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Sustainable tourism is conscientious travel. It means being careful with the environments you explore, and respecting the communities you visit. 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. TIES suggests that eco-tourists 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. This website 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 local 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. 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.

For general info on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.com and www.idealist.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 and the nature of a volunteer program.

Bavarians, with some justification, consider themselves in the avant-garde of green travel. Although they suffered one of history's most devastating attacks on their environment (World War II), in the postwar years they became a front-runner in preserving their environment and protecting nature. Germans are known for recycling and reusing their natural resources.

In Germany, more and more systems are going into place to generate energy from wind and solar power.

Bavarians didn't exactly invent walking or hiking across their countryside, but you would think so when you notice the number of citizens who prefer this form of exploration. It's a way to stay in good health, enjoy nature, and avoid harming the environment, all at the same time.

Trails in Bavaria are often signposted, cutting through all areas of the country, from tidal shores to low mountain regions, with tours offered to some of the more difficult-to-reach points along mountaintops.

The outdoor enthusiast might want to concentrate on Bavaria's national parks, 14 in all. Our favorite of these biosphere reserves is the Bavarian Forest National Park.

For general data about the parks of Germany, consult Nationalpark Service, Informationshaus, 17192 Federow, Germany (tel. 039/91668849; www.nationalpark-service.de). The national parks are free, but camping at designated areas ranges from 5€ to 10€ per night. Some parks have huts that are basic but better than a tent, and this form of accommodations costs from 10€ to 20€ per person.

If you're interested in camping, check the Great Outdoor Recreation Page (www.gorp.com) before you go. It has some fine data not only on camping but also on ways to enjoy the landscapes of Germany.

Many organizations are devoted to eco-tourism today, including Biosphere Expedition, P.O. Box 917750, Longwood, FL 32791 (tel. 800/407-5761; www.biosphere-expeditions.org). This California group sets up eco-friendly tours to the Bavarian Alps, for example. Earthwatch, 3 Clocktower Place, Ste. 1000, P.O. Box 75, Maynard, MA 01754 (tel. 800/776-0188; www.earthwatch.org), often includes Germany in its 1- to 3-week jaunts to promote conservation of natural resources.

An unusual offering for the true green visitor is provided by Willing Workers on Organic Farms, Postfach 210259, 01263 Dresden (www.wwoof.de). Charging a membership of 20€, the organization's name says it all -- participants get free room and board at a variety of organic farms throughout the country, featuring Bavaria, but they must be willing to work for their supper.

One of the best ways for the green traveler in Bavaria is to take a tour from one bio hotel to another. These jaunts take you to the most scenic parts of the country, including the Bavarian Forest. For information and a list of these places to say, check www.biohotels.info.

Increasingly popular is spending a holiday on a Bavarian farm, a welcome alternative for families with children. Sometimes guests can help with the activities, such as feeding the cows or helping with the harvest. Some lodgings are no longer working farms but have been turned into tranquil guesthouses with typical regional charm. Find out more about this type of holiday by searching www.landtourismus.de.

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) and TerraPass (www.terrapass.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 find out whether sustainable materials were used in the property's construction. The website http://greenhotels.com recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements.
  • 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.