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Who's doing it and what does it mean for consumers?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 5, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, eco travel, Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Zak Patten.

By incorporating carbon offsets into their regular offerings, a couple of major travel retailers have brought into the mainstream a practice that was once only available to a much smaller audience. And it's wise not to forget the leaders in the carbon-offset movement, the adventure travel community, because these environmentally conscious tour operators' handling of offsets may indicate the future of this trend.

Perhaps the most significant news of the past year was the adoption of carbon-offsets programs by two of the largest online travel agencies based in the U.S. Last August, Travelocity announced its partnership with the nonprofit Conservation Fund's Go Zero program. At virtually the same time, Expedia announced its own partnership with the for-profit TerraPass. The other big U.S. online travel agency Orbitz, did not return requests for information about its plans for a carbon-offset program, but it appears to be only a matter of time before the online agency introduces its own emissions payment functionality, at least according to the Washington Post's, Travel Log blog.

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Travelocity

Though it plans to integrate Go Zero more fully into its website, Travelocity customers who want to offset their emissions only have two options at the moment. They may select an offset when buying a vacation package or use the link to the Conservation Fund on the Travelocity homepage for more information.

In terms of pricing, Jeffrey Glueck, Travelocity's Chief Marketing Officer, says "Our consumer testing showed that customers want simple calculations, so we made the pricing structure simple. A contribution of $10 offsets an average trip including air travel, a one-night hotel stay, and a rental car for one person; $25 negates air travel, a four-night hotel stay, and a rental car for two people; and $40 equalizes the effects of air travel, a four-night hotel stay, and a rental car for four people."

And what do those sums buy? Travelocity has committed itself to a very specific project, the reforestation of the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge near New Orleans. According to Glueck, "About 70 percent of Bogue Chitto's trees were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Over several centuries, the trees would grow back naturally, though with the risk of invasive species. Through our planting efforts with The Conservation Fund, we ensured that the trees planted were bottomland hardwoods, which are native species. We are in the process of planting 4,500 trees, and that will continue to grow as donations roll in." In addition to the environmental benefits, this project has the side benefit to Travelocity of revitalizing an important travel destination.

For a fun way to learn more about Go Zero specifically and carbon offsets in general, watch Travelocity's "eco bunnies" video on the site's own Travel For Good page or YouTube.

Expedia

Expedia's choice of offset partner, the for-profit company TerraPass, offers quite a distinct set of climate solutions, such as a wind farm in Nebraska and a methane-capturing energy project in Minnesota. As with Travelocity, the payment options are simple for Expedia customers. There are three price levels: $5.99, $16.99, and $29.99. According to company spokesperson Katie Deines, "[Level] one is to effectively offset a north-south domestic flight (1,000 lbs. of carbon), the second level offsets a cross-country flight, and the third offsets an international round-trip. These three levels were developed for ease of approximation in determining how much CO2 to offset." Like the Travelocity system, Expedia's pricing structure is simple and straightforward.

It's also apparently successful. Though it's still only a small percentage of customers who actually purchase offsets, Deines says that "demand has outpaced our expectations and continues to grow."

Adventure tour operators

Chris Doyle has found overwhelming support for carbon offsets among the adventure tour operators his organization represents. He predicts that "[providing carbon offsets] will be the cost of entry to any business entering the adventure travel industry." In a recent survey, more than 200 providers from 35 countries were asked what best defined their views of sustainability programs (which include carbon offsets). Forty-one percent said "critical, makes sense for business, and saves money." Of the remainder, only eight percent of providers were particularly negative about such programs, calling them "a waste of effort in most cases."

In the near future, the Adventure Travel Trade Association is planning on launching Adventure.Travel, a directory of tour providers, many of which are committed to sustainable travel and carbon offsets. For now, Doyle provides his short list of operators that are "truly committed (and have been for years)—to carbon offsetting and/or rigorous sustainable tourism practices." They are:

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