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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Traveling Green in Wisconsin and Beyond

Discovering the world in an intimate way

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Going “green” is red-hot, and we have many ways to execute the noble mission of being Earthfriendly, sustainable and environmentally smart when traveling. Reusing towels and sheets, turning down the thermostat and recycling are the easiest and most obvious options. Investing in solar or geothermal heat means the owner of an inn or attraction is serious about diminishing carbon footprints at a higher level.


But not everything can be measured in lower thermal units, kilowatt-hours or cubic feet of water. Doing good for the planet also means bridging cultures and supporting independently owned businesses to help indigenous products and traditions survive.

Who wants to put up with the irritations of airline delays and higher fuel costs, just to experience the same chain restaurants and hotels that can be booked close to home? Pretty beachfronts, in too many parts of the world, look alike because of this homogenization.

So that’s what makes Karl Gutknecht’s endeavors refreshing. The Madison owner of Cycle Ventures International (www.culturetouring.com, 608-244-2432) arranges for groups of 14 to 20 to explore fascinating parts of the world in an intimate way. Sometimes groups do this by bicycle.

Bike Tours, Sacred Sites, A Christmas Market
Gutknecht began making global connections a decade ago, while at a trade fair in Berlin. He was working for Wisconsin’s agriculture department and got to know the German people and their modern farm technology.

“I saw the energy and excitement” that resulted from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Gutknecht recalls, and he kept that in mind after becoming executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Gutknecht arranged for newspaper execs to tour Germany, and during one of the meals there he casually asked about a paved path that was located just outside.

It was a bike trail that connected Hamburg and Prague, a distance of about 300 miles. You can guess what happened next. A guided tour for a small group of bicyclists went well, and subsequent specialty trips abroad have been arranged. The trips have been set up for triathletes in training, lovers of wine, rock climbers and seekers of sacred sites.

“Travel agencies don’t have the big numbers that speak to sustainability,” Gutknecht says. “We work with family businesses. The money stays with the vineyard, the family-owned restaurant.” He contends that “people are tired of traveling 12 cities in 12 days and not remembering the difference between one and another.” Bicycling, besides being good for one’s health and the environment, makes it easier for people to fully absorb their surroundings, he says.

Not all of his excursions are far away. “Europe in Your Backyard,” Sept. 21-27, explores southwest Wisconsin, New Glarus to Mineral Point. Local microbrews, farms and farmers’ markets are additional stops. It will be 30 to 50 miles of bicycling per day. Cost, including lodging, starts at $1,645.

Clearly, these are not budget vacations, but they also are not generic travel experiences. Another fitness excursion, to northern Italy, will involve Olympic athlete Suzy Favor Hamilton as a featured tour participant. A cultural and culinary adventure to Croatia, not designed to be physically taxing, involves Joan Gillman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business.

In development are tours to sacred Christian sites in Ireland, Christmas markets in Germany and a to-beannounced theme for Hawaii (just the big island). “Our travel business is about partnerships—with local experts—and sustainability, the investment in regional and local culture abroad,” Gutknecht says. “We create and foster friendships. We aim to leave where we visit better than when we came.”

These tours have become his personal mission, as well as self-employment in early retirement. Gutknecht has also been involved in sustaining Wisconsin’s sister-state relationships, particularly with Chiba, Japan, and Hessen, Germany.


Travel Green Wisconsin, the nonprofit effort that has set standards for green tourism in the state since 2007, has grown to include 141 certified businesses. Ten resorts and 51 other overnight accommodations (primarily bed-and-breakfast inns) are in the mix, but nature areas, restaurants, events, attractions and other entities are also represented.

At the top, with 125 points met on the checklist of standards, is the Artha Sustainable Living Center in Amherst, a sun-powered B&B on 90 acres southeast of Stevens Point. For more about the enterprise, which presents year-round workshops about sustainable living:
www.arthaonline.com, 715-824- 3463.

For more about Travel Green Wisconsin:
www.travelgreenwisconsin.com, 608-267-3686

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