Areas with stunning natural beauty and exotic wildlife are some of the most sought-after places to visit, but that very allure puts them at risk. Thousands of tourists trekking through delicate ecosystems can cause irreparable damage—so how do you enjoy the earth without causing harm? "Responsible travel" may not come naturally, but with a little research and planning you can find ways to satisfy your wanderlust—and even help the planet in the bargain.
How to Make Your Vacation Eco-Friendly Without Breaking the Bank (or Sacrificing Comfort)
Many people hear "ecotourism" and think "expensive." That's not surprising, given that five-star hotels and tour companies have sought to cash in on this booming industry, but it's also a mistaken notion, says ecotourism and adventure travel expert Michael McColl. "There is zero connection between being ethical and your travel budget," he says. "There are truly green five-star hotels, and truly green hostels. Find the ones who walk the talk, who actually make it part of their mission to protect the environment and the community in which they are based."
In addition to choosing green accommodations, here are other tips for how you can become a more responsible traveler no matter how large or small your budget:
Forget the tourist shops filled with mass-produced knickknacks from unknown countries. "Seek out locally-owned, locally-operated businesses - from souvenir shops to hotels," suggests Love. "That way the money is likely to stay in the community." Buying local also promotes Fair Trade practices and supplies artisans and makers with much-needed income.
Eating locally sourced food in community-owned restaurants contributes to the local economy and is usually more environmentally friendly. Plus, you'll probably enjoy a fresher, tastier meal since you'll be eating seasonal ingredients that haven't been shipped from outside the country. Another bonus? Many local restaurants can be a lot cheaper than the international cuisine at five-star resorts.
Ecotourism is a type of travel that "serves the environment and improves the wellbeing of local people," according to The International Ecotourism Society. It's a holistic concept that emphasizes nurturing the natural world and the people who live there. As Green Global Travel co-founder Bret Love puts it, "It's not just about saving nature and wildlife. To be truly responsible, ecotourism needs to focus on providing economic benefits to local communities as well."
It promotes environmental and cultural awareness
Creates positive experiences for everyone involved
Helps local economies grow and thrive
It recognizes and helps preserve the rights and beliefs of indigenous people
There's no better way to get a feel for somewhere than getting to know the people who live there—from their culture to their problems. Many eco-friendly destinations are concentrated in developing nations, where money and certain skills may be sorely lacking. Consider arranging a way to give back to the area you're visiting—it could be by teaching English to local school children or helping build houses in a community. Take stock of what you can do, and reach out to an organization that can connect you.
Whether you want someone to plan your trip from start to finish or just want a guided day trip, Love recommends finding a local company that emphasizes conservation and working with indigenous communities. You'll likely get a more personalized experience that truly reflects local culture and values. "It will cost a little more, but I'd rather pay a little more money and get an experience I will never forget," he says.
When shopping for a tour, ask lots of questions: Is the guide from the area? What sustainability initiatives does the tour company support? Do they hire local people and give them appropriate authority? "Every organization claiming to be responsible should be eager to tell you what they are doing to promote sustainability," says Love. If they aren't, that's a red flag.
You've read the notices in the hotels: limit your time in the shower, re-use your sheets and towels, turn the lights off when you leave the room and resist the urge to heat or cool the room excessively. But there's still more you can do with little extended effort. Green Global Travel suggests you never use the hotel laundry service because they typically clean your clothes separately even if there are only a few items, which can be a big waste of water. Plastic is also a pernicious problem. Each year more than 480 billion plastic bottles of water are sold, and the vast majority end up in landfills—or worse, floating in the oceans or littering pristine landscapes. It's true, you can't drink tap water in many areas of the world, but for about $50 you can purchase a small Steri-pen that will sterilize your water in under a minute. If you don't have a Steri-pen, you can use iodine tablets or boil your water. In addition, many tourist sites, restaurants and cafes offer jugs of potable water where you can refill your bottle.
Think about traveling to a developing country in the same way you think about camping—if it goes in, it comes out. Don't throw away broken cameras, used batteries or ripped clothing on your trip. Many developing countries don't have the proper facilities to recycle these items so they'll likely end up in the local landfill. Better to bring them home and recycle them in your community.
When exploring a new land, it pays to do a little prep work. Reading up on its history, culture, customs and dress codes beforehand will enhance your experience and help you avoid inadvertently offending the locals. While you're at it, learn a few words in the local language. An immersion course is ideal, but if that's not an option, even a simple phrasebook can go a long way in bridging cultural divides by helping you communicate with locals at the market, restaurant or hotel. Above all, keep an open mind and remember you're not there to replicate your life at home. "Be open to new things," suggests Love. "A lot of times it will lead to interesting surprises."
