A Beginner’s Guide to Eco-Friendly Travel

You’ve heard the stories of people traveling the world focusing on the experience but also the tourist impact on the environment and local culture. If you’re concerned about preservation and sustainability, you likely have eco-friendly travel on the brain. 

So, what is eco-friendly travel?

It’s all about experiencing travel while also fostering environmental and cultural understanding and appreciation. 

Eco-friendly travel asks tourists to not just consider their general enjoyment but to really think about how their travel impacts the local community, culture, and environment. Whether you’re hiking El Yunque in San Juan or visiting the glaciers of Iceland, eco-friendly travel will ask you to focus on the impact of the choices you make while traveling so you work to reduce that impact and hopefully, in turn, enhance social and economical conditions for the local people.

It’s not just about being green, either, which is a common misconception. Yes, eco-friendly travel does have a focus on fauna, flora, and the cultural heritage of the locale you’re visiting, but it can relate to any trip you’re taking. Not just destinations with a focus on the environment. 

Keep in mind, though, eco-friendly travel requires you to really look at the more harmful aspect of tourism that, even without intent, you have likely been part of in the past. It’s so important to be cognizant of the potential negative consequences of tourism, like over-tourism, resource scarcity, pollution, and cultural and environmental erosion due to over-development.

Why is it a growing industry?

Some analysts believe that the majority of travelers today, with reports showing numbers as high as 87%, want to travel sustainably. And that doesn’t just stop with how they engage with a host nation or community while traveling, but also extends to the transportation they book, the accommodations they choose, as well as the tours and activities they partake in. 

Travelers are becoming inspired more by environmentally sustainable travel over “experience” vacationing. Tourism, one of the world’s biggest employees, was already experiencing this shift in how people want to travel before the pandemic started in 2020. Since then, the desire to travel in a more eco-friendly way has only grown thanks to the ability to see how certain environments and hot spot destinations were positively impacted by the rapid decline in tourism.

When destinations become trends, it’s also important to be mindful of what happens to communities that work to keep up with the demands of a tourism economy only to be met with sustainability challenges as tourism ebbs and flows. As destinations struggle to build that infrastructure, some of the beauty and authenticity that created the tourism influx can be impacted, as well. As responsible tourists, it should be our desire to ensure our tourism doesn’t negatively impact the environment or the local community. And truth be told, so often the local community is the last to be considered.

All that being said, eco-friendly travel can feel very high stakes because it is perceived as “cause” driven, especially to a beginner, so let’s chat basics. 

Determine Your Budget

For many, the thought of eco-friendly travel brings to mind fairly budget-unfriendly vacation ideas. If eco-friendly automatically makes you think of luxury safari in South Africa or an infinity pool at the rice fields of Bali, these kinds of higher dollar trips can be part of the sustainable travel experience, but they aren’t the only part. Like just about anything, you can find a way to make a trip work within the budget you set. As long as you’re flexible. Truth be told, the word “sustainable” has been thrown around quite a bit as a buzzword too often synonymous with extravagant trips, but eco-friendly doesn’t have to mean expensive. It’s all about being responsible. 

When thinking of a budget, just be mindful of your priorities and focus on putting that revenue into community hands and back into businesses who are also focused on eco-friendly practices. Sustainability isn’t always as easily quantifiable when thinking about budget. So, instead, think about having more authentic experiences which often mean dealing with local vendors who are part of the community you want to visit. Bottom line, am I leaving this place the same as or better off from before I got here? 

Choose Your Destination

Now that you have an idea of how much you can spend, you need to determine where you want to spend it! If you have a bucket list this is where you comb through it and decide which bucket list item fits your current eco-tourism goals.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • When can you travel?
  • Why are you traveling?
  • What eco-initiatives matter most to you?

Once you determine the answers to the above questions, it’ll become easier to narrow down your options. For instance, if you’re trying to reduce your overall carbon footprint while traveling, look into sustainable cities, like Capetown, South Africa or San Francisco, California, USA. With eco-friendly travel, it’s important that you’re not just picking any destination, but instead being mindful to choose destinations that care for their local community and ecosystems, while still providing an overall amazing experience. If you want to visit a popularly touristed location that is often crowded (or overcrowded), think about going during the off-season when the local economy would likely benefit from the monetary support a bit more, and tourism isn’t hurting the ecosystem and resources as much either.  Alternatively, you can also prioritize destinations that need support and volunteerism where your trip can assist the local community in those efforts. 

Be Mindful About Modes of Transportation

Transportation can be one of the more challenging parts of tourism, especially from an environmental perspective. It’s important to be mindful of your carbon footprint. If airplane travel is required, do your best to reduce that carbon footprint. Fly direct when possible and the budget allows it. Once you arrive at your destination, prioritize public transportation or shared transportation methods if you feel comfortable and safe doing so. Traveling slower can also help, as well, which will allow you to spend more time really getting to know the local culture and ecosystem. Finally, look at carriers that use sustainable biofuel, if available. United and KLM are at the top of that list.

