But mention "China" and "green" in the same breath, and most travelers are likely to look at you like you've been huffing diesel fumes. After all, the media is full of stories about the huge environmental costs of China's breakneck economic growth. Most Westerners are more likely to think of dams, smog and booming megacities than pristine mountain streams, lush jungles and indigenous cultures living in balance with nature. And for many recently affluent Chinese travelers, the emphasis remains on mass tourism with a façade of luxury—if it's not conspicuous, shiny and crowded, it often seems it's not worth doing. But that's all changing, like everything in the world's most dynamic country. And if China has anything in abundance, it's surprises. For many newcomers to China travel, the biggest surprise might be the growth of green travel in the Middle Kingdom. For some, "green travel" may mean trekking in remote regions of Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet; others may prefer to pay a premium to stay in small eco-lodges or boutique hotels; still others may prefer the familiarity and comfort of conventional hotels but with an environmentally aware twist and easy access to nature reserves and parks. Regardless, the goal is a shared one: to protect and preserve the environment while enjoying the best it has to offer. This doesn't just mean saving rare species, either. In this age of global warming and rapid resource depletion, it means understanding how one person can affect the environment and everything in it, from the local to the global level—and accepting responsibility for helping to make things better. With all that in mind, we're debuting a series of green China features with a few tips for earth-friendly travel in China. In the near future, we'll spotlight regions, destinations, resorts and hotels that get high marks for environmental friendliness. We'll continue to do features on the subject, ranging from roughing it to luxury ecotourism, and we invite you to join the ongoing conversation in our new China Travel Environment and Ecology Forum. If you have your own recommendations, stories or photos, let us know. Green Travel in China Carbon-conscious conveyance In this age of global warming, travelers are becoming increasingly aware of their "carbon footprint," which is shorthand for the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses emitted by burning fossil fuels that can be calculated as being your individual share. One popular option is carbon offsetting. An easy-to-use carbon calculator can help you calculate the climate impact of your flights and other travel activities; you can then contribute to an organization dedicated to various emissions-reducing actions, from protecting rain forests and wetlands to planting new trees to developing new low-emissions technologies. You can also calculate carbon offsets for any bus, car or train travel you do. Of course, students and budget travelers may not have the extra money to do so. Regardless, you can choose lower emitting options over higher ones—take a bus or train instead of splurging on a private car; walk or ride a bike instead of hopping in cab; plan your trip carefully in advance to minimize the chance of often costly (and energy-gobbling) last-minute travel changes. As a bonus, you get a much more up-close-and-personal look at China by traveling in slower and more old-fashioned ways, whether in big city Beijing or the laid-back countryside around Guilin or one of Yunnan's top destinations. In addition to carbon offsets, a number of travel businesses are experiencing something of a green awakening, making it easier for concerned consumers to act. For example, Chinese online travel giant Ctrip.com has recently made it possible to use accumulated travel points to help Shanghai Roots & Shoots plant more trees or to support environmental education in China by purchasing a reusable bag from GECKO. Green hotels in China If you're in a big city, the idea of a "green hotel" might seem counterintuitive, but even in the heart of Shanghai or sprawling outskirts of Shenzhen, you'll find accommodations that have gone green to one degree or another. International chains like Novotel, which recently teamed up with environmental certification organization Green Globe, are upgrading their facilities to save energy and reduce waste while maintaining high levels of quality and service, and for many first-time travelers to China, brand familiarity can be important. Novotel Peace Beijing and Novotel Atlantis Shanghai are good bets both for comfort and for you conscience. If an international chain isn't your thing, the green trend meets the boutique hotel in hotels like China's "first carbon-neutral hotel," URBN Hotels (despite the plural, they only have one at present though more are planned across China). In addition to centrally located urban hotels, a number of green alternatives are springing up in China's suburbs.
Sure, purists may raise an eyebrow at the mention of "ecotourism" in connection with developments like the Interlaken Shenzhen, designed to evoke an alpine Swiss village on the outskirts of the booming city in a semi-tropical park-like development, or the gee-whiz futuristic design of a development like the "sustainable" five-star Songjiang Hotel outside of Shanghai (see illustration, slated to open in May 2009). But when it comes to the nurturing of an environmental consciousness in development-happy China, the thought does indeed count for quite a bit: awareness is the first step toward action, and an eco- friendly hotel, even if less crunchy granola (or stinky tofu, for that matter) than status-conscious arugula and latte, raises awareness in both consumers and businesses. There are also an increasing number of green getaways suitable for a long weekend escape from China's urban centers. If you've had enough of Shanghai, try Moganshan area. Guangzhou boasts the Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa in the bamboo forests of Nankunshan to the west of the city. The Beijing region offers unique options like the Beijing Crab Island Green Ecological Resort, which grows its own organic produce and seeks a high degree of sustainability, including the "coexistence of crops and crabs" as well as more mundane eco-goals like use of renewable energy and water reclamation.
Then there's Chengdu with its proximity to the forests and mountains that are home to China's poster animal for ecotourism, the giant panda. Because of the recent Sichuan earthquake, the situation in and around Chengdu will likely remain uncertain for several months—look for Sichuan updates on this site as well as more information on other popular ecotourism destinations throughout China, especially in the south and west, where remote and rugged lands have remained relatively untouched by development.