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  • Allie Daum

The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Travel and Ecotourism

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

How to enjoy your trip while being respectful of nature and local communities

The most important way to express your opinion as far as the environment is concerned is how you use your money. So how can sustainable and conscious travel help, and what is it, anyway?

The UN World Tourism Organization says that sustainable travel and tourism “[take account of] current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” In other words, sustainable travel considers any impact you may have on local nature and community during your trip.

How Do I Travel Sustainably?

Accessibility to sustainable travel is an issue, as with many other efforts to be environmentally friendly, and some methods are more accessible than others. Here are a few ways to travel more sustainably, should you have the means:

Reducing Climate Pollution

If possible, choose a destination closer to home. The less far you travel, the better, because you won’t create as much climate pollution.

Consider the walkability of your destination. Sites like Walk Score will break down ease of walking, biking and other transportation methods through easy-to-understand ratings for you. Just enter your destination in the search bar and it’ll tell you what you need to know! A high walkability rate means less emissions from cars and a safer environment for pedestrians, among other benefits. Biking is also a great option— you can bring or rent a bike on your vacation for fun, easy transport that’s faster than walking but with the same environmental perks. Some cities offer trendy options like Lime or Spin bikes and scooters in abundance, making this mode of transportation more popular than ever before.

Subway and train systems are great options when considering emissions reductions, as well. Abroad, many countries have well-developed rail systems, like the bullet trains in Japan.

Unfortunately, the US has very underdeveloped rail infrastructure overall, but popular domestic destinations such as New York City and Washington, D.C. have extensive lines available for your use. If you want to help increase rail accessibility in the US, you can read up on the issue and get involved here and here. City buses are a good option, too.

If none of the above work for you, renting an electric vehicle may also be something to look into, but fair warning: these are hard to find and keep charged when it comes to rentals, and they may be more expensive. Also take into account that rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft contribute more to climate pollution than driving yourself would. If you drive yourself, consider fueling up with biodiesel, which is nontoxic and burns cleaner than regular gas. There are some potential cons to using biodiesel, though, so be sure to take that into consideration.

Flying accounts for some of the worst pollution per person by far compared to other modes of transportation, so avoid it if you can. If you find yourself having to fly, look into the differing emissions for separate airlines not all plane pollution was created equal. Some airlines, like Spirit and Frontier, have much higher fuel efficiency compared to ones like Delta and American. Some airlines are also increasing their use of biofuels, known as Sustainable Aviation Fuels, in an effort to be more eco-friendly. If you’d like, you can even offset your emissions through sites like MyClimate, which will also calculate your emissions for you. Another way to reduce your contribution to pollution while flying is to choose nonstop flights over those with stops and layovers. An added bonus here: you’ll get to your destination quicker. However, tickets for nonstop flights may be more expensive, so bear that in mind. And be sure to pack lightly— less weight means less emissions!

Finally, avoid cruises at all costs! Not only do they produce up to 4 times as many emissions as air travel, but they also dump all types of untreated waste and garbage directly into the ocean, and exploit employees and local economies alike.

Reducing Waste

Bring reusables with you! Some ideas: reusable water bottles, travel mugs, and travel utensil packs (but maybe don’t bring that last one with you to the airport!).

Refuse free handouts— at many festivals and events, you’ll encounter heaps of companies handing out free goodie bags and other items. We’ve all been there, and let’s be honest, we didn’t really need

any of the stuff in those bags! Consider the contents carefully before taking one, & practice saying no.

Opt for local lodging (we’ll get into this more in a minute), but if you absolutely need to stay with a hotel chain, here are a few tips: don’t take the free water bottles they have at the desk, bring your own toiletries with you, and hang up a do not disturb sign on your door to prevent housekeeping from cleaning unnecessarily. While you’re at it, hang up your towels so they don’t get laundered before they need to be!

Consider making more sustainable purchases overall. Using things like bamboo toothbrushes and bar soaps can help reduce plastic waste, among other benefits. But always be sure to use what you already have first.

Supporting Local Businesses and Families

Being intentional with your purchasing of services and products on vacations and other trips helps to keep money local, supporting the community there, rather than going to large corporations that might not even be in the country. Here’s some suggestions to help:

Stick with local lodging options. When looking for a place to stay, try to research local small business establishments like Airbnb's and hotels. Pro-tip— look under the “unique stays” tab on Airbnb to find tiny houses, yurts, hostels, earth houses, barns, and other cool and

repurposed spaces to stay!

Eat out at local restaurants. Try to stay away from chain fast food and sit-down establishments during your trip. Local restaurants often source their food from nearby farms, so not only do they support the local economy but also benefit the planet, since there’s less emissions from shipping and less intensive farming practices.

If you’d rather cook for yourself, explore the farmer’s market. Just as with local restaurants, you aren’t supporting Big Agriculture, you’re benefiting the community, and shipping emissions &

intensive practices will be lessened. The food you find here will also likely be seasonally grown, which is important too.