Pick Your Accommodations

Accommodations are often one of the biggest budgetary expenses while traveling and they can also really directly impact the local community and environment in good and bad ways. When picking accommodations, I prioritize locally owned, whether that means renting through the owner or going through a local managing company. I generally book through sites like Airbnb, so I can make sure money is staying in the community, while also proactively working to reduce overall waste during my stay. Keep in mind, Airbnb isn’t carbon footprint free. Accommodations come with negatives. It’s important to make a selection that best aligns with your eco-initiatives.  

If staying at a resort or larger chain hotel is what fits best into your travel plans, work to select accommodations that are transparent about what they’re doing to reduce their negative impact on the ecosystem. Also, see if they offer any green initiative services, like reduced housekeeping services or reduce water waste showers and toilets. Reuse towels, reduce food waste. There are many ways you can work on more sustainable accommodations.  

Planning Your Activities

When planning what to do during an eco-friendly trip, my first thought is always about the local community. How will my trip impact them and how can I create a more authentic and local experience?

I follow the below steps:

  • Always prioritize local
  • Utilize public transportation or ridesharing when safe and possible
  • Look for eco-friendly tours if self touring isn’t possible
  • Prioritize educational content
  • Shop local
  • Respect nature
  • Make sure the money stays local because it should be theirs and also that will help the local community have a more powerful voice when it’s decision-making time

For example, if you’re hiking and there are signs asking you to stay on the path, you must stay on the path. It might seem like a meaningless request but often they are asking this to protect surface vegetation and animal habitats from being trampled and eventually destroyed due to erosion. Leave no trace is an important philosophy to keep in mind while exploring. If you see wildlife, whether in captivity or in the wild, treat it with respect. If they are in captivity, it’s important you do your research ahead of time to ensure they are humanely cared for with the end goal being reintegration into their natural habitat if able. 

Eco-friendly travel is really centered around reducing impact. What you do while visiting your destination is a huge part of that. Find activities that enrich your spirit, educate you, and don’t exploit the exact place and people you appreciate so much. 

Research Customs

This should be a simple one, but just in case, I want to make it clear that a huge part of eco-friendly travel is supporting the local community. That includes researching their customs and laws and abiding by and respecting them. 

Eco-friendly travel appreciates the authenticity of the experience. Part of having an authentic experience requires valuing the local customs and showing locals their due respect. You are visiting their home. 

Pack Economically 

You got time off work (or you’re taking it with you), you found the perfect green city, an eco-friendly mode of transportation, and accommodations. You planned lots of local-centric activities and you researched customs. Now? Well, you need to pack. As someone who wants to be a sustainable traveler, packing can feel stressful. Travel size is such a big part of the narrative and, well, a lot of that involves single use plastic.  

When thinking about how to pack in a more eco-friendly way, lean into packing more efficiently. Prioritize the non-negotiables and essentials, while also focusing on recyclable and reusable items to help cut down on waste. When packing, here are my priorities:

  • Toiletries packaged in reusable travel-sized containers
  • Eco-friendly packing cubes to help stay organized and take up less space
  • Reusable water bottle & cutlery
  • Microfiber, fast drying towels

Shop Local & Be Respectful

Whether I’ve visited a more touristed area or somewhere a little more off the beaten path, I try to focus my tourist dollars on supporting the local communities as much as possible. That includes when I’m choosing where to eat or what local artwork or crafts I buy.

We prioritize eating locally because that’s also such a huge part of the experience. Food culture can be so bonding and really teach you about the community. It’s exciting to explore a new destination and try to figure out where the locals like to dine. It gives us a chance to experience their local dishes while also making sure our tourism dollars make it into the right hands.

I am a big fan of collecting art while I travel, so looking for local art galleries or craft markets is always on the itinerary. Again, it’s all about supporting local makers. I look for galleries that only sell local artists to ensure that I’m really getting a piece that represents the place I’m visiting. This is, of course, if I can’t support an artist directly and buy direct from them (which is my preference). Same with local markets. I focus on locally made goods. Keep in mind, some communities might mass make products that are then sold to local community members so they can sell them for income. Don’t automatically presume more mass made items mean the money isn’t supporting local. Learn more about the process so you can make an informed decision about where to spend your money. 

And finally, respect. You are visiting someone else’s home. Someone else’s community. Respect it. Respect them. Be open to learn and explore new things. Ask permission before taking photos. If you don’t speak the native language, learn a few impactful words. Really meet people. Don’t just benefit from their environment and culture from afar, but really get to know the people. I promise it’ll make for a better experience overall.

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