Eco tourism, eco travel, responsible travel, ethical travel, green tourism. These are just a few different expressions for a new trend that is becoming hugely popular among travellers around the world.
Travelling more responsibly is definitely something we all need to embrace. With international traveller numbers still rising strongly around the world, it is important that each one of us is mindful of the impact our travels are having on the environment, wildlife and local communities.
This does not mean you have to forgo luxury and comfort. Small changes can already make a positive contribution and you can also support carbon-offsetting or other conservation projects to counter balance the impact your travels will have on the environment.
What does travelling responsibly mean?
Travelling responsibly is all about making conscious decisions to limit your environmental footprint and observe local customs and traditions while travelling.
This might sound like a very high level definition, and indeed it is. In fact, what responsible travel means is still not commonly defined. However, there are some crucial factors that should be part of your choices if you want to travel responsibly.
- How you travel and what you do while travelling should have a low / minimum impact on the local environment
- Your travels should contribute positively to supporting local communities and businesses.
- You should be aware of and respectful to cultural practices, customs and traditions. In addition, do not inflict any damage to the areas and sites you are visiting.
- Be conscious when booking wildlife interactions. Put animal welfare on top and don’t go to places that abuse animals.
Is travelling responsibly really possible?
Let’s be honest. If you take a plain somewhere, or even a train or your car, than this will have an impact on the environment.
Does this mean, we should stop travelling at all?
Whilst travelling will not be possible with a zero impact on the environment (at lease for a long time yet), small changes in the choices we make while travelling can already help to make traveling much more eco-friendly.
Plus the travel industry supports the local economy and can actually make a huge difference in local employment, living standards and funding of local education, depending on where you go – and how you spend your money.
Which means, find out about local offers.
There are lots of internationally operating companies in the tourism industry. These can be a great choice and most will employ local staff and engage in local community projects. However, make sure you check out smaller local agencies as well. These are often more rooted in the local community and the money you spend on them is more likely to really end up in the local economy.
Pick smaller restaurants run by locals (no large multinational chains) offering regional food. This way you not only support local businesses, regional products also mean a smaller carbon footprint.
When buying souvenirs, again choose to buy directly from local artists or craftspeople.
With regards to limiting the environmental impact of your travels, look at the way you travel. Consider to swap a flight in favour of a train journey where possible. And be mindful what and how many things you pack.
Observing these rules, you can make your travels much more responsibly. Read on for more specific actions below.
What to do to travel more responsibly – easy steps to make your travels more responsible
There are some easy and straightforward steps to make sure you travel as responsibly as possible.
- If you take a flight, plan wisely. Flying is by far the most polluting way to travel but also remains the only way to see many parts of the world. There are however a few rules that can contribute to limit your environmental impact while flying. Take direct flights when possible. The more layovers, the more fuel and emissions are involved. Check out the respective environmental policies of the airlines, i.e. do they invest in CO2 reduction projects and how old is their fleet (newer airplanes use less fuel and cause less emissions).
- When renting a car, make it as environmentally friendly as possible. Most car rentals now also offer hybrids or electric cars. Otherwise, look at high-mileage cars and only take the maximum size you need (based on the number of people and the baggage you need to store).
- Find out about local customs, traditions and food before you go. Once at your destination, be respectful to these customs. Whilst as a guest you might not always be required to strictly follow along with all local customs (for example, as a visitor you are often given some more freedom for example in your choice of clothes) you should still be mindful to not completely ignore local requirements.
- Ask for permission if you take photos of people or at sites that are not public. Taking a photo of a person and then putting it on your social media account without prior consent is not only rude, it can be quite upsetting. If you take pictures in a crowded place where you cannot avoid capturing other people, try to shoot in a way that no particular person stands out. Plus, do not climb over fences or step into private property (like a courtyard or garden) simply to take an Instagram-worthy photo! If you can’t do it otherwise, don’t do it!
- Treat art and exhibitions respectfully. This means for example, do not climb on a sculpture for a photo opportunity (or any other reason). Unfortunately, I have seen this happening many times.
- Do not pick flowers or fruits, collect stones or pick up marine wildlife from the beach. You don’t want a stranger pick flowers in your garden, and removing something from where it belongs can cause major damage to the local eco-system.