For souvenirs and shopping, take a gander at what local artisans and craftsmen have to offer. Their work is often unique and more functional than your run-of-the-mill plastic keychain, so it’s sure to be worth your while.

How to be a Good Eco-Tourist

What you do on your vacation is just as important as how you get there and what you bring. Here’s how to ensure you’re being respectful while enjoying yourself:

Keep Money Local

As we just discussed, supporting local and small businesses is crucial in traveling sustainably. Staying, eating, and shopping locally will also help you immerse yourself in your new environment, and give you better experiences and opportunities there.

Respect Local Culture

If you’re traveling internationally, chances are things will be different on the other side of the border. Before you leave, you’ll want to read up on local customs, traditions, and etiquette so that you aren’t disruptive or rude while you’re there. This will include things like the way you dress, how you speak and use body language, and maybe even your personal schedule, among many other things. Do your best to learn about these things and adhere to them. Be sure you consider what privileges you might have in being there as well, and keep them in mind during your interactions too. Learn more about respecting other cultures while traveling here.

Enjoy Nature, But Be Careful…

Don’t harm, remove or disturb wildlife. Leave cool plants, animals, and natural formations alone. If they’re just too pretty to leave behind, take a photo to remember them by! But definitely don’t smuggle them back home— they have a place in their natural habitat, and may even harm their new place of residence if they happen to become invasive in your own community.

No animal tourism. We’ve all heard of the horrors of SeaWorld, but the hurting of animals in the tourism industry runs much deeper than you might think. Animals are often drugged and abused into compliance at tourist attractions like circuses, tiger “sanctuaries,” horse races, and elephant or camel rides, and are kept in inhumane conditions such as the excessive confinement seen in zoos and aquariums.

Don’t eat or buy the endangered species, either. Eating things like shark fin soup and black bear meat may sound adventurous and exciting, but it will harm the balance of local ecosystems. By all means, take part in local cuisine, but be aware of what you’re eating and where it came from. Buying turtle shells, ivory trinkets, and claws and teeth as souvenirs is also a bad idea. These species are necessary for nature to continue functioning properly, but they’re dying out for the sake of

human enjoyment. They don’t need to be cruelly harvested, as they doubtlessly are, so you don’t need to support their deaths.

Remember your hiking manners! Stay on the trails, stash trash to throw away properly later, be careful with your campfires, and don’t feed the animals.

Consider a conscious sunscreen. Especially if you’re headed to the beach, make sure your sunscreen is a safe choice. Many popular sunscreen brands include ingredients like oxybenzone,

petrolatum/mineral oil, titanium dioxide, and a host of others in their products, which, when in the ocean, can be harmful and even deadly to coral and other marine life. Coral reefs are key to the health of ocean ecosystems, so you’ll want to avoid these ingredients to help protect them. Raw Elements, Goddess Garden, Mama Kuleana, and Badger are all safe options for ocean-safe sunscreen.

So What Can I Do?

Now that we’ve covered a bunch of things not to do on your eco-vacation, here are some fun ideas to fill your itinerary instead:

If you’re looking to get outside, visit protected areas and World Heritage sites. These places will be rich in cultural and natural knowledge as well as beautiful views, and they need your support!

Take a tour with a knowledgeable local company rather than a large, impersonal company. They’ll know all the cool hidden gems in the area and will give you more accurate and interesting info, too.

Look into volunteer opportunities. These might help you get to know the local nature and animals, give you a chance to practice the local language if you aren’t fluent, and make some friends along the way, while positively contributing to the community.

Bottom-line, you want to consider all the ways your travel might impact the environment, economy, and community of the place you visit and the world as a whole. Consider all your options for transportation, food, lodging, and shopping carefully, and do what you can to minimize your carbon footprint and positively impact the world around you. Definitely do your research on your destination-of-choice, take care, and have fun!

Come Visit Us!

Hidden Flower Tiny Farm in Asheville, NC

Hidden Flower is a lodging and wedding/event venue that focuses on sustainability, with multiple tiny houses and a yurt available to stay in. Some of our eco-friendly features include solar power, completely plant-based products, plastic-reducing refillable soaps from Puracy and Dr. Bronner’s, and the use of secondhand decor and furniture that remains in good condition. The farm also saves a lot of water through the use of Nature’s Head composting toilets, which alone can save over 6,500 gallons of water yearly, as well as a greywater system that recycles water for reuse. Our accommodations are as cozy and beautiful as they are sustainable.

We’re located in Asheville, North Carolina, which has many state and national parks nearby to choose from— a window directly into the Blue Ridge Parkway. In town there’s some amazing small businesses and loads of delicious restaurants, many of which are vegetarian and vegan. Our music and arts scene is known across the country for its liveliness. If you’re looking to visit soon and try out your newfound knowledge on sustainable travel, we’d love to have you!

*We do not benefit financially from any of these suggestions.

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