Tourism, one of the world’s largest industries, is on the rise. According to the U.S. Travel Association, domestic and international travelers spent $758.7 billion in the U.S. in 2010, an increase of 7.7% over 2009. Sustainable travel, a term that has become increasingly popular in both conservation and travel circles, is one of tourism’s fastest growing segments.
The U.S. Travel Association’s TravelGreen.org defines sustainable travel as travel that “focuses on reducing the environmental impact of travel and preserving cultural heritage. It generates income and employment for travel destinations while protecting local ecosystems and preserving local culture. Sustainable travel encompasses a holistic approach to the business of travel that creates value for the traveler, economic opportunity for local communities and business opportunities for the industry.”
Environmentally sustainability is nothing new in Howard County. In fact, Howard County’s Office of Environmental Sustainability is the oldest of its kind in Maryland counties. Its mission is to “protect and enhance natural resources and the quality of life in the community through conservation, preservation, and restoration of land, air, and water, guided by the principles of science, ingenuity, sustainability, and stewardship.”
The office has assisted in making Howard County a leader when it comes to protecting and enhancing the environment, saving money, and preserving heritage and culture.
In 2011, Howard County Government was recognized as one of the Best Workplaces for Commuters by the National Center for Transit Research for its commuter- and environmentally-friendly policies, including the rideshare program, Howard Commuter Solutions, as well as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building modifications made to the Howard County Government campus in Ellicott City.
Those seeking recreation and leisure also can appreciate environmentally friendly practices when it comes to transportation. Howard County encourages and embraces walking and cycling with miles of designated pedestrian pathways, cycling lanes and hiking trails.
Howard County’s Department of Recreation & Parks, in partnership with The James and Anne Robinson Foundation, will open the James H. and Anne E. Robinson Nature Center in Columbia this month. According to the foundation, the 23,000-square-foot state-of-the-art center, situated on 18 acres adjacent to the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, will demonstrate the latest in sustainable design ideas, craftsmanship and materials including geothermal heating, green roofing and even recycled wood from the Robinsons’ own barn.
A major goal of the design team is for the center to qualify for a Platinum LEED Certification, the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Inside, visitors will enjoy interactive exhibits on local habitats, wildlife and the Chesapeake Bay; a children’s discovery room; and a digital, domed nature theater. Outside, visitors soon will be able to explore interpreted trails leading to the Middle Patuxent River and historic Simpsonville Mill.
Numerous other sustainable offerings abound, such as the already established Howard County Conservancy nonprofit environmental education center and land trust in Woodstock. Founded by a group of citizens in 1990 with the goals to “preserve the natural environment, agricultural farmland and unique historic sites in Howard County,” the 300-year-old, 232-acre Mt. Pleasant Farm & Conservancy offers dozens of year-round educational programs for adults and children, hosts special events, provides numerous volunteer opportunities and educates visitors about land conservation.
Those visiting from afar can rest easy. Turf Valley, a resort hotel and golf club in Ellicott City, and The Sheraton Columbia Town Center Hotel are among Maryland Green Travel‘s first Lodging Partners. Such accreditation recognizes tourism-related businesses that are committed to reducing their environmental impact.
Partners undergo an application process that indicates whether they are practicing certain basic environmental activities. Applicants are encouraged to go above and beyond the minimum requirements. They also must agree to steadily improve their environmental performance and to report on their progress annually.
In addition to more than 25,000 acres of parks, bodies of water and open spaces, Howard County is home to 335 farms spanning more than 29,000 acres of land, many of which are under Howard County’s Agricultural Land Preservation Program (ALPP). Area farms help sustain the community’s environment, health and economy by providing locally produced foods and goods. Residents and visitors alike can reap the benefits through interactive experiences at farms, nature centers, a county fair, restaurants and more.
From spring to fall, locally produced fruits and vegetables, meats, poultry, dairy products and more are readily available at roadside stands, farmers’ markets, farms and some stores. While the majority of farms are open from spring to late fall, some remain open in winter months. Offerings include country stores, pick-your-own, play areas, picnicking, birthday parties and social events, educational programs, summer camps, petting farms, amusements, pumpkins, campfires, holiday marts and cut-your-own Christmas trees.
Every summer also brings ample opportunity to literally taste local flavor through dishes created with local ingredients at area restaurants during Howard County’s Farm-2-Table Restaurant Weeks. Diners can appreciate the goodness of fresh fare while knowing their dining out is also supporting the local economy and reducing ozone emissions, since locally produced products spend far less time in processing and transit.
A full listing of farms and their offerings is available through the Howard County’s Economic Development Authority’s Agricultural Department.
Amanda Hof is events & projects manager for Howard County Tourism & Promotion. She can be reached at email@example.com.