Southern Africa -- Adding to a long string of achievements (including a highly commended recognition for their Damaraland Camp in the International Responsible Tourism Awards), Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com) clinched a win at the Imvelo Awards for Responsible Tourism with their Skeleton Coast Camp in 2008, winning the category Best Overall Environmental Management System. Their Kalamu Camp, in Zambia, was also highly commended in the category Best Single Resource Management Programme -- Energy.

Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa -- Committed to Fair Trade Tourism principles, Tswalu (www.tswalu.com) rehabilitated 38 overgrazed cattle farms and turned them into the largest privately owned reserve in southern Africa, restocking it with game, including the endangered wild dog, rhino, and cheetah. Hence, it receives continued international applause, including Condé Nast Traveler's World Savers Award and the Relais & Châteaux Global Environmental Trophy.

Madikwe Game Reserve -- Like Tswalu, Madikwe (www.madikwe.info) was once kilometers of overgrazed farmland until it was transformed in 1991 into a 75,000-hectare (185,250-acre) reserve, South Africa's fourth largest. Within a period of 6 years, some 10,000 animals were again roaming the plains in what was dubbed Operation Phoenix, the largest game translocation in the world. Book at Buffalo Ridge Safari Lodge, the first wholly owned community safari lodge to be developed in South Africa, or Thakadu River Camp -- also owned by the local community.

&Beyond, Africa -- Besides rehabilitating 23,000 hectares (56,810 acres) and introducing game to severely degraded farmland in Kwazulu Natal and creating Phinda private reserve, &Beyond (née CCAfrica) has done sterling work with the Africa Foundation, an organization founded to facilitate the development of people living in or adjacent to protected areas. In 14 years of operation, it has raised and committed over $6 million to consultative community development projects and was awarded the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Award in 2009.

Ant's Hill, Waterberg -- From waste disposal to water recycling, sourcing locally produced food and energy management, these Waterberg bush villas (www.waterberg.net) are model eco-lodges. They were awarded four stars in this year's Eco Hotels of the World competition, one of only two southern African destinations to be included (the other being the charming Hog Hollow Country Lodge in the Crags, near Plettenberg Bay).

General Resources for Green Travel

In addition to the resources for South Africa listed above, the following websites provide valuable wide-ranging information on sustainable travel. For a list of even more sustainable resources, as well as tips and explanations on how to travel greener, visit www.frommers.com/planning.

  • 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, and all operators featured on the site have met the company's strict membership criteria. They also cosponsor the international Responsible Tourism Awards (nominated by tourists who recognize individuals, companies, and organizations in the travel industry who make a difference). Winners are announced every November on WTM World Responsible Tourism Day. Sustainable Travel International (www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) also promotes ethical tourism practices and manages an extensive directory of sustainable properties and tour operators around the world; Greenstop (www.greenstop.net) is another, providing an "eco-worthiness" audit for every entry.
  • Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Carbon Neutral (www.carbonneutral.org) provide information 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. Eco Hotels of the World (www.ecohotelsoftheworld.com) is another worthwhile guide. Hotels cannot pay to be featured, nor do the editors take commission on bookings, so it is a truly independent guide, and one to which readers and visitors can contribute. 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).

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.