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Truly Eco-Friendly Travel

Waging the green revolution one community, hotel or jetsetter at a time. By CAIN NUNNS, With reporting by VERONICA INVEEN and RACHNA SACHASINH. Illustrated by AUTCHARA PANPHAI.

Published on Jun 9, 2017


"GO ON A JUNGLE WALK-THAT'S ECOTOURISM. Look at a mountain—that's ecotourism. Ride a bicycle—that's ecotourism," quips Peter Jensen, a tourism sustainability consultant, on the seemingly unavoidable practice of green washing. This sentiment dovetails unfortunately with a unesco report issued this year that contained a worrying caveat about "the increasing vulnerability of World Heritage sites to climate change impacts and the potential implications for global tourism." Key takeaway? Climate change is exacerbating problems caused by unplanned tourism development and uncontrolled or poorly managed visitor access, as well as other threats and stresses.


Background, animal, kayak and Beach: courtesy of freepik.

But what's a responsible traveler to do? A key poverty-reducing mechanism, tourism provides one out of every 11 jobs in the world, according to the United Nations World Tourism Council. The entire tourism industry generated $7.2 trillion, or 9.8% of global GDP, says the 2016 Tourism Trends & Statistics issued by Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsible Tourism (CREST)—and the pace of sustainable tourism is outpacing the growth in the field as a whole. Nature-based tourism now accounts for a full one-fifth of the travel market.

"Tourism impacts much more than the environment. It affects communities, indigenous people and often the poor," Jensen says. "Consumers, who are increasingly eco-minded, deserve to take much of the opaqueness out of the industry."

Although there is no global governing body, the world's largest environment conference, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), makes influential recommendations. Held this year in Hawaii, the congress discussed drawing up universal tourism guidelines in conjunction with governments and NGOs. To improve environmental and biodiversity protection standards, a motion was passed urging the expansion of sustainability guidelines to include best practices for the benefit of species, ecosystems, communities and environmental learning. There was also a push for such factors as certification schemes that include qualitative standards and indicators for community engagement, environment, infrastructure and tourist behavior.

While not legally binding in its 180-plus member nations, the IUCN does carry some weight and hopefully will influence governmental action. But for now, the real dramatic changes are happening at the ground level. Read on for some of the greenest hotels in our region, and ways you can ensure your travels are as sustainable as possible.



No man is an island. But coming pretty close to it has proven the most sure-fire way to grow greenly. IT billionaire Larry Ellison bought Lanai, a 36,400-hectare, comma-shaped smidge of Hawaii home to 3,000 people for a reported $300 million in 2012. The goal: an entire community economically driven by high-end inclusive tourism, or, as Ellison put it, "a prosperous and sustainable Eden in the Pacific." Here, the update on Lanai, and the low-down on a few other properties in the region really making a difference.

Courtesy of vector Openstock.

 NEW GREEN STARS                                                     

With an aim to "rebuild the community so that we are good stewards of the land," says Kepa Maly, of Pulama Lanai, which manages Ellison's investment in the island, the relaunched resort has invested in habitat stabilization and is working on restoring forest systems to get rid of invasive species while reintroducing natives. Archaeological and historical sites are being unearthed and preserved. Water treatment facilities and infrastructure have been upgraded; a 3.6-hectare historical fishpond is being restored and plans are underway to capture rainwater through screens or nets above the Cook Islands pine trees that stand at attention along the island's ridges. Designed in conjunction with the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center, an app offers trail guides and insights into native Hawaiian and plantation history on Lanai, including archaeological sites.; from $695 per night.

It might not look like it now, but Oasia Hotel Downtown's bullet-shaped exterior will eventually become a verdant-green 27-story façade of a few dozen species of vines and plants that will host birds and other wildlife overlooking Singapore's steel-and-glass titans of the financial world. That was the hope of noted local architect Wong Mun Summ when he designed the 314-room hotel on a relatively small plot of land. Wong says he believes the property's vertical gardens will support 10 times more greenery and wildlife than the space would have without the hotel. Eventually, Wong says, the sleek blood-orange metal structure will resemble a "furry" green-and-red bouquet. Organic interiors were drawn up by star Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola.; from $145.

The Six Senses' oversized luxury tree forts, with private balconies and organic cotton linens, Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain is just down the road from UNESCO World Heritage & Natural Cultural site Dujiangyan, the irrigation system from the third century. It also packs a pretty hefty sustainable punch. Plastic water bottles are outlawed. It purifies and mineralizes its own drinking water and offers a sleek Tesla electric car for guest services. Tesla charging stations are littered throughout the resort. For produce not available through its organic gardens, Qing Cheng Mountain sources ingredients locally. The resort also partners with feel-good NGO Panda Mountain on education and sustainability programs while running similar outreach initiatives at local schools.; from $212 per night.

Twelve low-lying motus, or reef islands, on Tetiaroa, this ultra flash 35-villa resort built on the once-private island sanctuary of late and legendary actor and activist Marlon Brando takes environmental responsibility to an entirely different place. It's the first net-power luxury property and supports a number of research and conservation initiatives. Deep pipes planted 900 meters in the cold corners of the ocean below create half of the resort's energy. Solar panels and an ingenious biofuel thermal power station that runs on coconut oil provide the remainder. Te Mana O Te Moana, a local marine conservation NGO, takes guests out on guided tours and, in-house, the Tetiaroa Society is a think tank conducting marine research by scientists from visiting universities.; from $2,470 per night.


Diver & coral: courtesy of freepik.

