Take a sustainable vacation
Sustainable travel may conjure up images of backpacking through virgin jungle or snorkeling in pristine waters off some far-flung coast. But earth-friendly trekking—the idea that your eco-footprint should remain small no matter where you go—can be the guiding principle behind any trip. Taking a sustainable vacation means making green and socially responsible choices every step of the way—from booking your trip with a green travel agent to staying in a eco-friendly hotel to eco-volunteering while you're there. In other words, wherever you wander, from the smallest village to the remotest mountaintop, you lighten your eco- and cultural-footprint.
How to take a sustainable vacation
Whether you’re heading to a nearby lake to pitch your tent for the weekend, taking in a Broadway show in Manhattan, or floating down the Amazon on a raft, there are numerous ways to keep your eco-impact to a minimum while also supporting local businesses and cultures. Here’s how:
- Do your research up front. Read up on environmental, political, and social issues in destinations you’re considering. Guidebooks that offer this kind of information include Lonely Planet and Rough Guides.
- Book with travel companies specializing in sustainable tourism. Green tours may make a bigger dent in your wallet (they can cost up to 20 percent more), but you'll be doing your part to preserve the planet's beautiful wild places as well as its cultural hotspots.
- Stay in a green hotel that not only promotes energy- and water-conservation, but also offers guests a variety of eco-friendly amenities, including organic cotton sheets and gourmet meals made with locally grown ingredients.
- Respect the natural environment. Whether you’re in a city park or hiking the Himalayas, refrain from touching or harassing animals, leave plants and other natural features as you found them, and dispose of waste responsibly.
- Buy sustainable souvenirs. Avoid crafts, clothing, and other items that were derived from protected or endangered animal species. Likewise, buy locally made items that support the people who live nearby, as well as local green organizations. Long-distance shipping of products burns fossil fuels and contributes pollutants to the atmosphere.
- Frequent local businesses. This includes eating in local restaurants, shopping at local markets, attending local events, and using local buses, car rental companies, and tour guides.
Find it! Sustainable travel companies and tour operators
These companies promote eco-friendly travel and attempt to minimize their environmental impact in locations where they operate while also promoting an area's cultural heritage. To get the most out of your green travel dollar, check out green rating systems for travel providers for more information, or design your own green vacation at Green Travel Hub by RezHub.com.
This group of adventure travel companies adheres to the organization’s five principles of responsible travel. Low-impact trips span the globe and include everything from hiking and horseback riding to river kayaking and llama-trekking.
Customize your own low-impact eco-tours and cultural vacations with naturalists, guides, historians, and community activists around the world who offer specialized, non-packaged tours. Search by region and by activity.
Taking a sustainable vacation helps you go green because…
- Wherever you roam—through wilderness areas, fragile ecosystems, and urban areas alike—you minimize your consumption of water, natural resources, and energy.
- You support local cultures and economies.
With nearly 900 million worldwide tourists on the road, in the skies, or on the high seas each year, the environmental impacts of vacationing on local eco-systems, water, air, and wildlife can be significant. With more tourists interested in remote and exotic destinations, many fragile areas that were once relatively untouched are now under pressure from new construction of resort areas. This often results in deforestation and loss of biodiversity, as well as high consumption of energy and water.
In addition, a rising number of visitors means increased noise and vehicle pollution, mounds of waste, and habitat destruction from trampling soil and plants. Urban areas are also experiencing increased tourist traffic, which not only strains water and energy supplies, but can lead to degradation of city parks and open spaces, as well as architectural treasures. Left unchecked, heavy tourism in both urban and natural areas can exceed a location's ability to sustain it.
Sustainable tourism encompasses all types of ecologically and culturally sensitive travel—everything from ecotourism in wild areas to responsible travel in historic cities. The aim is to conserve natural resources and preserve ecosystems, while also promoting local cultures and economies.
Green rating systems for travel providers
The following sites rate earth-friendly travel providers in the US and around the world, plus provide listings. Some offer formal certification based on strict criteria (which usually includes the right to use an eco-label or seal). Others provide listings of green travel companies (usually based on some type of selection criteria), but don't offer formal green certification. Travel companies may or may not be required to pay for these listings.
- The Rainforest Alliance, an international conservation organization, promotes ecologically and socially responsible best practices for Latin American tourism businesses. Search for tour operators that have signed an agreement with the Rainforest Alliance to conserve biodiversity and reduce tourism’s negative environmental impacts.
- Sustainable Travel International provides a list of member tour operators and travel companies that are committed to sustainable travel. Some have received certification through the organization’s voluntary Sustainable Tourism Eco-certification Program (STEP) for tourism providers based out of the US.
- The International Ecotourism Society: Travel Choice: Lists eco-tourism operators around the world that have signed the TIES Code of Conduct
- Green Globe: Developed in 1993 by the World Travel & Tourism Council (based on Agenda 21 and the Sustainable Development principles endorsed at the 1992 Earth Summit), Green Globe certifies environmentally responsible travel businesses and destination communities worldwide. Search for tourism providers that follow Green Globe's strict standards and bear its logo.
- Blue Flag: Search for over 3,200 beaches and marinas in 37 countries that have earned the Blue flag eco-label (awarded by the nonprofit Foundation for Environmental Education). Certified properties follow stringent criteria for water quality, environmental education, and safety.
- Planeta.com’s World Travel Directory: Find eco-friendly, people-friendly, place-friendly tour and travel operators listed by country. Listed companies pay to be included but must adhere to Planeta.com’s selection criteria.
- Eco Tour: Online Directory of Eco-tours and Eco-lodges: Tour companies pay for a listing but must demonstrate their commitment to environmental, social and, economic concerns where they operate.
Eco-ratings and certification standards
About 80 certification programs exist around the world to rate travel companies and businesses that promote sustainable tourism. But some standards are stricter than others, making it difficult to determine whether a tour operator or travel agency is legitimately green or full of greenwash. Several organizations have now formed a council to develop an international accreditation body for sustainable and ecotourism programs, but debate continues over what the standards should be.
Eco-tourism seeks to decrease travelers’ ecological footprint in wilderness areas and fragile ecosystems around the world. It’s part of a larger movement called sustainable tourism, which looks to not only protect natural areas, but also urban and rural areas, as well as local cultures and economies. Despite eco-tourism’s attempt to minimize the impact of tourism on wild areas, it’s often criticized for opening up sensitive “virgin” areas to masses of travelers. This often includes building energy-intensive mega-resorts sporting artificial landscapes that disrupt native plant and animal species. In addition, critics charge that eco-tourism can strip local economies of their diversity, creating eco-tourism monocultures. Local people are not only typically paid low wages but they may not be guaranteed year-round work.
- Go Green Travel Green
- Tips for Responsible Travel
- Sustainable Tourism.net Resources
- Rainforest Alliance - Sustainable Tourism
- Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics
- New American Dream - Travel Green Now
- National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations
- The Global Development Research Center - Sustainable Tourism
- United Nations Environment Programme - About Sustainable Tourism