Air travel is one of the biggest contributors of carbon emissions. Here are some ideas for downsizing your carbon footprint without cutting out international travel altogether:
Take direct flights whenever possible: takeoffs and landings are the big fuel-users, according to the Nature Conservancy.
Take fewer trips for longer periods of time. "Spend a month or more in Thailand or Costa Rica, in one trip, rather than doing several shorter trips," suggests McColl.
Pay it back: if you want to offset your carbon emissions by
supporting renewable energy projects or planting trees, you can
do so at sites like CarbonFund.org or Terrapass.
Take public transportation like busses or trains instead of taxis and rental cars. In addition to helping the environment, you will get a better sense of the local scene and save money to boot. Better yet, walk or rent a bike or take a canoe ride to explore the area with zero emissions.
What Not to Do
When in a foreign country, it's natural to want to see or do things you never see or do at home. But sometimes that "authentic" experience conflicts with being a responsible traveler. The only interactions you should have with wild animals are those that are freely initiated by the animal, says McColl. "If your tour operator is chasing and frightening animals so you can pet them, you are on the wrong tour."
Instead, observe wildlife without trying to manipulate their behavior and become a pro with the zoom lens on your camera to capture faraway events. It's understandable to want to get closer, says Love, but it may disturb the animals and possibly put the human observers in danger too. "People do these things out of love for wildlife, not bad intention, but a lack of forethought has consequences."
Here are some common activities that responsible travelers should avoid:
Swimming with dolphins
It may be obvious why capturing dolphins and making them perform for tourists in a resort is not humane or sustainable, but even wild swim-with-a-dolphin programs like the ones offered in destinations such as Hawaii have been found to cause harm to the dolphins, according to Ethical Traveler. Instead, try a dolphin-watching tour with a company that shows respect by not disturbing or scaring the mammals and other ocean life.
A popular activity in Asia (especially Thailand), elephant treks often involve the capture, mistreatment and confinement of these majestic animals, as well as hamper efforts to conserve their dwindling populations and habitats. There are, however, some sanctuaries that truly have elephants' best interests in mind. Before paying admission, do your research to find out what the sanctuary does to protect these animals, what they do with your money and how they interact and care for them on a daily basis.
Damaging natural or historic sites
Climbing on ancient ruins or trampling on fragile ecosystems destroys these historic and environmental treasures—sometimes at a frightening pace. And because there's no quick or easy way to fix what's broken, it's vital to treat these sites like the valuable resources they are. "There's not another Great Barrier Reef," says Love. "There's only one in the world and if we screw it up, it's gone."
How to Find Eco-Friendly Lodging
Where you stay on your vacation will have a big impact on the footprint you leave. Buildings that have been certified by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) may be the gold standard in the United States, but it's not widely available in developing countries, and if you find that certification overseas you will usually pay a premium. There are other options, however. "The ecotourism world still lacks a universal program for green hotels," says McColl. "But the GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) is doing great work 'certifying the certifiers.' If your travel provider claims an eco-certification, go to that certifier's website, and see who certifies them." Also, check to see if your destination country has a sustainable lodging certification program.
Here are some key things to look for in eco-friendly lodging:
Many green hotels generate their own electricity with wind, solar or geothermal energy. That's ideal, but also ask about the smaller measures they take to ensure maximum energy efficiency, such as energy-efficient light bulbs.Does it limit water use?
In addition to limiting how often sheets and towels are washed, look for accommodations that use low-flow toilets and water-flow restrictors in showers and sinks. Are the grounds planted with native plants that require little irrigation?Does it recycle?
Most green hotels recycle and should offer recycling receptacles in both individual rooms and public areas to make it easy for their guests to separate recycling from trash.Does it act locally?
Hotels that hire locals as staff and serve locally sourced food and drinks contribute to sustainability by keeping resources in the community and minimizing the need to use fuel to transport goods over long distances.
Finding an Ethical Destination
When seeking a vacation destination, The Ethical Traveler recommends you consider the country's commitment to environmental protection, human rights and social and animal welfare. By spending your tourist dollars in countries that are actively working to improve the environment and the quality of life for its people, you will support these efforts and encourage other countries to do the same. "Travelers are 'voters' every time they make a travel purchase," says McColl. "And the more each of us ask every time about sustainability practices, the more tourism businesses will offer us sustainable travel to purchase." With that in mind, here are some top destinations for ethical travelers, in no particular order.
For an African safari, nothing beats a trip to Botswana. More than 25 percent of the country is set aside for parks and reserves. The country has some of the most varied wildlife and landscapes on the continent and enforces a ban on trophy hunting. The Ethical Traveler calls Botswana the most uncorrupt country in Africa and lauds its commitment to HIV prevention, but notes that there are still problems with mining and the treatment of indigenous people. In addition, more tourists are killed by wild animals in Botswana than any other country in southern Africa, according to the Baltimore Sun, so follow your tour guide's advice to the letter - including the tip to keep the car windows closed in lion country.
