Picture yourself ziplining down waterfalls, hiking through a rainforest or indulging in a spa treatment in the treetops of some exotic island.
The world is a big, beautiful place with many interesting things to take in, but did you know that traveling to and interacting with a destination can leave it worse off than you found it? Without trying, traveling leaves a footprint: air travel burns carbon fuel, a natural environment may have been displaced to build accommodations, and we tend to consume a lot of resources when we visit somewhere — water, food, electricity — not to mention leaving behind trash and polluted water.
We don’t mean to sound super down on jet-setting: traveling is essential to understanding the world and exposing oneself to other cultures, customs and natural spaces. We applaud—and recommend—taking steps to expand your worldview. But! There’s a way to do it intelligently where you and the planet benefit from your journeys.
Enter ecotourism. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
According to the World Conservation Union, ecotourism is “environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socioeconomic involvement of local peoples.”
Ecotourism focuses on sustainability in the short- and long-term, endeavoring to keep a destination livable for tourists and for the people and animals who call it home. Being a responsible traveler involves some research and awareness, but we think committing to a trip where you and the planet get a little something good is worth the effort. Get ready to explore some seriously unique places while keeping your footprint light.
What is ecotourism all about?
Ecotourism is about leaving a positive impact on the places you visit. It is meant to minimize the impact of travelers in a natural space. It’s intended to support the conservation of natural resources and wildlife, meaning visitors are aware of what they consume, what they leave behind and how their activities affect the local plants, animals and surrounding environments. Ecotourism requires being sensitive to the local culture, including the economy, and managing the influx of visitors to avoid destroying the local economy or making it too dependent on tourism dollars.
There is a balance to be struck when managing tourist traffic to ensure adequate funds are making their way to a locale, while not overrunning it with more people than the resources, natural habitat and infrastructure can handle. Ecotourism works to find this balance; in addition, many ecotourism adventures include a service component aimed at giving back to the place one visits.
Ecotourism is growing in popularity all over the world, from places like Costa Rica, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Kenya, the Galapagos Islands, The Amazon and Antarctica. The world really is your (big, green) oyster.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to exploring the world the ecotourism way. The earth is generally not offended when you sail, swim, spelunk, scuba dive, kayak or hike. Just pay attention to how you’re getting to your activity’s location and what you’re leaving behind (hint: leave nothing). Visiting local craftspeople, small businesses, markets or farms can also bring some good to the area, especially if they are also focused on conservation.
How you can plan an ecotourism trip?
There are a few things to keep in mind when planning an ecotourism trip. A little reading and some good lists can help you to make a difference in the lives of the people and places you encounter.
1. Do your research
Read up on the destinations you intend to visit and see what your options are. Many hotels, tourist attractions and travel companies have an ecotourism accreditation. The EPA has a good listing of certifications to consult when considering a hotel or travel option, and you can search for hotels approved by LEED-centric programs, such as Green Key, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the U.S. Green Building Council.
Look for options that support local communities and support the environment. You can even make a few calls to see what their sustainability practices are like (how does the hotel handle laundry? do they offer a recycling program?) and to see who they employ (how much of the business is staffed by locals?). Know that ‘eco’ is often used as a catchy term to entice people to buy, so really look into a business if you’re considering booking travel or accommodations with them to know you’re getting the most for your money — and actually being a conscientious ecotourist.
2. Consider how you’ll get around
A long trip with many short flights between cities will leave a much bigger carbon footprint than a trip where you go between places by bike, on foot or by train. Think about your traffic on the ground once you get to your destination and try to reduce car and air travel. When taking public transportation, aim for options that fit lots of people in one vessel (including the hotel’s shuttle, if applicable).
3. Don’t discount cities
A destination doesn’t have to be a jungle to be ecotourism-friendly. Many cities have robust programs in place to make preserving the environment a priority. Good signs that a city will be a green place to visit include user-friendly public transportation (bonus points if it runs on hydroelectricity), parks and green spaces, bike lanes, farmers markets and an emphasis on eating locally.
4. Look for a service trip
Spend part of your trip giving back and the benefits piece is built right in. Look for service trips aimed at planting trees, assisting with shoreline clean up, working with animals or erecting shelters. A particularly impactful way to volunteer is to help out with a renewable energy project — like wind, water and solar. It might not be all massages and margaritas, but you’ll get a good workout and feel great that you’re giving your time and skills to a new place.
How to be an effective ecotourist
Here’s the thing: many of the things we should already be doing at home are helpful tricks to lighten your impact on the place you visit. Turn off the lights when you’re not in the hotel room. Same goes for the AC — or just skip it altogether. Bring a refillable water bottle, reusable utensils and cloth shopping bags. Recycle paper, plastic and glass. Bring your own toiletries in refillable containers, rather than using the ones the hotel offers. At a minimum, don’t leave behind anything that wasn’t there before you were.
Ecotourism is about more than finding interesting natural spaces and marveling at them. By being aware of the places you’re visiting — environmentally, culturally, socially and economically — and making choices to support their long-term sustainability, you contribute more than you would by just showing up and spending money on hotels and souvenirs. Think about the environmental and social issues that mean the most to you and put your travel money to work. You’ll have an incredible experience and help to support the planet at the same time.