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Choosing an Earth Friendly Tour Operator

By Breanne Quesnel

There seem to be an overwhelming number of companies using words like eco-tourism and sustainable in their marketing these days. How do you know what is truly your best choice for the earth? I will try to shed some light on what to look for and the questions to ask trip operators to ensure an earth friendly adventure.

The best possible option for the earth is that we stay home and keep our ecological footprint (the impact we have on the earth) to a minimum. This means that there are no carbon emissions being released into the atmosphere from our travel to and from our desired destination. There are no cars or planes or trains involved.

The problem with this option is that most folks are not ready to give up travel altogether quite yet. Others will argue that it is essential for folks to experience nature first hand and that these experiences create connections to the earth and that people will then feel compelled to protect and preserve our fragile ecosystems. "We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well - for we will not fight to save what we do not love" (p. 14, Steven Jay Gould, 1991, September. Enchanted Evening. Natural History).

What ever the argument, many people still choose to travel. So where does this leave us? Well you can use your power and influence as a consumer to support what we call environmentally sustainable or sensitive travel. This type of travel can take many forms and means many different things. We will examine some things to look for when choosing a company or service as part of your vacation as well as ways to minimize your environmental impact when adventuring on your own.

What You Can Do
We have the ability to choose products and services that are a better choice for the environment at every step of our journey.

Choose Responsible Retailers/Service Providers
Do your research — make sure you enquire about the environmental policies and practices of the company you choose, the lodge you will be staying at or the shop you are renting gear from.

Ask Questions — Don't be afraid to ask about a company's environmental policy and practices. In this day and age, recycling is only a small part of the picture. Look for a company who takes into consideration the entire area in which they operate as well as the bigger picture of whole planet. Their environmental policies should address physical environmental issues such as how waste is dealt with, social relationships - does the company support the local setting, do they buy local, employee local people, have a good working relationship with First Nations - and minimizing environmental impacts starting from the moment you begin inquiring about the trip through to the time you arrive back home.

Many companies now offer clothing and goods made with recycled content or from environmentally responsible materials such as organic cotton, bamboo, and coconut fibers.

Go paperless — when researching an adventure, instead of requesting paper brochures from all the tour operators or tourist info centres, ask if the information can be sent electronically via e-mail. This minimizes environmental impact as no trees were cut down, the energy and water needed to process the paper are saved and the carbon emitted in making the paper, shipping it, printing it and then eventually delivering it to your door is saved. Computers are not environmentally perfect, but if used responsibly can be the better option.

Buy Local — when possible support your local economy. If you need a new dry bag or camera for your adventure consider purchasing from the small local shop. The folks running these stores are part of your community and contribute back in many ways. Often the small shops are also very helpful and knowledgeable and can be a great resource.

Buy Used — there is a lot of lightly used gear that needs a good home out in the world. Check out the bulletin board at your local outdoor retailer, outdoors club or websites such as Mountain Equipment Co-op's gear swap, an on-line gear trading and selling posting board. Great deals are often found on quality equipment.

Look for goods that were purchased from the maker at fair prices, not sweatshop made. Ask about the retailer's buying polices and whether they investigate their suppliers for safety and humane working conditions. Also enquire about their staff and what the shop or company does for its employees (i.e. benefits, job security, fair wages etc.)

Environmental Commitments
Many companies ensure that they give back to the community in which they are located and the environment. Enquire about community events the shop or company is involved in. Do they donate time and goods to local events or causes? Does a portion of their sales or proceeds go to charities or not for profit groups like One Percent for the Planet? Do they offset the carbon emitted as a result of their trips?

Choosing locally grown and/or organic foods can make a significant difference on our impact on the environment. Local foods do not have to be transported thousands of kms to reach our plates and organic foods mean that no pesticides or fertilizers where used in the production of processing of the item. Fair-trade items also help to make a difference in the communities in which the item originated in. Coffee, tea and chocolate are items notorious for paying farmers low prices. Look for Fair-Trade options and feel good while enjoying your cup of coffee while enjoying the sunrise over a beautiful Canadian landscape.

Practices while on trip
Respect — the operator should inform the group of the wishes of the stewards of the land and water in which you travel, whether that be a local First Nations group or Parks Canada, conservation organizations etc.

Wildlife — don't alter the natural behaviour of animals.

Minimal Impact — low impact practices deal with how we affect the area while on our visit. Will the next group traveling be able to see every place we stopped? Will the landscape or site be forever changed negatively by our visit? Ensure that your operator and you follow the practice of take only photographs and leave only footprints (lightly treaded footprints at that). Remember that we are only guests in the areas in which we travel and we need to treat the area with respect and care.

There are so many great adventures to be experienced on this beautiful planet. By thinking of the above mentioned points when choosing your next tour operator, service provider or products, you will be helping to use your consumer power to encourage environmentally responsible and sustainable travel.

Breanne Quesnel is Sustainability Coordinator for
Spirit of the West Adventures on Quadra Island, BC.

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