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From pioneering eco-friendly autopartage (car-sharing) programs to an unabashed enthusiasm for biodynamique wines, the French have embraced sustainability. In an age when environmental, ethical, and social concerns are becoming ever more important, France’s focus on green principles—whether through traditional markets, carbon-neutral public transport, or all-natural outdoor adventure—offers visitors and residents alike plenty in the way of sustainable tourism.

In 2007, Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë introduced the Vélib’ scheme (www.velib.paris.fr), a public bicycle “sharing” program. With tens of thousands of bicycles and bike-rental stations spread throughout the city, it is a fast and inexpensive way to get around. Similar schemes are in place in many other major French cities, including Nice, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Rouen, Lyon, Bordeaux, and Marseille.

Also under Delanoë’s guidance, a similar car-sharing program called the Autolib’ (www.autolib.fr) was launched in Paris in 2011. More than 5,000 eco-friendly and exhaust-free public cars now slip silently around the Parisian streets; passes for their use can be purchased by the hour, day, month, or year. Nice followed suit in 2012 with Auto Bleue (www.auto-bleue.org). Nearly 200 electric cars with a range of 100km (62 miles) now ply the streets. More importantly, the scheme’s 50 recharging points serve as charging depots for an increasing number of resident-owned electric cars. Similar systems now exist across France, like AutoCool (www.bordeaux.citiz.coop) in Bordeaux.

In order to crisscross France’s vast countryside, many French ditch their cars and opt instead for travel on a TGV (www.tgv-europe.com). This network of high-speed trains is powered by SNCF, France’s government-owned rail company, which is dedicated to becoming completely carbon-neutral. TGVs run from Paris’s hub to cities throughout the country, including Nantes, Rouen, Lyon, Dijon, Rennes, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Nice, and Marseille.

Many hotels in France have undertaken measures to preserve the environment, and those that have are awarded with a green label. Look for hotels with the title of La Clef Verte (Green Key; www.laclefverte.org). The label rewards hotels that take a more environmental approach to water, energy, and waste, and help raise the awareness of their guests. Even if you don’t stay at a green hotel, you can still do your bit: Turn off the air-conditioning when you leave the room, request that your sheets aren’t changed every day, and use your towels more than once. Laundry makes up around 40 percent of an average hotel’s energy use.

When planning your travels, it’s equally important to consider the impact your visit will have on the environment. France’s rippling vineyards, Grande Randonnée (GR) hiking trails, and pristine coastline all make for enchanting (and eco-friendly) escapes.

 

Responsible tourism also means leaving a place in the same condition you found it. You can do this by not dropping litter and respecting the color-coded garbage bin system. Support the local economy and culture by shopping in small neighborhood stores and at open-air markets that showcase the seasonal harvest of local, often organic (bio) producers. Look out for organic and biodynamique (biodynamic) wines, frequently sold at wine shops and farmers’ markets, too. And given the myriad of tiny, family-run restaurants scattered throughout France’s cities, towns, and countryside, it’s all too easy to dig into a home-cooked meal.

Two overlapping components of sustainable travel are eco-tourism and ethical tourism. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines eco-tourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. 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 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. Some programs provide free housing and food, but many require volunteers to pay for travel expenses, which can add up quickly. Organizations with volunteer programs in France include International Volunteer Program (tel. 415/477-3667; www.ivpsf.org), CARE France (tel. 01-53-19-89-89 in Paris; www.carefrance.org), and Volunteers for Peace (tel. 802/259-2759; www.vfp.org).

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 of a volunteer program.

General Resources for Green Travel

In addition to the resources for France 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 vacations sustainable.

 

    • In Canada, www.greenlivingonline.com offers extensive content on how to travel sustainably, including a travel and transport section and profiles of the best green shops and services in Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary.

 

    • In Australia, the national body which sets guidelines and standards for eco-tourism 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 Carbon Neutral (www.carbonneutral.org) 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 accommodations ratings. The Hotel Association of Canada (www.hacgreenhotels.com) has a Green Key Eco-Rating Program, which audits the environmental performance of Canadian hotels, motels, and resorts.

 

    • Sustain Lane (www.sustainlane.com) lists sustainable eating and drinking choices around the U.S.; also visit www.eatwellguide.org for tips on eating sustainably in the U.S. and Canada.

 

    • 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.