Tuesday, 17 October 2006

slow travel, slow trains?

Inspired by a colleague, I took Carl Honoré's "In Praise of Slow" on a weekend trip to Cornwall. I decided to right down at bit about the slow experience..

13 October 2006

This morning I left in plenty of time to catch the 9.34 train to Birmingham New Street to connect with the Virgin Voyager train to Plymouth. Travelling with my bicycle, I was nervous about ascending the train with crowds of people, so I took the advice of the ticket office advisor to arrive early. The train turned up 15 minutes late after sending its passengers the length of platform 5 twice in anticipation of the train's expected arrival. I spent the entire duration of the journey to Birmingham wondering if I would make the all important connection to Plymouth.

After upsetting numerous passengers with the presence of my bicycle, I fled the train in Birmingham, to the nearest lift. Thankfully there were two minutes between my emergence on the correct platform and the departure of the 11.12 train to Plymouth. My legs were shaking in fear of missing the said train as I was informed that the next one would not depart for another 2 hours. The prospect of spending that amount of time in the dark depths of Birmingham's main station was too frightening a thought.

Taking a deep breath, I fell into the bright red Virgin Voyager seat and reached for my chosen travelling campanion, Honoré's "In Praise of Slow".

It soon became clear that the last hour and a half of my life was more significant than I imagined. Not because, having missed the train I would arrive at my ultimate destination hours late, but because the notion of time had totally absorbed my very being for the duration of the first morning of my weekend holiday. Rewinding further to when I first opened my eyes this morning, my schedule was fixed and everything I would go to do from that moment onward would be dictated by the notion of passing seconds, minutes, hours. It would influence my outlook on other humans, my work and the world around me.

I say work as the question popped into my mind between Nottingham and Birmingham New Street that, could time ultimately destabilise the very foundations on which ecoescape is built? In other words, if trains were unreliable, how could I be promoting this supposed alternative to the fast, angry, aggressive car? Thankfully Honoré's text came to me at just the right moment and my perceptions were tilted as swiftly as they became warped into an irrevocable situation.

It reminded me that ecoescape was born from the Slow movement. The fact that the train was late actually pales in its significance. It's about rejecting "time sickness" and opening up to the moment, the experience and making connections, (even if these aren't timetabled ones).

"In our fast moving modern world, it always seems that the time-train is pulling out of the station just as we reach the platform."

Luckily for me it wasn't entirely the case this morning. But all the same, it's helped start this trip off on a different level, one which coasts time, respects nature's time patterns and slows down.

Interestingly, over the course of the weekend, neither myself or my friends felt the desire to follow any time governed schedule and felt strange when we all had to leave on Monday to return to our fast paced lives. It appears that my watch also felt the need to slow down having lost several hours over the weekend and on Tuesday I woke up to natural daylight (which made me one hour late for work..!).

Saturday, 7 October 2006

does green mean quality or does quality mean green?

Tourism businesses in the UK are urged to improve their quality standards. For accommodation providers this means being awarded accreditation with the AA or national tourist board schemes. VisitBritain has set itself ambitious targets to increase numbers in these schemes and as of this year is only promoting quality accredited accommodation providers.

The new common standards which have been set offer consumers clear guidance on the level of quality they can expect from hotels, B&Bs, self-catering and holiday parks.

It is interesting to find out how the Green Business Tourism Scheme (GBTS) works alongside the quality scheme. The GBTS offers a similar accreditation scheme, but based on green criteria. This can include anything from waste and energy efficiency to biodiversity and social awareness. The awards are extremely tough to gain and are levelled at gold, silver and bronze.

A business, therefore, can have both a quality rating and a green rating.

So it’s never been easier for us consumers to pick out the tourism products most suited to our needs and budgets. However, it would be great to find out from the business perspective how easy it is to align themselves to these schemes. Do they choose green over quality? Or does one naturally lead into the other?

In order to qualify for a green rating, all accommodation providers must first be quality accredited.

I’ll address a comment from an eco-lodge owner who maintains that it is impossible for the lodge to be quality accredited because of limitations in what they could provide in order to be environmentally friendly. In other words, certain items deemed as necessities in the quality schemes are deemed unnecessary by those working with the environment in mind.

The criteria for self-catering properties to become quality accredited by the National Quality Assurance Standards (NQAS) is contained in the document here. Generally speaking, most of the criteria can be applied to a self-catering eco-lodge. However, the challenges occur further up the spectrum with the 4-5 stars. For example, for a 5 star accreditation, it is necessary to provide two items from the following list: tumble drier, telephone, hi – fi, video recorder and DVD player. These facilities would greatly pale a green accommodation.

