Like many of you, I suspect, I worry a lot about environmental issues: diminishing biodiversity, climate change, greenhouse gases and melting glaciers. Yet, about once a year, I book a flight. And even though I always make sure to offset those flights with carbon credits, I still find myself weighing the ramifications of my travel footprint against my urge for going.
Apparently, lots of us have that same travel itch. In 2018, worldwide tourist arrivals reached 1.4 billion two years earlier than predicted. And, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2019 economic impact report, for the past eight years, travel and tourism’s contribution to global GDP (gross domestic product) has increased annually by an average of 4.4 percent. While that revenue can be extremely beneficial to a nation’s economy, too much tourism can damage the well-being of a place.
So, how can conscientious travelers do their best to avoid adding to environmental problems?
Taking longer trips fewer times per year and flying economy class are plans for action. As an added benefit, a more extensive trip can help you to further decompress and afford you with more opportunities to interact with local people. And by eschewing business class for flying economy, your carbon footprint shrinks: business class takes up more physical space than economy class, which carries more people and is thus far more efficient.
Below, you’ll find some other ways to be a better environmentalist while you’re traveling.
Forget the bucket lists
Several decades ago—before social media selfies replaced meaningful experiences for ephemeral “likes,” discount airlines and inexpensive Airbnb rooms—tourist dollars were a boon to many local communities. Now, however, those same monies can bring the curse of noisy crowds and even dangerous conditions to places once known for idyllic quiet, remoteness and charming accessibility.
For example, Venice, Italy—with a population of about 271,000—now attracts about 70,000 visitors a day. That’s almost 24,000 more people than the infrastructure can cope with, say researchers at the city’s Ca’ Foscari University. In 2018, a sunflower field outside of Toronto got trampled after becoming social-media famous. And recently in Paris, the Louvre Museum closed for a day because workers said the crowds were too big to handle.
Some destinations have begun pushing back with public service announcements and new tourist regulations. In 2017, when more than double the UNESCO-recommended number of daily visitors were descending on Machu Picchu in Peru, a rule was instituted that required tourists to arrive within 60 minutes of their ticketed time and that limited their visits to four hours. The country is also making the positive move to promote venues other than Machu Picchu to visitors.
When you travel, forget popular bucket lists or the destinations often named on rosters with titles such as “50 Places to See Before You Die.” Instead, seek out the less frequented landmarks and off-the-beaten-path places. When I recently traveled on Natural Habitat Adventures tour to Grand Teton National Park, I was delighted to find that our group spent just as much or more time learning from local experts and exploring moonlike landscapes above the tree line than at Old Faithful.
Depart with the mindset that first and foremost, your travels are about the places you visit—not about you
The place you visit is already someone’s home, full of someone’s culture. It’s important to celebrate and respect local traditions and cultural norms that touch on dress codes, food etiquette, general behaviors and language. Many gestures, for example, have different meanings in different societies, so be sure to familiarize yourself with what’s appropriate.
It might seem logical to you to put on a tank top and shorts in Bhutan’s 90-degrees-Fahrenheit heat, but if you’re going to visit a Buddhist temple, it’s considered disrespectful. On a bus or subway in many European cities, locals usually read or sit quietly. Follow their lead.
Just as importantly, find out about your destination’s environmental policies and act with them in mind. When visiting heritage sites, do not touch artifacts. To experience landmarks, go during off-peak hours if you can to offset any lack of infrastructure.
Remember that the definition of adventure travel is not limited to activities such as bungee jumping or ice climbing. Nonexploitative cultural interactions with local people are huge components.
Utilize public transportation
Using public transportation is one of the best things you can do for the environment when traveling because by doing so, you avoid creating the additional carbon emissions from private transport. It also enhances your travel experience by providing you with opportunities to interact with local residents.
Support local businesses that demonstrate eco-practices
Viewing travel as an act of personal accountability is a perspective that is spreading. In fact, a recent Booking.com survey showed that 73 percent of us plan to stay in at least one eco-friendly property in the next year, and 70 percent say that they’d be more inclined to book a hotel if they knew it was eco-friendly—even if they hadn’t specifically been looking for something green to begin with.
That’s good news, as it shows that more and more of us want to engage with businesses that recycle and that use renewable energy. To up your environmentalist ante, eat at restaurants that serve locally raised and locally grown ingredients.
Hire local guides when you can; you’ll not only learn about the vicinity from insiders, but you’ll also provide incentive for communities to invest in environmental conservation.
Respect the landscape
I think that one of the best aspects of traveling is being given the chance to act as an Earth advocate and a protector of its resources. Overall, tourists tend to consume far more than locals, and many destinations struggle with limited natural resources. Before you leave home, research the environmental issues that affect the places you’ll be visiting.
Consider patronizing protected areas in these localities because the entrance fees you pay support efforts to conserve them. While there, obey all outdoor rules and regulations. They’re there to protect you, the environment and wildlife. Don’t walk on wildflowers to get a better photo. Four hundred visitors who play by the rules can be less burdensome than 40 who don’t.
Resist the urge to geotag photos taken by cell phone. Recently, the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Travel and Tourism Board asked people to stop geotagging, saying the flood of visitors to little-known places meant that trails were being eroded. And restrain from mass-sharing your travel photos. It can help protect the place you’re enjoying from overtourism. Think before you share: if I post that photo, will 100 or 1,000 people arrive the next day to take that same shot?
Keep wildlife welfare top of mind
If you should encounter wildlife, don’t disturb, feed or touch the animals, as this can alter their natural behavior and affect their ability to survive. While many travelers are animal lovers, they sometimes lack awareness about harmful tourist activities. Do your research to acquaint yourself with what attractions cause suffering to animals or allow travelers to interact with animals in abusive ways. Choose only ethical animal experiences.
Do not visit attractions that capture animals from the wild or that don’t provide adequate living conditions. And if you’re spending time in the water, make sure you wear reef-safe sunscreen, since chemicals can cause coral bleaching.
Be knowledgeable about the endangered and threatened species that live in and near the places you’re visiting. When shopping, never buy gifts or souvenirs made from them or other illegal materials, such as coral products, ivory or turtle shells.
Take packaging with you when you leave
Carry your own reusable bags, straws, takeaway containers and utensils whenever you can.
Here’s a good cue from leave-no-trace camping: anything you carry in, you should carry out. That means taking extra packaging with you when you leave and dispose of it where you know it can be dealt with in the best possible manner. Many small islands and developing destinations lack sufficient waste management infrastructure.
Sign up for a group tour
By choosing a small group tour operated by an eco-travel company, you can assure you’re traveling in the most environmentally friendly manner possible. You’ll join up with people who have already done the hard work for you by having in place the means and methods of going to destinations with the least amount of harmful impacts. Ask your tour operator how it gives back to the community you’ll be visiting; the best ones make an effort to leave a fair chunk of the money that travelers pay in-country—upwards of 60 percent.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that traveling responsibly is difficult or somehow puts a damper on your trip. I would argue that the opposite is true. Traveling responsibly doesn’t mean giving something up. It means gaining an appreciation for the planet’s places and spaces, and acting in ways that ensure they are taken care of for the people who live in them now and for those that will in the future. Places that are good to live in are good to visit.
Acting like a good environmentalist when traveling really boils down to one question that you should ask yourself: what if this were my home?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,