Sustainable travel in Guatemala, waterfall and hot springs

Ecotourism, Sustainable Travel, Eco Friendly Travel … What Is It and How Can We Be Better at It?

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As a frequent traveler and someone who cares a lot about this planet, I often struggle with how the two are often at odds with each other. Whether you call it ecotourism, sustainable travel, eco friendly travel, or green travel, I am striving to get all the benefits of travel while living a little lighter on the planet.

Unfortunately, travel is downright bad for the planet and is a contributor to climate change, pollution, and a whole slew of other environmental degradations. Travel can also have a lot of benefits – a better understanding of the world and it’s people, a deep love for places that leads to protection. I wrote about why we travel with kids a while back and I think that these things do matter.

So, how can we do both? How do get the upside of travel while mitigating the downside?Sustainable travel in Guatemala


What is Ecotourism?

We see the term “ecotourism” batted around a lot, but what exactly is ecotourism or environmental tourism? According to Wikipedia, “Ecotourism is a form of tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas, intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial mass tourism. It means responsible travel to natural areas, conserving the environment, and improving the well-being of the local people.”

Travel to the most fragile and delicate parts of the planet may not be the best choice for those want an eco holiday, but there are many ecotourism benefits:

  • Conservation of the natural environment
  • Education of the traveler
  • Economic development of local communities
  • Providing an alternative financial resource to energy extraction, logging, or other environmentally degrading activity
  • Ecotourism companies may fund conservation efforts

Like any endeavor, there are people who do it well and people who slap the label on their trips to increase sales.

What is Sustainable Tourism?

Is sustainable tourism the same as ecotourism? Depends on whose definition you use. The World Tourism Organization defines sustainable tourism as, “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”

Unlike ecotourism, sustainable tourism can be in areas where a lot of people travel. It doesn’t necessarily depend on pristine or fragile environments. Otherwise, it shares many of the same benefits as ecotourism.

I asked a tour operator in Iceland how his company thinks about sustainable travel. Ryan Connolly says, “Hidden Iceland is a carbon neutral company and we do everything we can to leave each place untouched during our small group tours. Whether that’s hiking on a glacier, discovering ice caves, hunting for the northern lights, or walking on still warm volcanoes we maintain the same level of protection.

“But we consider sustainable tourism to be more than just minimizing our impact. We see it as a duty to educate our guests about sustainability, climate change, and environmental degradation.” (I bolded some text for emphasis.) 

Eco travel and sustainable travel can help places like this Svinafellsjokull-Ice-Cave-2016-Hidden-Iceland-Mark-Hoey.
Photo: Mark Hoey, Hidden Iceland
Svinafellsjokull Ice Cave in Iceland no longer exists, in part to climate change.

Eco Friendly Holidays for Ethical Travel

I’ve been doing some research on eco friendly vacations and reaching out to other bloggers and travelers with a deep love for the earth to figure out how to be more environmentally friendly when I travel. I hope this inspires you to do the same.

Keeping reading for eco travel tips in these categories:

  • Choose Eco Friendly Travel Destinations
  • Stay in an Eco Friendly Accommodation
  • Stay in One Place Longer
  • Avoid Flying
  • Buy Carbon Offsets
  • Use Public Transportation
  • Rent Fuel-Efficient Vehicles
  • Pack Light
  • Plan Ahead
  • Bring Sustainable Travel Products
Go Green While Traveling
  • Avoid Hotel Freebies
  • Eat Local
  • Choose a Sustainable Tour Operator
  • Volunteer while traveling 

Responsible Tourism – Where To Stay

One of the first things to consider in your eco travels is where to stay –the destination, the accommodations, and how long to visit.

Slovenia's best waterfall is near Bled bohinj

Choose Eco Friendly Travel Destinations

Choosing where to travel makes a big difference. Places like Slovenia pride themselves on being a premier location for green holidays with their commitment to ecological tourism. Through their “Green Scheme” they direct efforts toward sustainable development of tourism, offer tools to Slovenian tourism providers to improve their sustainability efforts, and they help promote ecotravel within the country to ensure there are customers for those services.