In the Lincolnshire eco-lodge, there is no colour TV (one of the minimum requirements) or a “cooker with an oven, with at least two shelves, a grill and at least four boiling rings that may be used simultaneously with the oven or grill”. Instead you will find a very antiquated radio with home-made rechargeable batteries and a wood burning stove with capacity to slow cook a delicious meal and heat the entire lodge and water supply simultaneously. Why undo this work by adding a colour TV, hi-fi and tumble dryer? The wind turbine supplying the lodge with its own source of electricity already works hard enough!

One of the comments in the guest book at the lodge read “overall an environment of ‘quality’ which has provided a well valued break from busy lives”. Guests clearly love the experience and find that adapting to its green ways is not that difficult after all and certainly does not detract from the quality of experience. An interesting study would probably prove that consumers’ experience is actually enhanced if they can see that their stay does not harm the environment and helps the local population.

So what defines quality? Understandably it’s about safety, appearance, service and facilities. On all these counts, green businesses do not generally fail. So do they deserve a lower star rating for not providing a colour TV? Having a one star rating may not be good for business and perhaps has put off the more basic accommodation providers from applying. The fact that business owners are prepared to commit to the environment speaks volumes about the level of commitment they will provide to their customers to ensure that their experience is a quality one.

Essentially, could green become integrated into the quality assessment, rather than separating off into another scheme? Why not embed green criteria into the assessment if this can prove that quality is about caring for the environment? Could accommodation providers drop grades for consuming high levels of energy or not installing a recycling system?

Whatever the future for our tourism providers, my aspiration is that sustainable tourism will no longer be an end in itself, but rather a basic driving force behind the tourism industry which values the environment before everything else.

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Green Places to Stay

An exciting new green travel guide has hit the shops. The first Green Places to Stay guide in the inspirational Alastair Sawday series is a whirlwind tour around the globe taking in the greenest accommodations along the way.

Compiled by Guardian writer, Richard Hammond, the guide is both practical and pleasing to the eye. If you're planning next year's getaway, the guide is a must have to help you decide where to stay. Remarkably, the range of accommodation, from tipis to luxury hotels ensures that there is something to suit all types of traveller and budget.

The book is also full of practical advice on recognising green tourism providers and how they are making a difference. Importantly the guide asks all the right questions to ensure that the accommodation featured within has a positive social impact in the communities in which they are located.

You can buy the guide from Amazon or Waterstones (RRP £13.99).

ecoescape is excited to announce that Richard Hammond has agreed to write the foreword to the guide so we look forward to his words of inspiration.

Visit Richard's weblog at www.greentraveller.co.uk.

Monday, 2 October 2006

Future London

If London were a footprint, the heel would be a yellow wild flower meadow with butterflies and birds circling the London eye; the outside edge would be a line of pink chrysanthemums lining the foot of the Gherkin; the blue Thames would flow through the middle winding round wild orchards, veggie patches and contented ducks. The small toe would be a ray of sunshine, the middle toe, a green bin and, the big toe erm… the Olympic rings.

If this is all sounding a little too idyllic, it’s a view of London very much in Ken Livingston’s vision to 2012. This vision is currently on display at London’s ScienceMuseum where visitors can discover how to make small differences to contribute to a greener London. It’s a bold move, and one which is long overdue as pollution levels reach sky high in the UK’s capital. With the Olympics on the horizon, the Mayor of London sees the opportunity to change things and embed sustainability into 2012 developments.

The exhibition itself is characteristic of the present climate change debate. Its colourful, interactive displays present the facts without preaching. It’s an aspirational London which wants to shout out about its green spaces and eco builds, and to encourage people to visit and adopt similar practices.

This green campaign is designed to appeal to the senses. The exhibition surrounds you with colour, sounds, and smells to demonstrate that the environment is present in all we see, do, eat and consume. Therefore the potential for change is great. The ideas are simple and by presenting them in a familiar way, it is easier to see how they could fit into our everyday lives. Having said that, perhaps this audience already visits their local farmers’ market and cycles or takes the bus to work.

Appealing to a wider audience will be key to the climate change message. The Olympics is a good starting point as the audience is so wide and varied. If Ken can show how his London will be both sustainable and ready to become centre stage in 2012, it should be an interesting show.