- Wear appropriate clothes. I get it. There can be destinations that can get really hot. However, make sure you remain respectful to local dress codes. Don’t wear shorts and tank tops where it is not suitable. Plus, even when travelling to a destination with no apparent stringent dress codes, remember when you visit a city or town, you should still cover yourself appropriately. I have seen tourists in big European cities during the summer wearing shorts and a bikini top – no no no!
- Do not litter. Think this is obvious? Then you should have seen some of the sites or beaches I have visited that were full with empty plastic bottles, and other stuff people did not want to put back in their bag and dispose of appropriately.
- Choose to stay in eco-friendly hotels / resorts. Over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in eco-friendly accommodation choices. They should be the first on your list when it comes to booking your hotel (or similar). See more on eco-friendly accommodation below.
- Plan you visit during off-season: This one might seem a bit odd, but there are more and more places around the world that are suffering from severe overtourism. Many of these locations are awesome, like Venice, Barcelona, Iceland, Angkor Wat or the Galapagos so it’s understandable you want to see them too. Thus plan your visit at times when the number of visitors is typically lower.
- Think twice about that cruise trip. I know this will be hard to swallow for many. But cruise ships are some of the worst polluters that exist in the travel industry. They generate about 15 gallons of hazardous chemical waste every day, often depose of sewage in the ocean and cause huge air pollution. If that’s not enough, these ships carry thousands of passengers which will disembark and sip into locations all at once; and these places often are small historic towns or other vulnerable sites. Cruise ships are a huge source for over tourism, and in most cases do spend very little at the destination they visit, returning to the ship for dinner.
- Be mindful around animal tourism. If you want to see local wildlife, do it in the wild. There is nothing more impactful than observing wild animals in their natural conditions. While doing so, keep a safe distance. Don’t feed wild animals and do not leave anything behind that could be harmful in any way (i.e. your plastic waste!).
What is eco-accommodation and how to find it
As said before, there has been a huge rise in eco-friendly accommodation over the past decade.
It’s no longer only small, independent and often family managed hotels, resorts, B&Bs or guesthouses that offer this sort of accommodation.
Large brands have hopped on the bandwagon too.
So what has a place to offer / observe to be considered an eco-accommodation?
There are some major criteria an eco-resort/lodge/hotel should observe though not necessarily all at once.
- It needs to have a minimal impact on the environment
- It has to minimize its usage of natural resources like energy and water
- It needs to be rooted in the local community, employ local people, support local initiatives and source all goods and products (like food) locally.
- Providing their clients with local experiences and education on local conservation and community projects
- Use renewable energy resources where possible
To check this out for each place you intend to book might seem overwhelming.
However, many booking platforms now offer ratings/rankings on how environmental friendly an accommodation is. These rankings will depend on how many principles and criteria it meets and several platforms also will let you see how a place compares to others in the same area in terms of eco-friendliness.
What to pack for responsible travel
Travelling, we all carry different essential with us. Most of this will be clothes appropriate for the destination and activities you are planning to do locally.
- Use plastic-free products: Chose products that do not need a plastic wrapping, such as shampoo bars. In addition, use bamboo tooth brushes and combs instead of the usual plastic ones.
- Use eco-friendly toiletries: Most toiletries are still wrapped in some sort of plastic. Many products even contain ingredients that can be harmful to the environment, such as shampoos or soaps with microolastics. Therefore, chose natural products, free from chemicals (which you should do also when not travelling). To avoid plastic wraps, use plastic-free toothpaste, natural deodorants, sustainable soap, bamboo cotton pads, etc.
- Bring and use your own toiletries. Though hotels will offer their own toiletries, and sometimes have really fancy stuff, these typically come in small packages which are extremely wasteful.
- Use environmental-friendly sunscreens (i.e. reef-safe sunscreen): There are many sun-protection products that make a high use of chemicals. This can be in particular damaging for coral reefs or otherwise impact maritime wildlife. Also quite important to notice, there are already some destinations that do not allow the use of sunscreens that can harm the local ecosystem. If you do, you will get fined.
- Bring a reusable water bottle, if necessary one with a filter.
- Likewise, bring your own reusable coffee (or tea) cup. If you are a coffee addict like me and don’t function without your generous morning fix, this can save you to use a lot of paper cups.
- Carry a fabric tote bag. This will come handy to avoid having to use plastic bags when shopping. Depending where you go, it can also double as beach bag.
- If you really need plastic bags for packing, go for re-usable ziplocs. You can wash and air dry them and use as long as possible.
Travelling responsibility not only means to help make our planet a better place. It is a way to travel that can greatly enhance your experiences.