Reducing carbon on vacation

When it comes to the carbon emissions associated with travel, there’s no question that aviation is a huge offender. The aviation sector is one of the fastest growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, with air travel growing by five percent per year. At Responsible Travel we have drawn up our own manifesto for vital change in this sector, but tackling aviation is only one aspect of decarbonising travel in general. As travelers, we also need to consider how we behave once on the ground in our chosen destination, and in kind, vacation companies must strive to offer low carbon accommodation, transport and activities. We believe that all of us need to fly less, but once we’ve made the decision to take a flight, we should have the chance to choose as low-impact a vacation as possible.

Obviously, some destinations are impossible to reach without a flight, and the small island of Mauritius off the eastern coast of Madagascar is a prime example. Once here, though, travelers can elect to stay with a local vacation operator with exceptional environmental credentials. Sustainable tailor-made travel specialist Conscious Travel is leading the way in low carbon vacations, ensuring that once its travelers arrive on the island, they contribute minimal carbon to the atmosphere, while also enjoying a raft of socially and environmentally responsible activities and experiences, from planting trees in endemic forests to visiting a permaculture farm.
For Romina Tello Soberanes, the managing director of Conscious Travel, offering low carbon vacations is more than just a responsible move, it’s an essential one. “The effects of climate change are very clear in Mauritius, most obviously on the coast and beaches where you can see erosion. The rising sea levels have taken a big portion of all the beaches around the island,” she says. “Coral bleaching is also obvious, with only 35 percent of coral reefs left intact. CO2 neutral alternatives, choices and lifestyles are more necessary than ever now.”
Romina now works with around 30 local suppliers – accommodation owners, guides, farmers – to offer sustainable and low carbon vacations. “These suppliers are micro enterprises who find it difficult to gain access to the market. We say, let’s come together under this platform of Conscious Travel and we can provide a comprehensive offer to visitors who want to travel in this style and with these values,” she says. “Conscious Travel is only as strong as our suppliers; we are nothing without them. They have become my family.”

Accommodation

Conscious Travel uses family run guesthouses and locally owned eco lodges, cabins and eco glamping tents to accommodate travelers on its tours. This, of course, supports and empowers small, independent businesses in Mauritius and ensures all vacation spend goes directly to the local community, and not an international hotel chain.

In addition, Conscious Travel encourages all its accommodation providers to be low carbon and sustainable. It expects them to reduce their electricity consumption whenever possible, by installing fans instead of power guzzling air con, to use energy efficient LED lightbulbs throughout the premises or solar lamps, and to use solar panels to heat water and, in the best cases, produce electricity. Some chalets even have mason jars with photovoltaic cells in them that charge in the sunlight and give out about four hours of light.

“Most of our eco lodges, camps and guesthouses use solar panels – about 90 percent – to heat water,” says Romina. “The most sustainable option is our off-grid glamping on a mountainside, where there’s no mains power. It uses solar panels and batteries to store the energy.”

Much of the accommodation is furnished with pieces made from upcycled wood, such as recovered pallets and driftwood, rather than new timber. “Our partners upcycle the abundant pallets we have in Mauritius used for importing goods. Most of them use these for furniture in the bedrooms and living rooms. In our glamping tents, which are our sustainable heroes, the beds, shelves, storage, in fact everything, is made of recycled pallets and the circular boxes that you see used to store fruit and veg in local markets.”

Travel on the island

Conscious Travel's tailor-made vacations include lots of tours and excursions that travelers can take, but they are all non-motorised, making them a brilliantly eco-conscious alternative to the standard commercial boat trips and day tours by car on offer elsewhere on Mauritius. Instead, travelers explore in more offbeat ways, discovering the island’s coast and quiet landscapes by sea kayak, mountain bike, horse or by hiking. Travelers can even make use of electric bikes to explore the island’s winding roads.

Anyone hiking on the island can opt to be supplied with a cleaning kit, so they can pick up any rubbish as they go, as part of a collaboration with a local NGO called My Green Trip. This rubbish is then, where possible, sorted and recycled. This won’t lower your carbon footprint, but it will boost your sense of positively contributing to the island and its environment.
For now, electric cars aren’t available to hire on the island. “The infrastructure to charge isn’t here yet,” says Romina, “but there’s a lot of talk about that so hopefully in a couple of years we’ll have electric vehicles.” Instead, Conscious Travel can offer a tailor-made low CO2 package, for the traveler keen to make the most positive impact while on Mauritius, which involves using the island’s public bus network. Most of the accommodation and meeting points for excursions are close to bus stops, and Conscious Travel produces a guide to the island’s bus routes, too. “We can arrange everything using our bus network,” says Romina. “It’s a little bit challenging because of how the buses are run here, but we are there to help the traveler. Very intrepid people like to step into this, but the rest rent a car.”

Other carbon cutting initiatives

Beyond transport and accommodation, Conscious Travel has explored other ways to cut carbon. Staff in the accommodation are hired from the immediate local area. “Most people simply walk to work,” says Romina. Most chalets and glamping lodges grow their own veg, removing the need to rely on imported food. This is in stark contrast to the large hotels and resorts on Mauritius which typically import 75 percent of their produce. “Our food isn’t even transported from the supermarket to the table, it’s carried on foot,” says Romina. “Fish can still be bought form the fisherman down the road. I love that. You come down to breakfast and eat the fruits of the season, picked just outside.” Some accommodation serves only vegetarian food, too, which incurs none of the carbon emissions associated with livestock rearing.

Conscious Travel has also devised an offsetting scheme, to offset the CO2 produced by its trips. “Not because we believe offsetting CO2 is the way forward to alleviate climate change,” says Romina, “but because in the case of Mauritius and other SIDS [small island developing states] that depend on tourism, the major production of CO2 comes from the long-haul flights to get here, that cannot be swapped by trains or cleaner means of transport.”

Conscious Travel calculates the the CO2 produced by the average traveler with its home-made calculator and based on industry standards researched by AERA, the climate finance group. Two people traveling from from Europe and staying with Conscious Travel for 14 nights produces on average four tons of CO2 per couple. “We then invest the carbon credits on a renewable energy project that is running in Mauritius – a solar PV farm that is accountable for two percent of the renewable energy produced in the island (out of our total 16 percent).”

Looking to the future

Romina set up Conscious Travel in Mauritius four years ago and is beginning to see the very first glimmers of change in how tourism operates throughout the island as a whole. “Tourism here has been based on luxury hotels and beaches, and when I set up here, my more sustainable version of tourism was not interesting to the big players at all,” she says. “But we have all seen the damage caused by climate change and travelers see it too, which is affecting our competitiveness with other islands like the Maldives and Seychelles. Tourism revenue was down in the first two quarters of 2019 and that’s hitting big providers in their wallets and making them think. They are waking up, for good or for bad.”

For Romina, though, her motivation is simple. “Mauritius is so beautiful, even with climate change having its effects,” she says. “There are gorgeous pristine areas, waterfalls, forests and amazing views from mountains. When I see that I’m just mesmerised. I just want people to keep experiencing that.”
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Xavier Coiffic] [Top box: John O'Nolan] [Accommodation: Conscious Travel] [Public transport: Egidio Maur] [Other carbon cutting initiatives: Conscious Travel] [looking to the future: Conscious Travel]
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