There are many ecotourism destinations that fund conservation efforts, promote eco friendly building and sustainable hotels. An eco tourism resort might have bike and walking trails and encourage active transportation or hold workshops for tourists to learn more about local ecology.

Consider visiting less popular places. Overtourism is ruining some of the world’s most treasured places. There have been a slew of articles about it, saying that too many people want to travel. That may be true, but instead of stomping through California poppies, elbowing camera-toting people at every Instagram-worthy spot, or dying on the way to the summit of Mount Everest, choose a less popular destination. Instead of Yellowstone National Park, check out the American Prairie Reserve.

You can start your search for the best eco friendly tourism spot by checking the Global Green Economy Index™ (GGEI). It measures the green economy performance of 130 countries and how experts assess that performance. While it takes into account climate change leadership, efficiency sectors, markets and investment, and the environment, it’s only a starting point. Many smaller communities have a green lifestyle that your visit and your dollars (or euros or pounds etc.) will encourage.

Stay in an Eco Friendly Accommodation

After choosing where you want to go, you need to decide on an eco green hotel or eco resort.

Look for and accommodation that:

  • Uses alternative energy
  • Has low-flow showers and toilets
  • Is within walking distance of many of the sites you wish to see
  • Offers local sourced menus
  • Gives back to their community or conservation efforts

Rainforest cabin at Table Rock Jungle Lodge

You can search for an eco hotel that has met certification programs including, Green Key, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED certification. TripAdvisor has a Green Leaders program, which designates which properties meet certain criteria as the best green hotels.

Even better than places that tout themselves as ecotourism hotels, might be eco friendly resorts. We stayed at Table Rock Jungle Lodge in Belize because it is an eco friendly accommodation.

Here are some of the ways Table Rock promotes sustainable ecotourism:

  • Generate 100% of their own electricity via solar panels and a highly efficient battery/inverter system.
  • Supply the majority of their running water with rainwater.
  • Supply the much of the fruit served from their farm.
  • Supply all eggs from the free-range chickens on their farm (and they were yummy!).
  • Supply fresh herbs and select vegetables from their farm and neighboring farms.
  • Replanting a mahogany forest to help restore the trees that Belize has lost to deforestation.
  • Part of the 100-acre preserve is a working Valencia orange orchard and home to several donkeys.

Seriously, check out Table Rock – we highly recommend it!

A small ecology hotel with a local provider can be more sustainable than a LEED certified hotel.

Unfortunately, you can’t just believe it when places call themselves environmentally friendly hotels; you have to do a little research.

Stay in One Place Longer

Instead of flitting from one place to another in your week of travel, make it a green vacation by staying in one place. The impact travel has on the environment is huge.

Michael from The World Was Here First has these eco friendly travel tips:

“One of the best ways to travel in a more environmentally friendly way is to slow down and stay longer in places. If you’re going on a short trip, this means that, rather than trying to see a lot of different places, pick a couple of cities or towns that interest you most and spend longer there.

“This will not only reduce your carbon footprint by cutting down on the number of planes, car trips, or buses you take but it can also benefit local economies as you are spending more of your money in one community. It will also likely provide a much more enriching experience for you as a traveler!

There are many ecotourism examples, but one that comes to mind is MyHelsinki. They encourage visitors to stay longer in order to minimize their travel impact. Through their MyHelsinki Residence program, they use influencers to encourage people to stay longer and lighter.

Getting There – Eco Friendly Transport

The next step in planning your ecotourism holidays is figuring out how to get there and how to move around once you are there. Making good choices in transportation can make a huge difference in your travel carbon footprint.

Carbon Footprint: The amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, organization, or community.

eco friendly travel on a train

Avoid Flying

It’s a bummer, but flying in an airplane is one of the worst things we can do if we are aiming for eco vacations. When you live in the middle of North America, like we do, it can be hard to get anywhere farther than two states away without flying.