 ECO HALL-OF-FAMERS                                                  

Cambodia doesn't scream sustainability. But Song Saa, hard against the Gulf of Thailand, is changing that perception, replenishing reefs, kickstarting a marine reserve and protecting relatively untapped rainforests. From the outset, the hotel hooked up with locals to clean up trash and replant trees. Built largely from driftwood and materials such as old Cambodian fishing boats from close by, Song Saa's plush 27 pool villas are some of the best in Southeast Asia. Employees come from the surrounding villages, water is recycled, and a foundation has been organized to clean up the Koh Rong.; from $840 per night.

Like The Brando, Misool Eco Resort in Raja Ampat has gone a giant step beyond what is considered the norm for eco-hotels. In the heart of one of the world's best dive spots and surrounded by the crystalline waters and blindingly white beaches in West Papua Province, Missol was hammered into shape at its own mill with reclaimed hard woods. The resulting luxury shabby-chic villas have open-air bathrooms and handcrafted furniture. Now to the good stuff: Its registered charity has unveiled several impactful programs, including driving the creation of the 44,000-square-kilometer Raja Ampat Shark and Manta Sanctuary, which it patrols through locally employed rangers to fend off shark and turtle poachers; a manta ray identification and tracking initiative; and a reef restoration project. It trains locals as dive guides, supports libraries in village schools, pays teachers' wages and built a kindergarten. Not bad for a few years' work.; from $350 per night.

Once an estate of Anuradhapura nobility, this is possibly Sri Lanka's most sustainable retreat—centered around a colonial mansion not far from from Lion Rock, the ancient palace of Sigiriya, and the UNESCO caves of Dambulla. Its 20 pool villas are spread across 23 hectares of verdant jungle. Power is derived from its own solar farm and a biogas generator that runs off the hotel's waste. Ulagalla is also LEED certified and draws its own produce from its massive organic farm.; from $269 per night.

Set among 600-year-old Banyan trees, perennial eco award-winner Soneva Kiri was built by the husband-and-wife team that started Six Senses. Their oversized pool villas were crafted from sustainable eucalyptus logs, locally sourced bamboo and treated pine by village craftsman. Snuggled into the warm waters of the Bay of Thailand, the hotel is run by locals, sources its energy needs from solar and wind, and grows its own organic produce. Other highlights include an open-air cinema, a mangrove restaurant, an on-site ecologist and an observatory.; from $2,200 per night.



The idea is simple: source food locally and you not only support regional farmers, but also cut down on carbon emissions from the transport needed from farm-to-plate. Locavore targets local and seasonal produce wherever you are and buttresses those with recipes to use on the road.; Android and iOS.

This app will plant trees depending on how eco-unfriendly your daily commute is. Earn points by walking or biking instead of driving and find out both how many calories you are burning and the amount of CO 2 you are saving at the same time. Android and iOS.

Given its stringent backing of the unfortunately floundering carbon credits market, its no surprise the United Nations Environmental Program came up with a free carbon calculator app that helps you sort out your entire emissions footprint while on holiday. It also offers a handy guide to reducing your carbon spend. iOS only.

While there is some debate about eco-certification organizations, it's not a stretch to say they are a massive step in the right direction. One such hotel certifier, Green Globe, offers an app that uses Google Earth to identify your location and then suggests certified properties, restaurants and tours that have been signed off on. Android and iOS.



Fairphone 2 is the coolest eco-tech product ever made. I said it. Not only is it a high-tech and performance beast using only recycled plastic and aluminium components, the guts of it are made from sustainably sourced rare-earth minerals, and it is manufactured to fair-trade standards. The firm is so concerned about doing the right thing that it teaches users how to fix problems through tutorials and ships out spare parts to its customers. All this and, at $593, it's still cheaper than the new iPhone.

Don't be fooled by this speaker's size. The water-resistant portable travel wonder features a wireless speaker, built-in microphone and a microSD card slot to use as an MP3 player. It's known for its sparkling sound and rich bass. While that is all good, it makes our list for its solar-chargeability, with a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery.; from $40.

These over-ear headphones look and sound amazing. Housing memory-foam ear cushions for marathon sessions, each pair features grain-matched, sustainably certified walnut enclosures and is built to provide the sound the artist intended in the studio. Additional features include an easy-to-use inline mic.; from $199.

Water scarcity and usage in the tourism industry are major problems—as is the absurd number of plastic water bottles used every day. The ingenious half-kilo water bottle uses UV technology to turn any clear water potable in just 60 seconds, using a USB-rechargeable lithium ion battery. Each battery cycle delivers more than 80 purification cycles and takes about five hours to charge up.; from $100.

According to water-use think tank the Pacific Institute, the amount of oil used in plastic water bottles annually could drive more than a million cars for 12 months. One of the simplest ways we can reduce our carbon footprint is to cut out single-use plastic bottles. This stainless steel, BPA -free, reusable water bottle can accompany you on any adventure, and is made to last a lifetime.; from $20.

This smart little clock from Bedol uses plain old tap water as a fuel for its electrodes to harvest power. There are no batteries needed to charge the LCD display or to unleash an early morning wakeup call for that sunrise hike or morning surf. And best of all, it is cheap.; from $16.

Whether hiking through mountainous Laos or relaxing beach-side in Bali, this case, with an integrated battery that is charged by its reverse solar panel, will save you from worrying about where the nearest outlet might be.; from $50.

This stylish, Swiss-engineered weekender is made entirely from discarded truck tarpaulins and recycled bottles. Not only is it tough-as-nails, but it's both functional and sustainable as well.; $648.



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Illustrated by Autchara Panphai.
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