Ecotourism has gained visibility in the past decade as many popular destinations like Venice and Australia are suffering the devastating impacts of climate change. From flooding to the destruction of habitat, the effects of global warming have accelerated and threaten even the most remote corners of the globe. Previously reserved for endangered environments, ecotourism is poised to go mainstream as the climate crisis grows more critical.
Environmentally conscious travelers are aware that every trip abroad should be taken with an eco-friendly approach in mind. But for the rest of us who are just catching up, sustainable travel practices can be intimidating and unfamiliar. Is environmentally responsible travel even possible? And do we prevent the wonders of the world from being enjoyed by future generations simply by visiting them?
Those are hard questions to answer and like the climate crisis, there are no easy answers. There are ways, however, we can mitigate the impact of our wanderlust. Our ecotourism guide breaks down the biggest contributors to climate change, what you can do to offset those impacts when you travel, and simple things to incorporate into your travel routine that’ll make a big difference to the size of the tourism footprint you leave behind.
Tourism’s footprint: A culprit of climate change
Travel has increased by 30% since 2007, a rise many experts think is due to changing societal values. Millennials and younger generations are less likely to spend money on things in the retail sector, including clothing, furniture, and even automobiles. They prefer to invest in experiences. Raised in the spotlight of social media, younger generations are more likely to value the Instagram-worthy vacation shots of bagging that coveted peak versus the stainless steel face of the latest kitchen appliance.
These changing spending habits have driven unprecedented levels of growth in travel and tourism at a time when the planet was already facing fallout from rising temperatures and changing ecosystems. And while travel brings a new appreciation and reverence for this place we all call home, it can also ironically accelerate our planet’s devastation.
Travel has four main areas of influence on the climate crisis and mitigating those impacts is essential to slow the progression of global warming and the destruction of habitat.
1: Emissions are the crux of the problem
Climate change activist Greta Thunberg recently sailed to a UN climate conference in New York to draw attention to a singular issue—the impact of plane travel on the climate crisis. Flying one-way across the Atlantic Ocean from New York City to London emits one ton of carbon dioxide per passenger. Now consider that there are more than 2500 of these kinds of flights every day crisscrossing the globe and you’ll get some idea of the magnitude of the concern. The Swedish have a term for the shame of plane travel, flygskam (fleeg-skahm), that for obvious reasons is really beginning to take off globally.
Solving the problem of travel-related emissions is tricky, but practicing a few of the following can reduce your contributions to tourism’s huge carbon footprint.
- Stay grounded. This one is pretty simple. Don’t choose destinations that require air travel. Sail, take a train, but don’t lift off from the tarmac even on short flights.
- Offset your emissions. Buying carbon credits is a problematic approach because it’s difficult to verify, but it’s better than doing nothing.
- Opt for airlines that use biofuels. Eco-friendly fuel sources are just a small percentage of flights but investing in airlines committed to using them helps.
2: Creating a modern wasteland
Most folks recycle religiously at home, but when they travel all bets are off. And that creates a huge influx of trash for tourist destinations that has historically been difficult to manage. It’s estimated that 4.8 million tons of trash every year, amounting to 14 percent of global solid waste, can be attributed solely to tourists.
While a zero-waste tourism landscape isn’t always possible, travelers can make a dent in the amount of waste they produce by packing reusable items. Tourists can also commit to seeking out restaurants committed to reducing food waste and eliminating the use of disposable products such as straws.
3: Sucking up local water resources
While tourism doesn’t account for a significant percentage of water use globally, it can play an outsized role in water consumption in certain popular corners of the globe, including tropical destinations like the Caribbean. And in places where water is already scarce, such as Mongolia, tourism’s inevitable water use can stress an already fragile ecosystem.
Leaving the sign on the bed that indicates you don’t need a sheet change at the hotel or reusing your towels is just the beginning of water conservation abroad. You can also cut back on flushing unless necessary and use eco-friendly soaps and shampoos to protect the local watershed.
