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In San Diego, and throughout the western United States in general, perhaps the biggest environmental concern can be summed up in one word: water. Drought conditions have pushed supply to the limit, and mandatory water conservation efforts are in effect. Mayor Jerry Sanders has announced proposals that will attempt to curtail water usage by 20% citywide. Golf courses (which lap up some 12 billion gallons annually in San Diego) and resorts with lush landscaping will definitely feel the impact -- businesses are being asked to cut water consumption by 45% outside and 3% inside. For more information, go to www.sandiego.gov/water.

Barona Creek Golf Club is leading the way for the county's golf courses in adapting to the water emergency. Barona has reconfigured its course to include less turf and more bunkers, and has also installed a computerized sprinkler system. Steele Canyon Golf Club has responded as well, investing in its own weather station that constantly monitors how much water the course requires.

Hotel Indigo is the first hotel in San Diego to be awarded LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. The property features a green roof -- it's covered completely with drought-resistant plants that insulate the building and filter storm water runoff. Many San Diego restaurants are also doing their part, incorporating local, organic, and sustainable products into their menus. Locavore leaders include The Linkery, 9), Zenbu, and Market.

Although San Diego County sprawls, many of its most popular attractions are in close proximity. For a low-impact visit, consider foregoing a rental car. If you're staying in a downtown hotel, Little Italy, Old Town, Mission Valley, Balboa Park, and even Tijuana are easily accessible via public transportation.

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 and businesses 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.

While much of the focus of ecotourism is about reducing impacts on the natural environment, ethical tourism concentrates on ways to preserve 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 (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.

For general information on volunteer travel, visit www.volunteerabroad.org 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.

Animal Rights Issues

For information on animal-friendly issues throughout the world, visit Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org). For information about the ethics of swimming with dolphins or performing-animal shows at facilities such as SeaWorld, visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (www.wdcs.org).

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, 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.com).
  • 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. 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. Visit Sustain Lane (www.sustainlane.com) 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.

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.