For example, when my family of four flew from Seattle to Edinburgh via London, we were responsible for putting 6.4 tons of carbon into the air. Holy crap – that’s a lot!

Direct flights are better since a lot of the carbon is emitted during take off and landing, but it’s still a lot.

Buy Carbon Offsets

If you are going to fly –no judgment here, we fly, too—you can calculate the carbon cost of your flight and purchase carbon offset credits. It’s not as good as not flying, but it’s better than not buying carbon credits.

How Do Carbon Offsets Work?

According to How Stuff Works, “Offsets are a form of trade. When you buy an offset, you fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

It’s an investment in environmental projects that balance your own carbon footprint.

Travel Carbon Footprint Calculators

Some airlines allow you to purchase carbon offset credits when you buy your ticket. If that’s not the case, check it out for yourself and write the airline asking for the option.

You can find out how much carbon you are responsible for a particular flight with an online carbon calculator. These sites also sell carbon offset credits to help mitigate that flight carbon. You can calculate your carbon output for a lot of things with these sites.

The NRDC has a good article about what to look for when buying carbon offsets. You need to do some due diligence as anyone can claim to be an authentic carbon offset program.

Use Public Transportation

Instead of flying, or once you get to your location, consider taking a train, bus, or ferry as alternative ways to get around. A lot of cities have electric buses and trams, and even if they are traditional combustion engines, you’ll be responsible for less carbon output than flying or driving a car.

Stephanie from Explore More Clean Less suggests, “Get up to date, helpful advice on public transport options instead of immediately renting a car or ordering an Uber, keeping more cars off the road (and probably saving you money, too).”

In addition to having more sustainable holidays, using public transportation also helps you connect with the people and places you visit. More often than not, you will be with locals rather than other tourists.

We enjoy walking and biking to explore new places. You see more when you go slow, you get exercise, and you participate in environmentally friendly tourism.

Rent Fuel-Efficient Vehicles

If you do rent a car, hire a fuel-efficient vehicle. Eco friendly cars like hybrids or electric vehicles make for eco trips.

Green Travel Tips for Packing

The ecotourism places you visit and how you get there is important. So is what you bring. While we can’t buy our way out of global warming with eco friendly travel products, packing your luggage intelligently has to be part of ecologic travel.

Pack Light

The less weight you carry, the smaller your carbon footprint. Not to mention, it’s easier to move around when you bring a carry on travel backpack rather than lugging a bunch of suitcases. It will also make it easier for you to use public transportation. We use small travel backpacks for Europe even when we are spending months at a time there.

Be Prepared and Plan Ahead

Stephanie from Explore More Clean Less reminds us to check in with locals or travel sites so you know what to expect when you get to your travel destination.

“Packing a quality raincoat when you read the forecast lets you skip buying a chintzy, one time use poncho that would otherwise end up in the trash. Connecting with locals or fellow travelers in forums and Facebook groups before you arrive can be a great tool.

“Knowing ahead of time if there isn’t a grocery store nearby will let you stop en route instead of having to make a second trip out. This cuts down on gas being used and allows you to pick food with recyclable packaging.”

Sustainable Products For Travel

Whether we are visiting ecotourism sites or your average travel destination, we always bring reusable items to avoid ending up with paper coffee cups, one time use plastic water bottles, and plastic shopping bags. I wrote about some of our favorite items in my piece on the best gifts for travelers.

Some of the items we never leave home without include:

Natasha from Om Shanti Adventure agrees with me on the importance of carrying eco friendly bags when you travel.

“If you want to make one change to have your travel routine be more eco-friendly, start by bringing your own packable tote bags. They’re a perfect way to help protect nature by cutting down on single-use plastic bags. 

“In fact, many locations are working toward banning those plastic bags entirely. You can stay ahead of the game and bring your bags on each trip. 

“Reusable tote bags are much sturdier than plastic. Make a quick stop at the local grocery store for snacks and easily carry them back to your hotel or vacation rental to save some money instead of eating each meal out. 

