By Kate Elizabeth Queram
Published: Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 5:59 p.m.
North Carolina is one of 38 states aiming to lure a growing segment of travelers searching for eco-friendly vacation options, experts said Tuesday during a panel discussion at the Sustainable Energy Conference in Raleigh.
“From the mountains to the sea, tourism is a growing facet of the economy,” said Alex Naar, director of sustainable tourism outreach with the Center for Sustainable Tourism at East Carolina University. “If you don’t take care of the state’s natural assets, you can quickly destroy the very thing that people are coming to see. Sustainability is a key part of tourism.”
In recent years, the environmentally savvy sector of that economy has been largely driven by the tourists themselves. Forty-seven percent of travelers will take eco-friendly factors into consideration when booking vacation plans, according to a 2011 study by TripAdvisor.com.
But locating those businesses – restaurants that serve only local produce, for example, or hotels that use green plumbing systems – can be difficult, as there’s typically no comprehensive database or ranking system that lists them. NC GreenTravel, a program operated by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, aims to change that.
The program, launched in 2011, is voluntary and free for hotels, restaurants and attractions throughout North Carolina. To apply, business owners fill out a checklist survey detailing the green practices they’re currently employing. That paperwork is submitted to a review committee, which assigns the business an eco-friendly rating and lists it on the website.
Roughly 18 months after launching, the website lists 56 businesses, ranging from museums and state parks to hotels and restaurants. None of those attractions are located in Pender, Brunswick or New Hanover counties. The establishment closest to Wilmington is a coffee shop in downtown Jacksonville.
“Consumers are consulting our website for places that are aware of green travel,” said Tom Rhodes, manager of NC GreenTravel. “It basically amounts to free advertising. It’s a no-brainer. If businesses don’t take advantage, they are absolutely missing out.”
There are hundreds of green businesses throughout the state, most of which haven’t registered with the program. Rhodes said that some simply aren’t aware of the opportunity, while others may think the process is more daunting or complicated than it is.
“Typically, they either don’t know about the program or are too busy to apply. That’s kind of the nature of the tourism industry – it’s go-go-go all the time,” he said. “But there are a lot of green businesses in North Carolina and in the Wilmington area.”
And touting their environmentally friendly practices can be a lucrative strategy for businesses, according to Deanna Crossman, co-owner of the King’s Daughters Inn in Durham.
Crossman and her husband Colin restored the hotel in 2009, outfitting the property with a host of green technologies – among them, a rain garden, a 10,000-gallon rainwater cistern and fixtures approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Information about each of those initiatives is available on the hotel’s website, which is listed in the GreenTravel database.
“As a consequence, we outperform the Triangle hotel market in terms of occupancy 11 months out of the year,” she said. “Guests say, ‘I love what you’re doing because you’re green. I picked you because you’re green.’”
The technologies, she added, are extremely cost-efficient.
“The ‘green premium’ was about $100,000, and it increased our construction costs by about 5 percent,” she said. “Now, after four years, we’re saving $1,800 on utilities each month, and it’s all paid back.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram: 343-2217