West Africa's 10-island archipelago offers unspoiled beaches, challenging hikes among peaks and valleys and a world-renowned scene for music and culture. It also provides crucial habitat for the endangered loggerhead turtle. The country is working toward a laudable goal of getting 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. In addition, it receives high scores in civil and human rights measurements and has made great strides in promoting gender equality.
An early adopter of ecotourism, Costa Rica has been a trailblazer in the industry for decades, helped significantly by being the most stable democracy in the region. Between its volcanoes, rainforest, pristine beaches and bustling capital city of San Jose, the country offers something for everyone. Almost a quarter of its territory is protected land, helping to maintain some of the greatest biodiversity in the world, and the country has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2021.
The Pacific island of Palau has long been hailed as a top diving destination: Its waters are home to over 500 species of coral and 1,400 types of fish. But its beauty extends to its pristine beaches and dense jungles as well. The country's Marine Protection Act has preserved the island's coral and marine population and banned fishing in vast areas of waters along the coastline. Socially, Palau has a matrilineal society, with very low levels of domestic violence and child abuse. Unemployment is also low.
Another Pacific Island nation earning high marks for sustainable tourism is Samoa. The country has developed a plan to use 100 percent sustainable energy by 2017, and has installed solar farms to help reach it. Many tourists come to enjoy the beaches, marine life and coral reefs, but the island's inland rainforests and mountains are also draws. Overall, citizens enjoy strong civil and political rights, but Ethical Traveler notes that the country still has work to do to better protect the rights of women and children, as well as vulnerable populations such as the disabled and prisoners.
Iceland is an increasingly popular destination for ethical travelers seeking a northern adventure. Nearly all of the country's electrical energy comes from renewable sources like geothermal and hydro. In fact, the capital of Reykjavik has giant geothermal pipes running underneath it, which not only funnel heating energy across the city, but also melt ice and snow on the main roads so locals never have to go out and shovel snow (genius!). In addition, the government is dedicated to promoting sustainable development through numerous national and international commitments.
When You're Back Home
Ecotourism doesn't have to end once you're back home. After your travels, consider how to build on your recent experiences to foster the growth of responsible tourism. "Ask yourself, 'What steps can I take today to make the world a better place?'" says Love. "Planting trees, putting in rainwater catchments, installing solar panels, composting, not using plastic bags, taking a reusable water bottle wherever we go. There are a million little things we can do."
Here are some additional ideas:
- Donate to a program or project in a community you visited
- Thank your guides or hosts and send any gifts or supplies you promised to the groups
- Share your positive experiences with friends and family, and write online reviews of the eco-friendly lodgings, restaurants and tours you enjoyed to spread the word about their good work
- Live your life at home the way you did during your travels - respect nature and wildlife, take public transportation and support local producers and businesses in your community
Want to Do More?
Ecotourism isn't a one-time thing - it's an approach to travel that applies no matter where you choose to visit. Below are some further resources to get ideas for destinations as well as more information on responsible travel.
Search among thousands of environmentally friendly hotels, tree houses, bed & breakfasts and other types of accommodations on this European website dedicated to promoting responsible tourism with a low carbon footprint.
Based in Berkeley, Calif., this nonprofit seeks to use the economic clout of tourism to protect human rights and the environment. In addition to producing its annual Ethical Destinations Awards, Ethical Traveler offers tours and lots of articles about ethical travel and destinations on its website.
Husband-and-wife team Bret Love and Mary Gabbett have made a life of traveling the world. Their website provides a forum for stories from their journeys and advice on how to be a responsible traveler.
The GSTC establishes standards for global sustainability, with the aim of increasing sustainable tourism. Its membership includes UN agencies, travel companies, hotels, country tourism boards, tour operators, individuals and communities.
This tour company offers a wide range of trips around the globe, at varying price points. It is committed to hiring local people in order to create authentic experiences, and a nonprofit arm of the company funds projects in many of its destinations.
This global nonprofit organization does more than publish a magazine and digital media. Through various channels, including research and conservation projects, it works to share and protect our planet. Through a joint venture with 21st Century Fox, the organization also reinvests 27 percent of its proceeds to the National Geographic Society's conservation and education efforts. Its website features tantalizing global stories, riveting images and information on all regions of the world.
Founded in 2002, this nonprofit brings together governments, companies, NGOs and local communities to promote sustainable tourism. It works with hotels, airlines, cruise lines and governments to plan responsible growth.
TIES has been a pioneer in the development of ecotourism for over 25 years. The global network provides information on standards, training and education to interested parties.
For more than 50 years, the WWF has worked with foundations, governments, businesses and communities to protect animals and natural resources, and promote conservation around the world. The organization's site has information about environmental threats and what's being done to mitigate them, and what individuals can do to join the cause.