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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 visitors and hosts alike.
  • 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 ecotourism is about reducing impact 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.

Animal-Rights Issues

Spain is not a country that has been particularly noted for its kindness to animals in the past. Fiestas, which include torturing of bulls by attacking them with lances in the Castilian town of Tordesillas, still prevail (though the notorious throwing-a-donkey-off-a-tower shebang that took place annually in an Extremaduran village has happily disappeared).

The main bone of contention is, of course, the bullfight, which is still immensely popular in Madrid (home of the world's biggest bullring, Las Ventas), though not in other parts of Spain such as Catalunya and the Canary Islands. Far from fading, this violent and colorful activity (a highly stylized "ballet of death" rather than a sport) -- which attracts and appalls visitors in equal numbers -- is positively booming in the Spanish capital. In Spring 2010, attempts by animal rights groups to have it banned were thwarted by spirited President of the Community, Esperanza Aguirre, who had it officially declared an event "Of Touristic Interest," thus ensuring an indefinite stay of execution for the spectacle (if not for the bulls).

Perhaps she has a point. (Let's harden our hearts here, show some Hemingway-esque grit, and eschew our animal-loving instincts.) After all, this is a national event unique in Europe (in Portugal and Southern France they have bullfights but don't kill the bull) and, hey, a big, big moneymaker. For purely economic reasons alone, it wasn't likely to be dropped anyway by the country's financial -- as well as hard-line traditionalist -- hub (especially in view of the current -- 2010 -- crisis, with unemployment rampant and the country teetering on the brink of inflation).

However, a gentler attitude toward animals in general is emerging among Spaniards. Pet shops are on the increase, and more Madrileños are proud owners of preened, pampered, and protected perros (dogs) than ever before (apparently distancing themselves from the traditional rural trend of keeping the poor creatures tied up most of the day and then using them only for hunting). And people who ill treat any animal -- be it hamster, hound, or horse -- are punished by the law, if only with comparatively small fines.

Except el toro (the bull). He looks like he's destined to suffer for some time yet, though Spain's socialist government -- which is more attentive to humane issues than any ruling party before -- uniquely turned its attention to other animals' welfare a few years back, when it declared its support for the Great Ape Project, proposing to grant life, liberty, and protection to chimpanzees, gorillas, and their kin, and ensuring their protection from ill treatment in circuses, scientific experiments, and even advertising campaigns. That's one small step for animalkind. Maybe there's still hope for the bull.

For information on animal-friendly issues throughout the world, visit Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org).

Ecotourism

A surprising amount of beautiful and unspoiled backwaters are within an hour or so of Madrid. If you don't want to hire a car, you can easily make your way to them by local train (cercanías) or bus. Get maps and reference books from La Tienda Verde, in Calle Maudes. Check out Cercedilla and Patones de Arriba, in the "Side Trips from Madrid" chapter. Or take a 45-minute bus ride from the Conde Casal stop near the Claridge Hotel (a short stroll from the southeast corner of the Retiro Park) down to Perales de Tajuña and seek out the Via Verde route along the banks of the tiny River Tajuña. Here you can walk or cycle for over 35 km/22 miles along converted former rail routes past peaceful cornfields, vineyards, and orchards in a valley bordered by limestone hills, a world apart from the big city bustle.

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 accommodations 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.

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.