Nowadays, travelers are trying to tread lightly, and the industry is responding with greener pastures."
By Jim Motavalli
When Nikki Anderson, general manager of The Inn on Lake Superior, first jumped into the lake that gave her hotel its name, she found the water “so cold it almost stopped my heart.”
Luckily, that heart kept beating, and Anderson survived to supervise a full-scale green makeover of the Inn, turning it into a Midwestern showplace for sustainable tourism. Guests use bamboo towels and recycled paper products, walk on lawns fertilized with “worm juice” from the compost pile, see by the light of compact fluorescent bulbs that shut off with motion detectors, and sleep on sheets washed without chemicals.
Don’t look for a Styrofoam cup, because there aren’t any. And waste industrial steam that would be otherwise vented is used to heat the hotel pool and spa.
“I get warm responses from customers on everything from using the CFLs to cutting out the Styrofoam,” says Anderson. “And, after a period of adjustment, we’re starting to see big reductions in our electricity and water bills.” Her next project is greening the 32 other properties owned by the Duluth, Minn.-based Zenith Management Company.
The Global Development Research Center defines sustainable tourism as “an industry which attempts to make a low impact on the environment and local culture, while helping to generate income, employment and the conservation of local ecosystems.”
To reach this industry standard, destinations need to do more than paint themselves green. They also have to make sure they’re reducing their carbon footprint, supporting regional food production, and employing local people at fair wages.
That’s just good business, because the Travel Industry Association of America reports that, across the country, 38 percent of all vacationers say they are willing to pay significantly more to patronize companies that work to protect the environment.
Minnesota is blessed with a variety of sustainable travel options, backed by resources to connect people with them. For example, the University of Minnesota Tourism Center opened in 1986 and now has four full-time employees and a network of faculty and advisors.
“From large convention centers to small hotels, implementing sustainable practices will produce substantial bottom-line benefits,” says Cynthia Messer, an extension educator at the tourism center.
Research is an important part of the center’s work, and a 2007 poll of state travel professionals revealed that more than three quarters identify strongly with the key tenets of sustainable tourism. However, building awareness of what’s on offer can be a challenge.
“Most folks don’t think of the Midwest as the epicenter for ecotourism,” says John Ivanko, co-author of the book Rural Renaissance.
Ivanko is a major cheerleader for the green Midwest and, with his wife, operates the Wisconsin-based Inn Serendipity (where the electricity comes mainly from a 10-kilowatt wind turbine). Despite the promotional challenges, he says business is good due to a rising public interest in environmental stewardship.
As the industry continues to grow, so does the need for access to it. That’s where Green Routes (greenroutes.org), a Minneapolis-based tourism initiative, comes in. Launched in 2004 by a group of individuals and organizations collectively known as “Renewing the Countryside,” the Web site uses a variation on global positioning software to introduce users to green stopovers along their intended routes.
Judging by the research, that’s the kind of route many tourists are ready to take.
JIM MOTAVALLI is the author of Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change. An award-winning environmental journalist, his articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Sierra and many other publications.
When it comes to green tourism in the Gopher State, a few shining stars include:
The Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, which has earned high marks in recycling, protecting Lake Superior and serving local food.
The Red Stag Supper Club in Minneapolis, where the local delicacies are served in a LEED-certified building.
The Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, with an outstanding record of serving regional specialties and supporting the community.
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Last modified on January 23, 2012