Around the world eco-tourism is an increasingly popular niche market in the travel industry. A well-heeled traveler can limit their carbon footprint while seeking out unique experiences in some of the world’s most exotic and remote locations. Alaska has no shortage of such places and so one volunteer organization has made it their mission to promote businesses that honor and sustain the state’s most beautiful resource.
Sarah Leonard is the board president for Adventure Green Alaska, the state’s first certification program for ecotourism. Back in 2006 the program was the brainchild of a few idealistic conservation and tourism professionals.
"Some of us in the tourism industry met at the Snow Goose in Anchorage over a bar napkin and started to talk about a certification program."
Adventure Green Alaska eventually certified its first nine businesses in 2009. It’s the kind of program you can find in places like Australia, Costa Rica, Morocco and Wisconsin. Yes, Wisconsin. Leonard says that unlike many other countries, there isn’t a national certification program for the United States and that the Badger State and Alaska have the only state-based certification programs in the union.
The program offers three levels– bronze, silver and gold– and is important for the same reasons some people want to know if their food is really organic or kosher. Ecologically-minded travelers often pay a premium for an excursion that is less about spa treatments and golf courses and more about dry cabins and foraging for dinner. Brigid Dodge owns Kodiak Treks with her husband Harry. Not long after their business was first certified, Dodge joined Adventure Green Alaska’s board of directors. After two years, Kodiak Treks recently had its gold-level certification renewed.
"We’re trying not to change the face of the environment. We’re trying to gauge the needs of the environment and minimize impact and establish a program around what we think the area where we operate can handle rather than designing the lodge we want based on comfort or what we can get top dollar for. We’re trying to do with less."
The program is open to any business. There is a lengthy application and a fee that is determined by the number of full-time employees the business has. The level at which a business is certified is determined by how many points they earn on their application, which reads more like a final exam. There are mostly yes-or-no questions like, "Do you encourage your customers to purchase local products and services?" and "Does your business handle food and garbage in a manner that prevents the accidental feeding of wildlife or other environmental impacts?" And there is section for extra credit where businesses can share how they’ve been innovative in their quest to total sustainability.
Their roster of certified businesses is mostly made up of small, family-run operations, but then there’s Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks. The property has a 180-room hotel, 28 cabins, two restaurants, and a boat launch. Leonard says their gold-level certification is due in part to their installation of a hydroponic growing system for vegetables, low-energy practices, and experimentation with solar power.
"Even though there are bigger operations, sometimes those operations if they even make a slight change to their operation they can make an even bigger impact because they have more volume."
For a smaller business, like Kodiak Treks, Dodge says the certification provides an opportunity to learn what sustainability means in different parts of the world.
"I think it also gives us talking points with our clients. We have a lot of conversations over dinner, around the campfire, while traveling about why are they willing to pay this amount of money to come to Kodiak to see bears and what’s great about that and what are some concerns about that that the world is becoming more interested in that. We’re sort right up there now with destinations like the Galapagos Islands and Africa and India and Antarctica. The majority of our clients also travel to places like this."
Adventure Green Alaska’s concern with sustainable practices extends to the bottom line as well. In the business world green doesn’t mean all-natural. It means cash. Leonard says the organization plans to offer marketing as part of their program in the future.