“Tote bags are pretty multi-purpose and can be used as a beach bag in a pinch. On the way home, you can even use them to store your dirty laundry in. Just make sure to toss them into the wash when you get back, then hang them up to dry.”

Sinead from Map Made Memories reminds us to packs a reusable water bottle and metal straws.

“We travel with three children and regularly stop at cafes during our trips as the children either need a cold drink or need a toilet. We carry reusable water bottles but sometimes, only a cold drink will suffice – and we are more likely to get our water bottle refilled if we purchase a drink.

“Everywhere we went, single-use plastic straws were routinely added to our drinks – even when we had requested no straws. Straws are not essential in a drink but when traveling, we prefer the children to use one as it is easier and more hygienic for a child to drink through a straw than from a bottle or a can. So for the past few years, we have travelled with our own, reusable straws.

We purchased thin, lightweight metal straws in a washable, bamboo drawstring bag. The straws are light to carry and use virtually no space in our bags. They are easy to wash and can even be put in a dishwasher. They are now part of our essential packing list for trips abroad as well as day trips from home.”

Ania from The Travelling Twins has this tip for bringing an insulated flask.

“I feel guilty, so, so guilty every single time I buy a plastic bottle of water. We travel a lot in hot countries, and I would find myself justifying the purchase of a chilled bottle of water to myself because ours had got too warm.

“One wintry day while dreaming of the heat, I remembered this bad excuse and thought it was time to get an insulated reusable flask. Amazon obliged. Our next trip was to Iceland in Winter, and my new flask for hot countries instantly became my best friend in the cold.  There is nothing like hot tea on a cold walk. Now, at last, it is summer, and I am using it to keep my drinking water cool. 

“I really love this flask. I now call it my traveling flask with justification as it was with me in six countries already and together we will visit many more.”

Go Green While Traveling

Part of responsible travel is choosing a sustainable accommodation, but even if you are staying in a standard hotel, you can make environmentally friendly choices that benefit (or at least do less harm to) the environment.

Avoid Hotel Freebies

Melanie from Passport Amigo says to bring your own toiletries.

“When staying in hotels those little plastic bottles full of unctuous shampoo, shower gel or conditioner can be so tempting to use, especially when you’re tired after a long flight and can’t be bothered to unpack.

“But one single use means many of them are then discarded the next day and as they still contain product they can’t be recycled. 

“Many hotel establishments are moving to larger pump bottles attached to walls, but until they all do we can do our bit by always taking our own products and not being tempted to use hotel amenities that would then get discarded. 

“This can include soap too. It’s tempting to unwrap a cute tiny bar of soap to use in your room but it’s far better to bring a small container or soap-dish with you so you can continue to use the soap either during your stay or on your travels.” 

We travel with our own toiletries in plastic-free packaging: 

It sometimes feels like hotels are “green washing” us with their signs about reusing towels or not changing the sheets, but those things add up to making an actual difference.

sustainable travel products

Lesley from Freedom56Travel says,

“We’ve all seen the ubiquitous sign in hotel rooms to please re-use the hotel towels to help save the environment. But do you? Or do you throw them in the tub and wait for freshly laundered towels to arrive with the room attendant? Studies have shown that up to 75% of hotel guests take notice and re-use their towels.

“While it’s true that hotels may also save a few bucks by not supplying daily fresh towels, it’s also true that it really does help the environment. If you re-use your towels, it means gallons of water have been saved that would have been used to wash towels. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that hotels can save up to 17% of the total water used by commercial establishments by washing fewer towels! 

“Washing fewer hotel towels also means using less energy and less detergent being returned to our fresh water supply. Not only that, but washing towels less often also increases the lifespan of the towels themselves, thus reducing landfill usage as well as replacement costs.”  

Eat Local While You Travel

Many travel destinations are promoting sustainable and local food choices at their destination. This is great because not only do you get a more interesting cultural experience, you can support local farmers.

Locally sourced menus can reduce emissions from transportation and packaging, and they taste fresher – because they are.

