State’s ecotourism being put on display

Bruce Hiland, of the Village of LaBelle, scuba dives with The Villages Scuba Club at Alexander Springs.

Tourism and the environment are two of Florida’s most defining elements. This month, the two were brought closer together when Gov. Ron DeSantis and Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism marketer, launched resources on eco-friendly travel in Florida. The move at the state level follows other travel industry efforts to reduce negative impacts on the environment, such as hotels abandoning single-use toiletries and cruise lines designing their ships to run on a cleaner fuel.

How greener travel impacts Florida

The eco-friendly travel tips, which are on Visit Florida’s website, are part of a goal to promote environmentally sound transportation and travel, as well as outdoor destinations that build on Florida’s commitment to protecting natural resources. The effort will put Florida’s environment on display, and allow millions of visitors to take advantage of Florida’s sustainable travel options, DeSantis said in a statement.

More people visiting from out of state want to do their part to keep the places they visit clean, said Angélica Almeyda Zambrano, assistant professor with University of Florida’s Department of Tourism, Hospitality & Event Management.

She notices it in travelers inquiring about where to rent low-emission or no-emission vehicles and where to find a green lodging hotel.

Such questions inspired Visit Florida’s online resource on eco-friendly tourism, which includes tips such as:

Travelers getting around via a rental car should consider hybrids that use both a gas engine and electric motor.

Book a hotel under the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Florida Green Lodging Program, which recognizes hotels for adhering to environmentally friendly operations such as energy efficiency and water conservation. As of August 2019, 369 hotels were recognized as Green Lodging properties. Nine are in the Tri-County, including Comfort Inn and Suites Wildwood-The Villages just outside The Villages.

Volunteer on vacation. Animal sanctuaries and refuges are among the places that offer “voluntourism” experiences where out-of-state visitors assist in their causes.

The new resource from Visit Florida also highlights the state’s ecotourism venues. Doing this gives greater attention to destinations that might otherwise go unnoticed, Zambrano said.

“Outdoor tourism and ecotourism are fast-growing segments worldwide and the state should be part of this growth,” she said.

For example, when Madeline Helbock and fellow members of The Villages Scuba Club go diving, they pick up any ocean trash or fishing lines they encounter. In their travels, they also support nonprofit groups involved in restoring coral reef habitats.

In fact, some of Florida’s most visible destinations are its 175 state parks.

Combined, Florida’s state parks attracted 28.1 million visitors in the 2017-18 fiscal year, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees state parks.

The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort, the world’s most visited theme park, according to the Themed Entertainment Association, drew 20.8 million visitors in 2018.

What travelers may expect

No matter how people travel, they’re still likely to encounter the tourism and transportation industries’ efforts to keep things green.

Air travel is notorious for a high amount of carbon dioxide emissions. Some airlines are taking action to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels.

At least two U.S. airlines — United Airlines and JetBlue Airways — committed to using renewable fuels, known as biofuels, to power their jets.

Biofuel is better for the environment than gasoline or diesel because it’s made from organic and renewable materials, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Materials used to create biofuel include wood, landfill garbage and vegetable oils.

Cruise lines also are working to wean themselves off fossil fuels, but with liquefied natural gas, which is cleaner than oil-based fuels, to reduce emissions.

The upcoming XL class of ships from Carnival Cruise Line and Icon class of ships from Royal Caribbean will use liquefied natural gas for fuel. The first XL class ship, the Carnival Mardi Gras, is scheduled to debut in 2020. The first Icon class ship is expected in 2022.

Carnival already has a natural gas-fueled ship on the ocean, the AIDAnova under its AIDA Cruises brand. The ship, which debuted last year, offers European cruises.

On land, the hotel chain IHG announced it would phase out single-use bottles of toiletries, including shampoo, conditioner and body wash, in its more than 5,400 hotels worldwide by 2021. Rooms instead will feature bulk-sized toiletries.

The announcement came less than a year after the hotel chain, which operates brands such as Holiday Inn, announced it would stop offering single-use plastic straws.

And while Visit Florida’s new resource doesn’t mention theme parks, in February Disney World launched a 270-acre, 50-megawatt solar farm composed of about half a million solar panels — which, from an aerial view, resemble Mickey Mouse’s head.

The solar farm can generate enough energy to power two of Disney World’s four theme parks, and is part of an effort to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2020.

All of these efforts are different, but, as a whole, steps to reduce the adverse environmental effects of travel and tourism have accelerated in recent years.

It’s a trend Zambrano attributed to greater public awareness — not only locally, but also on a global scale — on how the effects travel may have on air pollution, plastic pollution and the plight of coral reefs.

“To a large extent, tourism in Florida depends on its natural resources. Beautiful beaches, amazing springs, breathtaking coral reefs are all the state’s natural capital,” she said. “The better we care for our natural capital, the longer we will be able to enjoy it.”

Helbock, of the Village of Polo Ridge, thinks greener tourism in Florida allows people to get to know the state’s natural resources, and makes them care more for them.

“A lot of people are getting more and more aware of what our oceans and lakes and rivers have to offer us,” she said. “They don’t want to see it messed up.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.