by Marc Gunther

Travel business misses the 'green' boat

Hotels, cruise lines and tour operators are making a big mistake by not doing more to fight global warming, writes Fortune's Marc Gunther.

By Marc Gunther, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Travel is the world's biggest business and one of its fastest-growing too. But hotels, resorts, airlines and cruise lines have been slow to grapple with the huge environmental and social consequences of what they do.

Sure, most hotels invite guests to hang up their towels, instead of having them washed every day. And many hotel rooms are now lit with compact fluorescent light bulbs. Cruise lines, meanwhile, are no longer dumping sewage and oily waste into the ocean like they used to.


But only a few hotels in the United States are certified as "green" by the U.S. Green Building Council. None of the big hotel chains, cruise lines or tour operators has published a thorough corporate responsibility report, with metrics, goals and timetable for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

And while the "eco-travel" category is growing fast, no one can tell you with any certainty just what that means.

What's more, while the industry creates jobs and helps alleviate poverty, critics say that industry workers in the developing world are underpaid, and that most of the tourism dollars generated in poor countries leave anyway. That's because visitors tend to favor western-run hotels, western-owned rental car agencies, and western-made products like Coca-Cola over local businesses.

"The tourism industry lags way, way behind other industries when it comes to corporate social responsibility," said Patricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, a British advocacy group.

Those are some of my impressions after attending Conde Nast Traveler's "World Savers Congress," the magazine's first conference on social and environmental issues. The New York confab featured plenty of self-congratulations and grandiose rhetoric - one panel was called "Can the travel industry save the planet? - but it left me feeling that the industry still has a lot of work to do.

The stakes are high. In the United States alone, the travel industry generated about $645 billion last year, according to an industry group. Besides creating economic opportunity for local economies, the travel industry can connect people with nature and with the developing world.

"Journeys, especially to developing countries, create global citizens, for whom there is no 'us' and 'them," said Klara Glowczewska, the editor-in-chief of Conde Nast Traveler.

Certainly, there are solid business reasons for the industry to get serious about issues of global warming, biodiversity, poverty and AIDS.

"People don't want to spend big bucks to travel to degraded places," said Sven Lindblad, president of Lindblad Expeditions, a small adventure travel company with a longstanding commitment to conservation.

He told me that he's especially worried about the growth in tourism and condo development that currently threaten Baja California.

In fact, it's in the development phase - long before anyone is invited to hang up a towel - that the travel industry has done the most damage to remote and beautiful places.

Jamie Sweeting, senior director of travel at the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, a nonprofit group, described a trip he made to a newly-developed tourist destination in the Dominican Republic called Cap Cana.

"I saw, literally, 25 miles of coastline bulldozed," he said. "Now you have these wonderful resorts and golf courses, but the biodiversity is gone. They trashed the place."

Several encouraging stories were told, particularly when the magazine gave out its "World Savers" awards.

Marriott International (Charts, Fortune 500) was honored for training disadvantaged young people - some from orphanages in Bucharest, others from the favelas, or shanty towns, of Rio de Janeiro - for careers in the hotel business. The company has also begun to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and it has a company-wide volunteer program with high participation rates.

A small resort called Jungle Bay Resort and Spa on the Caribbean island of Dominica won praise for hiring almost all of its 59 employees from the island itself - a rare practice in Caribbean tourism.

"Our chef had never eaten at a decent restaurant," said Sam Raphael, the resort's founder and co-owner. His company has also set up a fund to loan money to young people and farmers to start businesses that work with the resort.

And a Southeast Asia tour operator called Buffalo Tours was recognized for employing local people, supporting local charities and giving guidelines to travelers on how to interact in sensitive ways with people in rural Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

A medical doctor named Tran Trong Kein, who started Buffalo Tours, told the group that "tourism should be an opportunity and not a threat to local communities."

You'd think that would be obvious. But it's not. Top of page