Traveler vs. Tourist: How to Stay Eco-Conscious While on Vacation

While most parts of the country might be well into the thick of winter, colder temperatures are often a great catalyst for vacation planning. While we’re fighting off blizzards and sleet storms, it’s simply enjoyable to dream of warm, sandy beaches or bustling cityscapes full of possibility. However, as environmentalists, we’re in somewhat of a catch-22 position when it comes to traveling. Unless we’re biking or walking to our destination, our carbon footprint will likely be larger than we want it to be.

The usual, preferred alternative is to simply remain at home and enjoy what’s now known as a “staycation.” Though arguably more of a purist response, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that when we stay put and frequent our local neighborhoods and hot spots, we’re doing less damage to the environment than we would be by boarding a huge plane or spending tons of money and fuel sightseeing and traveling around a foreign destination.

If you live in an area where a staycation is feasible and desirable to you, then this option is definitely a great first plan, and often reveals unexpected surprises and hidden gems you didn’t know were available right within your own community. Many major cities will even have an online eco-friendly directory that can point you in the direction of nearby vendors, shops, and restaurants that are dedicated to a green, earth-friendly business model.

Yet, sometimes we simply need to get away, and it’s unfair to assume that everyone with a passion for helping the environment shouldn’t get to enjoy the luxuries of travel. The key to doing it as green and eco-conscious as possible is to monitor every step for its impact. Therein lies the difference between a traveler and a tourist. A tourist is someone whose primary goal is to “visit” a locale and hit all the must-see venues before heading back home. A traveler, on the other hand, understands that his or her actions in a different part of world, even during a brief visit, could have long-term implications and as such, acts in as gentle and kind of a manner as possible to the local community, especially in matters pertaining to nature and the environment.

Here are a few ways you can reduce your footprint and stay as eco-friendly as possible when going on your next big trip:

1. Visit areas that prioritize preservation. If possible, consider traveling to areas of the world known for their conservation and preservation efforts. Using your money or travel dollars in these locations can help fund their important efforts and even a little can go a long way. For instance, while poaching is a prominent practice across most of Africa, the country of Namibia is an exception. The local government here emphasizes preservation and is recognized by the World Wildlife Fund for its efforts. Likewise, Costa Rica values ecotourism and makes it as accessible as possible for travelers to participate in eco-friendly events and nature-oriented expeditions. Remember to take all the necessary precautions when planning a trip to a destination outside of the United States, as some locations, such as Australia and India, will require you to bring along a visa or other paperwork, especially if you plan to stay for longer than 90 days or so.

2. Consider a service trip. While it doesn’t have to encompass the entirety of your trip, consider incorporating a service-oriented aspect into your journey. Environmentally-focused ones, such as those offered through the Student Conservation Association or the Sierra Club, allow you to work outdoors and immerse yourself in local wilderness spots while you play, stay, and dine at a locale. If you’re traveling with your family, you can also look for opportunities to interact with local scientists and conservation groups during your stay. For example, if you’re traveling south to Florida this summer, consider booking a daylong shark research excursion or a shorter coral preservation trip with the University of Miami! You’ll get hands-on experience exploring local wildlife while also learning valuable conservation methods.

3. Sightsee on foot (or two wheels). Sure, you could take the train or bus everywhere once you arrive at your destination. Yet, consider the impact of that fossil fuel consumption over the simple enjoyment of biking and walking around. While this approach is, of course, not possible everywhere, there are plenty of locations that are ideal for this mode of “transportation.” While you’re planning how to get around, also consider if you can stay a little longer to really get a feel for the destination. It’s easier on the environment if you only indulge in fuel-burning, long-distance travel once rather than multiple times per year. If you have several short trips plan, see if you can spring for one longer stay instead and reduce your overall footprint by doing so.

4. Stay and dine strategically. Even in exotic locations, you aren’t limited to big-name hotel chains or resorts when planning your stay. Look for facilities that have been awarded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum designation, revealing that the structure was built to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. There are only a handful of lodging destinations in the U.S. with this label, including the Proximity Hotel in my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. As an alternative, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council recognizes buildings under a similar criteria, and these designations give you a little more leeway, as they’re scattered around the world. Many hotels around Central and South America, for instance, are certified by the Rainforest Alliance as being eco-conscious lodging solutions. When you dine out, look for vegetarian options whenever possible, and try to source your meat as locally as possible.

5. Prioritize experiences, not trinkets. Sure, your family back home might be eager to receive a few knickknacks from your trip. Yet, chances are they’ll appreciate a great slideshow of your memories just the same. While you’re enjoying your stay, look for the least impactful activities that don’t require you to purchase expensive tickets or invest in unnecessary bric-a-brac. If you’re along the coast, it’s enjoyable to simply spend a day at the beach! Let the kids dig sandcastles while you sit back with a great book and rest easy knowing that you’re interacting with the environment kindly and not harming it. You can even plan a night or two of camping under the stars if the locale allows! Planning a trip to a big theme park? While it’s not the most eco-friendly travel option out there, you can do your best to eliminate excess trash during your trip, and look for parks that are actively working on efforts to reduce their footprint and carbon emissions.

There’s a big world out there, and part of our role as environmentalists is to see, absorb, and enjoy as much of it as possible. Yet, it’s just too easy to fall into the tourist trap of go/play/see/do that centers on consuming as much as possible while paying little regard to the local environment or wildlife. As the season slowly warms into spring, consider booking a trip with a green focus in mind, and become a traveler the community will appreciate.