Stephanie from Explore More Clean Less says, “Researching restaurant options ahead of time can help you find places that source local ingredients, which reduces the carbon footprint of your meals (and boosts the local economy!).”

Choose a Sustainable Tour Operator

Part of ecotravel is enjoying ecotourism activities like making tortillas with a Mayan woman in Mexico, inner tubing on an underground river in Belize, or mountain biking from an off-the-grid yurt on Montana’s prairie.

Do a little research before your trip to make sure the eco friendly activities you plan are really eco friendly.

What To Look For in an Eco Tour

  • Small group size
  • Minimizing impact on the environment
  • Hiring and supporting local people and communities
  • Educating guests about their impact, the environment, and the culture
  • Reusable products like cups and water bottles (on a day trip to Hoy, Orkney, our guide asked us to bring our own reusable water bottles because they were cutting out plastic.)

Ecotourism tour operators should support and promote conservation, work with local communities to achieve sustainable financial rewards, and educate and inspire the traveler.

Practice Green Tourism With Volunteering

Another aspect of environmentally friendly travel can be volunteering during your travels. We had a great time shoveling poop with Seal Rescue Ireland (really!).

It doesn’t have to be an organized affair, Paul from Travel is Life, says he picks up trash wherever he is.

“One easy way to have a positive impact on the environment when you travel is to pick up trash when you see it. What doesn’t make it into a trash can eventually makes it into our rivers and oceans through surface runoff after it rains. By picking up trash that others have left behind, you’re making a positive impact on the entire planet one piece of trash at a time.

“Plus, both locals and others tourists will see you doing it and might do the same (or at least think twice before littering again). It’s unfortunate how much littering I see going on in many of the countries I’ve visited. Cleaning up after ourselves and ensuring that our trash makes it into the proper receptacles (instead of our environment) is a habit that others mimic when they see it.

“You can help spread those positive habits around the world with you during your travels by picking up trash when you see it and encouraging others to do the same through your actions and leadership. 

volunteer while you travel
Photo: Paul from Travel is Life

Michael from The World Was Here First adds, ““If you have the luxury of going on a longer trip, then a great reason to stay longer in one place is by incorporating some volunteer work into your travels. There are a number of platforms such as Worldpackers and Workaway that can connect you with local businesses looking for volunteers. Opportunities can include working on a farm or winery, helping out at a guesthouse or volunteering with an NGO.”

Even though this post got a lot longer than I originally planned, we are just skimming the surface of what it means to travel with the planet and people in mind. I hope to share more ideas and thoughts about eco travel in upcoming posts.

Ecotourism, sustainable travel, eco friendly travel … What is it and how can we be better at It? How to reduce your carbon footprint while traveling and responsible tourism tips for a better holiday. | Plastic Free and Zero Waste Travel Essentials | Sustainable Travel Tips | Eco Friendly Low Waste Travel|    #ethicaltravel #responsibletravel #ecofriendlytravel #wanderlust #sustainability #ecotourism Ecotourism, sustainable travel, eco friendly travel … What is it and how can we be better at It? How to reduce your carbon footprint while traveling and responsible tourism tips for a better holiday. | Plastic Free and Zero Waste Travel Essentials | Sustainable Travel Tips | Eco Friendly Low Waste Travel|    #ethicaltravel #responsibletravel #ecofriendlytravel #wanderlust #sustainability #ecotourism

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3 thoughts on “Ecotourism, Sustainable Travel, Eco Friendly Travel … What Is It and How Can We Be Better at It?”

  1. Emily Post

    Awesome and important info. Thank you! We must live fully immersed in sustainability to show the love we feel for our wonderful planet.

    Big love! Thanks for the inspiration of your family!

    1. Hi Emily! Thanks for commenting — this one is obviously so important to me and something I think about all the time.

  2. Hannah Flack

    “I turned vegan in June and it’s very challenging, so I know how hard it is. Especially when you’re cooking meat for the family.
    My favourite thing to eat is a wrap filled with pepper, cucumber, celery, whatever you like and dollops of houmous, guacamole or salsa. ”

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