4: Watch out for the wildlife
Wildlife can mean big business for struggling economies. Some countries rely heavily on tourism and specifically wildlife tourism. But that doesn’t mean those tourism dollars are invested back into the ecosystems that attract them. Pollution, erosion, and poaching all require careful management to avoid damage to animal habitats.
Doing your part to support the local wildlife means making sure your tourism dollars are spent ethically. Research tour guides to ensure they’re operating with respect to habitats and that any sanctuaries you visit are well-managed. And of course, keep your distance. You’re there to observe, not interact.
How to choose an eco-friendly destination
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”Mark Twain
While we couldn’t agree more with Mark Twain about the value of travel, it’s also important to recognize that certain destinations are more environmentally friendly than others. At this point in the climate crisis, it behooves us all to make eco-friendly destinations a central part of our decision about where to visit and what to do when we get there. Choosing a green destination can go a long way towards creating a sustainable travel experience.
How can you tell if a destination is eco-friendly? In general, sustainable locales focus on addressing the following to keep their local ecosystems and economies healthy and thriving. Green destinations…
- Reduce emissions through public transportation options and create biking and walking only zones in the most congested tourist areas.
- Conserve water through partnerships with public and private organizations that encourage guests to limit water use and provide eco-friendly toiletries.
- Practice waste reduction by eliminating single-use products and shifting reliance on disposables among tourists.
- Protect wildlife by reducing pollution, limiting access to delicate environments to prevent erosion, and defending animals from poaching.
Before you choose your next vacation destination, follow these tips to make sure your tourism dollars help instead of harm the local environment.
- Choose an alternative destination. Rather than trampling well-worn attractions underfoot, consider alternatives that present similar advantages but receive less traffic and therefore less stress on the local environment.
- Invest in a region that needs help. Infusing the local economy with your tourism dollars can help address critical needs in places like Haiti or Puerto Rico.
- Pay attention to air travel and transportation options. Consider how you’ll get there and what your options will be for public ground transportation. Avoid destinations that rely heavily on air and car travel.
- Select green tour operators and booking companies. Take a responsible vacation and rely on tour operators and booking companies that guarantee an eco-friendly experience. Read reviews to ensure these folks are the real deal before you book.
Tips for Sustainable Travel
Whether you choose the road well-traveled or pursue another path, there are ways every traveler can minimize their impact. Incorporate a few of these common-sense practices into your travel routine.
- Eat local. Consider how far the food on your plate had to travel and the resources it used to get there. Take advantage of farmers’ markets and find ways to prepare your own food whenever possible.
- Pack your own snacks to reduce waste. Think about how much waste you probably generate on a single transatlantic flight and multiply that by the number of people on board. Bringing your own snacks in reusable containers can take a tiny bite out of all that packaging.
- Bring reusable bags, water bottles, and utensils. When we travel, we often create tons more waste by leaning into single-use service items like straws and plastic bags or utensils. While packing your own takes up some space, it’s well worth the effort.
- Opt for paperless. Boarding passes, plane tickets, rental car reservations, directions to the hotel, maps, guides. The list of paper items that can weigh us down on vacation is endless. Travel light and opt into paperless as much as possible.
- Shop with purpose. Picking up a few trinkets is a tourist rite of passage, but choose those tchotchkes with care. Shop in a store that is transparent about investing in the handicrafts of the local economy instead of exploiting them.
- Travel light. Getting into one suitcase or carry-on isn’t just for traveler’s bragging rights. Reducing weight when traveling means you use less fuel both in the air and on the ground and that’s helpful for everyone.
- Book excursions with care. Find eco-friendly tour guides and ecotourist booking sites that share your commitment to sustainable experiences.
- Walk, bike, or hike. Once you get there, lace up those shoes and get some exercise. Pedal power is a great solution but you can also just hoof it across town and use it as an excuse to eat dessert. Hey, when in Rome…