Ecotourism is a marketing term aimed at travelers concerned about the environmental and social impact of their leisure activities. There are plenty of organizations out there dedicated to promoting ecotourism including the UN World Tourism Organization, The International Ecotourism Society, and The Center for Responsible Travel. Their definitions of ecotourism vary somewhat according to their purposes, the most restrictive utilizing “eco” to focus on promoting the natural ecology and local economy of the area and improving both through educating visitors to a more finely tuned mindset. Educating can be in small matters like the significance to the biodiversity and sustainability of the planet of staying on the traveled path, rather than climbing the hill for the most dramatic site for yet another selfie to post to Instagram. Carrying bags to pick up trash. Leaving only footprints.
Once you’ve chosen your destination, which may be influenced by one of the ecotourism organizations or may just be following your own heart, minimizing your adverse impact and maximizing your positive impact is, as always up to you.
Tourism releases 5 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions globally, with ¾ of that from transportation. So, let’s go there first.
One thousand miles of commercial air travel spews around three tons of carbon emissions per passenger if the plane is full and luggage and passengers weigh an average amount. Be mindful: pack light, but don’t sweat the small stuff. If you are flying first class, yes, your emissions footprint is larger, but your use of single-use plastic is less. Chances are that we are not going to get global warming under control in time to save the Holocene Era from ending before its time. So just do your very best and enjoy your holiday.
Flying direct produces less emissions that two short flights. Larger, newer planes and those running on biofuel are better options. Realize when researching that carbon emissions are just one-third of the warming gases airplanes emit. At higher altitudes, nitrogen oxides trigger vapor trails and cloud formation, contributing twice as much to global warming as the carbon. Planes also release hydrocarbon, sulfur oxides and soot particulates. These emissions don’t occupy much of the discussion. It’s all a bit much, too technical for the average mind to dwell upon. For what this tidbit is worth, for all of the hoopla of more cars cruising the roadways in developing countries, aviation emissions are growing faster than any other mode of transport. Your choices matter. Travel search engine Skyscanner offers a ‘Greener Choices’ rating system for flights. Alternative fuels and cleaner technology help.
Where driving is an option, should you drive instead? Depending upon the number of passengers and the length of the flight, flying may produce less carbon emissions than driving, though taking a train or bus, again assuming nearly full capacity, would be less than either. And might be a lot more interesting.
But let’s say you have settled on flying; you are researching available planes and buying your ticket. If you were stranded recently due to a canceled flight because the airline was short-staffed, precisely the scenario the recent taxpayer bailout of ten airlines to the tune of 37 billion dollars was meant to preclude, you may be wondering what shenanigans the airlines are up to now, asking for yet more money for a carbon offset when you purchase your ticket. Carbon offsets are not emission reductions. Obviously, you can’t buy back the clean air you are fouling, but you can contribute to the development of clean-energy alternatives, community-based conservation and sustainable businesses. You don’t have to fly to contribute to these reductions; there are plenty of websites that sell carbon offsets, listing the portfolio of projects they support.
Pre-COVID, I liked to stay in hostels which arguably have the lowest carbon footprint and due to bunking with global travelers, offer the most diverse perspectives on the local scene. Airbnb-type accommodations have a lot to say for themselves as they efficiently reuse space and have mostly veered away from single-use plastics. What about the lodges and hotels that advertise themselves as green? What exactly are these ratings like the green leaves the government of Costa Rica awards for?
Well, it could be for the building itself. Or for the operations. Or really for anything, like who paid what to who. Read the fine print.
Here’s a quick primer on zero waste and green buildings.
The Zero Waste International Alliance defines zero waste as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water or air that threaten the environment or human health.” Obviously, it’s tough to be comprehensive: You could meditate for hours on any one of these aspects. Arguably, The US Council of Mayors simplifies the concept somewhat in its definition, making it both concrete enough and broad enough to incorporate into municipal procurement guidelines: The concept of zero waste goes beyond recycling and composting at the end of a product’s life, to encompass the entire life cycle of a product, beginning with product design, and envisioning the use and management of materials in ways that preserve value, minimize environmental impacts, and conserve natural resources. As you can see, the concept goes beyond simply the construction of buildings, but can extend to any operation. In fact, you may be surprised to find that you can shop locally at a zero waste markets. Do it!
Green buildings. While there are many, the most common certifications you are likely to come across are ILFI, Green Globes and LEEDS. The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) mission is “to lead and support the transformation of communities that are socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative.” For its living building certification, it looks for “regenerative buildings that connect occupants to light, air, food, nature and community, are self-sufficient and remain within the resource limits of their site and create a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them.” They award four other certifications, including for example, one for zero carbon and one for zero energy. Green Globes is an online rating system used throughout the US and Canada directed more towards the buildings themselves, including modules for new construction, multifamily, core and shell, existing buildings and sustainable interiors. And if you live on the US, you’ve probably come across LEEDs certifications. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The building certification, overseen by its parent organization, the US Green Building Council, looks to a set of building guidelines aimed toward less consumption of power and water, minimized temperature loss and choosing materials whose use will minimally impact the environment.
Chances are that your chosen destination won’t have any of these certifications but may have a more local rating like the “sustainability leaves” the government of Costa Rica awards. So, it’s up to you to read whether your accommodation allows for fresh breezes rather than a/c, to leave the single-use plastics for the next guest, to hang dry your towels rather than requesting more, to pack fast-drying under clothing you can wash in the sink, to travel with cloth and reusable silicon bags, to minimize your use of other disposable waste, to buy locally-made environmentally friendly products, and be otherwise respectful of your new neighborhood. In short, it is up to you to be mindful of the far-reaching consequences of your actions.
If your support of the local economy via lodging and eating saves the community from buckling to the big ag palm industry salivating to bulldoze the remaining rain forest and who is even now looking through dark eyes to torch the village claiming accident, well it’s a no-brainer. But if it means simply buying plastic geegaws, that is, landfill material made in China, please save your money. Truly, who doesn’t want a t-shirt from every place they’ve ever been? But consider that, according to the garment industry it takes 500 gallons of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt… and don’t even begin to go there with the environmental and health safety issues posed by polyester. So, use a little more imagination in selecting souvenirs. If the local tableau doesn’t yield, well, journal entries make lovely gifts.
Too, you are what you eat. Treat your body to fresh farm-to-table cuisines grown without pesticides. Encourage sustainable practices with your wallet.
For a view into how tourism can change a community from pillagers to protectors, Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals, a joint effort of the Americas and the UN World Tourism Organization, is an easy and interesting read at
As for choices of recreation, pause a moment. Do you have a need for speed? Thank about the consequences of an ATV ride, crushing plover eggs in your zeal. Or a jet ski or air boat, spewing oil and gas and disrupting underwater communication signals with the droning engine buzz. Maybe a zip-ride would satiate you. Could rowing a canoe or bicycling release those endorphins?
Ecotourism begins and end with you. Where relevant, avail yourself of the programs offered by the local rangers. They’ll blow your mind. You’ve got this one. For all of us.