Interview With Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith: ‘Clean Breaks’

Travel Interviews: Joanna Kakissis talks green travel, greenwashing and experiential journeys with the authors of a new book

09.23.09 | 12:15 PM ET

Writers Jeremy Smith (left) and Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond and Jeremy Smith have long believed that experiential journeys are also the kindest to the natural environment and the local culture. Hammond is the Guardian’s eco-travel writer and the founder of the low-impact travel guide The Green Traveller, while Smith is the former editor of The Ecologist magazine. The two traveled the world for years to search for largely undiscovered locales recommended by their contacts in the eco-travel and green consumer movement. The result is Clean Breaks: 500 New Ways to See the World.

The book is an entrancing collection of unspoiled, culturally rich places that revive an explorer’s spirit, what they call “Clean Breaks”: Cycling the Kingfisher Trail along the lake-lands of Ireland, living with the Masai in Kenya, trekking the steppes of Syria’s Talila Nature Reserve, pioneering with a view of Mount McKinley at Alaska’s Camp Denali, communing with the Amazon River people of Brazil, exploring the Sundarbans mangrove forest in India.

I interviewed Hammond and Smith via email about the making of the book, spotting true ecotourism amid all the greenwashing, and an unexpected place that deeply resonated with one of them. They responded together except when noted.

World Hum: What inspired you to write this book?

Hammond and Smith: We wanted to celebrate the huge variety of amazing experiences that are low impact and genuinely do give something back to destinations. So often the media coverage of travel ethics has concentrated on the negative impacts of tourism, and while it is important to highlight tourism’s ills, we wanted to show how travelers can continue to see the world in a way that minimizes their impact on the environment, and that benefits biodiversity conservation and the economies of local communities. We also wanted to show how easy it can be to go green, and that by choosing carefully how you travel and where you stay, you don’t necessarily have to sacrifice comfort or adventure.

What have been some of the challenges in promoting eco-travel at The Green Traveller?

The biggest challenge is getting across the idea that being a green traveler is about being a greener traveler. I can’t think of many holidays that are really 100 percent green—most hotels and forms of motorized transport have some form of carbon footprint. The challenge is to show how travelers can go on a mainstream holiday, but choose a greener way to go. If the vast majority of holidaymakers make a few small changes to the way they travel to reduce their impact on the environment, what a difference it would make.

Similarly, the way we travel can have significant consequences for local communities. It’s easy to assume our holidays are insignificant compared with the enormity of the global tourism industry, but a single trip can make a big difference to someone’s life ... the mountain guide, the village market trader, the local community group that receives a philanthropic donation from a tour operator. I love the saying, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.”

How can a traveler be environmentally responsible without sacrificing the experience of travel?

Often the most environmentally responsible holidays actually give you the most rewarding travel experiences. Particularly if you travel with the mindset that it’s about enjoying the journey as much as the destination itself. One of our favorite clean breaks is taking the train from London to Morocco, witnessing the Moorish influences on the Spanish landscape and people. Similarly, taking the Trans Mongolian Express from Moscow to Beijing, you get a lasting sense of the vastness of the forested Russian landscape and the barren steppe and desert of Mongolia. You miss all that at 30,000 feet.

But going on a “Clean Break” is not just about minimizing your impact on the environment. Often it is about having as big an impact as possible—but in a positive way—getting under the skin of a destination and learning about a local culture in a way that doesn’t adversely affect it and actually enhances the destination.

We believe traveling this way, responsibly, makes for better experiences and you actually get more for your money. After all, the best person to take you on safari is a local guide whose ancestors have lived on the land with the wildlife for thousands of years. The best person to cook you a meal of local specialties is someone who grows them lovingly in their own fields. The best person to take you to meet remote tribes is someone who is committed to their welfare and the importance of their culture being respected and preserved. It is far more interesting to stay in a hotel run by a local family where the food is locally produced than in tourist enclaves that mirror global sameness.

How did you select the places mentioned in your book?

Hammond: I have been visiting and writing about “Clean Breaks” for over a decade, so many of the places featured in the book are a result of my research during this time. Jeremy and I have also traveled extensively over the last 18 months specifically to research experiences for the book. Though the book covers 500 “Clean Breaks,” we are well aware that there are many more wonderful experiences out there—we’d love to hear any suggestions.

What were some places that really shattered any preconceived ideas you had of them?

Smith: Bangladesh blew me away. It’s one of those countries whose name instantly conjures up associations of tragedy. And while that is undeniably true, those same waters that flood it so terribly mean it is also lush and beautiful. But more importantly, this is a country that, despite a population of 140 million or so, receives only around 10,000 foreign visitors a year. So there’s no tourist trail. I saw no other foreigners while there, was greeted with surprise and delight wherever I went, and when I said goodbye to Mostafa, my guide from Bangladesh Ecotours, I welled up, for no man has ever done more to make me feel so welcome in his country.

How did you check out places and tour outfits for greenwashing? How can travelers know whether places advertising themselves as eco-friendly are legitimate?

The key things we look for are a hotel’s commitment to reducing energy, waste and water. Some owners have incorporated impressive new green technologies (which are becoming increasingly affordable), while others have demonstrated their commitment purely through their own ingenious improvised efforts. We also look for ways that hoteliers encourage guests to be greener—increasingly we’ve come across places that offer discounts if guests arrive by public transport. With regards to tour operators, it is not enough for them to publish a “responsible tourism” policy in their brochure as some kind of generic commitment. We want to know exactly how each trip featured in their brochure makes a difference. It has to be spelled out—in our experience, the more generic the descriptions of how they “do the right thing,” the more likely the trip will pay only lip service to genuinely responsible travel.

It is obviously difficult for travelers to tell the green from the greenwash, but you can get a sense of a hotelier’s commitment to green issues if you read their sustainable tourism policy. Check to see if it feels like they are speaking from the heart or just ticking the right boxes. Often the most genuinely green hoteliers go the extra mile because it is part of the way they live themselves, growing their own food, working closely with the local community, offering their own personalized tours to share with you the countryside/wildlife/heritage that they love. One of the best indicators that a place is the genuine article is whether it has been awarded a respected eco label. If it has, then you know that a qualified inspector has certified that the business is a worthy contender for a kitemark. Examples include Nature’s Best (Sweden), Green Tourism Business Scheme (UK), Certificate in Sustainable Tourism (Costa Rica) and EU Flower (Europe).

Flying is often the best option for long-distance travel. Should eco-travelers advocate for cleaner jet fuel? Should they go for slow travel options?

If you are the sort of person who campaigns then yes, advocate for cleaner jet fuel. And demand its taxation in line with fuel for other means of transport. But most of all, we need to reduce as much as possible the amount we fly. As we said previously, we need to start seeing the journey as part of the experience and seeking pleasure in that, and learn to look with the same eyes that make us look far for our adventures when we are nearer home. I’ve just returned from Ireland, where I went sea fishing, foraged for wild food and kayaked across empty lakes—and I traveled there and back by train and ferry in half a day.

Each of your trip selections offers a deep connection to the culture and a true exploration of place. Should true eco-travel also be the kind of responsible tourism that helps the local economy or culture? How would this combination help?

Yes, inevitably as more travelers seek deeper connections with local culture they see how badly managed tourism can have such a detrimental affect on local culture. Yet tourism managed responsibly can have an extremely positive benefit to the destination—on its economy and by safeguarding local culture. At the back of our book we provide a directory of online resources for trip planning, including transport options; linking up with couch surfers, local guides and greeters; and how to find the best local markets and festivals. A Clean Break is a combination of all these progressive ways to see the world. We hope you enjoy the journey!