By Salvatore Cardoni 
With almost 1 billion tourists zigzagging the planet every year, the need for travelers to soften their ecological footprint is perhaps more pressing than ever.

One of the best sites out there to walk you through the process, sustainable-step-by-sustainable-step if necessary, is Trave locity, the lone prominent online travel company that flags eco-friendly hotels site-wide.

The site’s green reach isn’t limited to hotels. Travelers can offset the carbon dioxide emissions generated by their trip by making a contribution to the site's tree-planting program, The Conservation Fund’s Go Zero. There’s also a grant-funded “voluntourism” package, where winners embark on inspirational volunteer trips.

TakePart caught up with Alison Presley, manager of Travel for Good at Travelocity, at the Sustainable Brands Conference in Monterey, California, for a far-ranging chat on all things green travel.

TakePart: What percentage of Travelocity's business is green?

Alison Presley: I like that you’re starting with the easy ones. It’s tough to say. I think ultimately your question is how many green hotels do we have? We’re at 3,000 now, which is huge. Initially, we had 700 when I came on and we've been working really hard to get out and flag them. We want to flag the right green hotels. Our program is very rigorous. We don't accept many mini-programs that other people do. So 3,000 hotels out of 60,0000 on our site, that gives you a rough idea of how many green hotels are out there.

TP: Environmentalists might say that the only true way to travel green is to stay at home—a "staycation." Make the case that getting on an airplane or getting into a car to go to a green hotel is environmentally sound.

AP: In my opinion, if every American stayed home and never traveled we would be in a worse place from an environmental standpoint because broadening horizons is so important for changing mindset. For me there is no question that we have to get on a plane, and it's simply impractical.

In today’s world show me the person that isn't going to accept a trip to Paris. If we accept that we want to travel and that travel is valuable, and I do think it is, one of the very first industries that a destination will have when coming out of abject poverty is tourism. It has a huge economic benefit that is really important to emerging markets. If we accept that travel is a part of our lives, then how can we reduce that impact—and that’s what we at Travelocity are really interested in. I wish there were solar-powered planes. Maybe someday we’ll see biodiesel fuel planes, but we're not there yet.

TP: What’s the difference between light green, dark green, and open-to-green.

AP: Dark green is very rare—I would say in the U.S. I am a dark green person. I compost, I try to buy only when absolutely necessary, so I really think about my consumption. A dark green person is making sacrifices in their lives in their passion about the green movement. Light green is about where my mom is. She's buying organic cereal. She's interested and open to the green movement, but she's also not willing to give up things that she knows to be toxic. She's very committed to certain things she is not flexible on. Open-to-green, for me, would be even less than light green. Those are the people that we still need to win over and I think that a vast majority of the American market is there.

They are curious. Maybe they saw An Inconvenient Truth and it got them thinking. For them price point is huge. You have to make sure you are coming from the same price point as non-green options. And you got to win their hearts and minds.

TP: What is Travelocity's green guarantee?

AP: The green guarantee is actually our effort to engage our audience to help us. Flagging green hotels is logistically a very difficult program. What we've done is work with our competitors and non-profits to define what it means to be a green hotel. Let’s be honest, the U.S. government has not said so. So we are using the GSTC to define what it means to be a green hotel, but we want our audience to go stay at these hotels and report back. Did it fail you? Was it not up to standard? If it wasn't, shoot me an e-mail—that actually goes directly to me. I’m a real person. I would love to hear from you.

TP: And you actually get the e-mail when such a situation arises?

AP: If I get an e-mail from you, I will look into it. Is this hotel flagged green when it doesn't need to be? If so, I give you a $50 future discount rate and plant a tree in your name at a national wildlife refuge. I’m pleased to say we have had no claims on the green guarantee.

TP: How many trees have you planted so far?

AP: Travelocity has filled 2 national wildlife refugees and we’re working on our third. I forget the exact count—I can share it with you later—but thanks to our customers and us we've planted quite a few. But not through the green guarantee—[for that] we have not had a single claim. It's part of our carbon offset program.

TP: Talk about the carbon-offset program. What kind of due diligence does Travelocity do to assure that it is actually offsetting? Depending on the report, some argue carbon-offsetting works, others say it’s bogus.

AP: Well, I can tell you that I've personally gone and seen the trees. That’s all due diligence on the scale of one, so I have gone out to these natural wildlife refuges. It was very important for us to be above reproach.

Travelocity has partnered with the gold standard in carbon offsets, and our partner is the National Wildlife Refuge. And what they do is they plant these trees, and you as an American can go and enjoy these trees, so it has a nice travel component to it.

TP: While some might think that an upscale hotel has the capital to go green, how does a budget hotel, say a Motel 6, do that, if they want to?

AP: It is funny because I work with hotels at all levels and they each tell me: "Well, the other guys have it easier." So the high-end guys think the low-end guys have it easier, and vice versa. The reason is the low-end guys are able to do things like putting the shampoo dispenser in the actual shower and no one thinks that it's low rent.

Meanwhile, a luxury hotel property is saying to me: "I can't do that—my customers would panic." So in some ways they have an advantage. A lot of stuff they would do would cut costs, which is huge for them. It's something they have to be focused on, to keep that price point low. And people have lower expectations when they stay at a lower budget friendly hotel. You got the linen recycling, the CFLs, the in-shower shampoo dispensers—all of those things can help a hotel go green.

TP: You also manage the voluntourism part of Travelocity's site. What is the most uplifting voluntourism story you've heard?

AP: One of our most recent grant winners lost her home in the Nashville flood. So here she is applying to go and give back. I believe she is heading out to Ghana, and her whole application was: "I've lost my home and it was rough, but there are people who have it worse than me. I have insurance, I am going to get a new home, I am back on my feet." It really inspired her in her time of need to go and help someone else in need.

TP: Tell me what the voluntourism part is?

AP: Since 2006, Travelocity has been rewarding people $5,000 voluntourism grants. Any American can win them. You just apply online—just go to volunteerjournals.com and we award four grants every half year. It is just a really neat program because we are rewarding very inspiring Americans, and they can choose from many trips and go all over the world and give back.

TP: What’s one thing a person can do for 5 dollars or for under 5 minutes to have a green vacation?

AP: I can go less than 5 dollars. I think the number one easiest thing you can do is set your home to vacation mode. You are going to save a lot of energy and it's much greener. By setting you home to vacation mode I mean turn off your air conditioner. Your fridge has a button called "vacation mode," click it. Unplug all of your appliances—that's vampire energy you don't want to be wasting. Another very easy and free thing to do is bring a refillable water bottle. Fill it up after you go through security, you're good to go and you're going to save a small fortune on bottled water.

Article courtesy of takepart.com

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