Do you want to travel without destroying the planet? Being a green tourist is not easy but it is possible! In this post we share our best advice to make sure your next trip is greener. Read on to reduce your footprint and make sure your next trip is as eco-friendly as possible.
As our beloved Kermit the Frog has been saying for years, “It’s not easy being green.”
It’s especially tough if you want to travel!
Green tourism is a relatively new concept in the tourism industry and the powers that be — airlines, international hotel chains, big tour operators — are almost all set up to profit from mass tourism, not mindful tourism.
Unfortunately, the environmental impacts of tourism can be devastating when profit takes precedence.
So far, the responsibility for minimizing our travel footprints and being a green tourist rests solely on the individual’s shoulders. The good news is, individual travellers can (and do) use their purchasing power and their voices to make real change in how the travel industry operates.
Green tourism is all about making conscious, deliberate choices that reduce the harm — and increase the positive impact — of travel.
Read on for our guide to greening up your next trip.
11 Tips for Being a Green Tourist
It’s not Easy Being Green
That’s why you need our guide to slow travel, our post about the benefits of eco-travel, and our 63 travel tips from 20 years of travel.
1. Plan an Eco-Friendly Itinerary
Being a green tourist starts before you even leave home.
Too many people plan trips that involve flying from place to place every few days. Not only does this type of travel have the worst environmental impact, it’s also the least fulfilling.
When you hop on a plane from Amsterdam to Paris to Rome, you add enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses to the environment. You also waste a huge chunk of your holiday time in airports!
Worse still, this type of fast travel means you miss all of the amazing places in between.
Tips for creating an eco-friendly itinerary:
- Travel overland by public transport whenever possible. Busses and trains beat planes every time!
- Minimize your number of stopovers when you do fly. Direct flights use less fuel.
- Visit a small geographical area and explore it thoroughly rather than hopping between major destinations.
- Buy carbon offsets or give to environmental or local charities when you travel.
Planning an eco-friendly itinerary is good for the planet and great for your trip. It allows you to become more involved in the culture and local life and spend less time hauling your heavy suitcase on and off of airplanes, taxis, and trains.
2. Choose Time & Place Carefully
Mass tourism makes a massive impact on the most popular tourist destinations around the world. Especially during high season, in a place like, for example, Dubrovnik, the influx of summer tourists puts unusually high pressure on the environment. (It also creates huge problems for the people who live there.)
If you want to visit an extremely popular destination, go in off season or shoulder season when hotels stand empty and attractions are less full. Off-season travellers help bring balance to the environment and the economy of these popular destinations.
Another way to spread out your impact is to travel to less popular countries or less popular regions of the same country. So, don’t just pop in to visit Dubrovnik. Head north to see the rest of Croatia or go south and visit Montenegro and Albania.
3. Make Smart Accommodation Choices
It’s not always easy to find hotels that are committed to sustainable tourism practices. Eco hotels are on the rise but they’re still the tiny minority and some that claim to be green businesses aren’t legit. They just say all the right things in order to cash in on the trend for ecotourism.
Here are some tips to find real eco-friendly hotels:
- Search for eco-conscious hotels at your destination and then check their website or contact them to find out what makes them eco-friendly. Do they have a green tourism award or accreditation like LEED, Green Key or Green Check?
- Use green-focussed sites like Green Pearls or EcoBnb to find your accommodation.
- Stay in small, independent hotels, guesthouses, or home stays — large multinational conglomerates are less likely to care about their impact on the local community.
- Only stay in Airbnbs where the owner still lives. These are arguably the most eco-friendly accommodations because you join a household and share resources with the owner.
- Stay in hostels. Packing multiple people into one room is more eco-friendly than giving everyone their own space!
If you really want to be at one with nature, you can always camp or go glamping. Non-permanent structures generally have less impact on the environment than permanent ones.
4. Think Before You Book
Here are some questions to consider before you book any tour or activity:
- Does the activity involve animals, like elephant riding, dolphin shows, or tiger temples? Many people fool themselves into believing that the animals love these activities. But it doesn’t take much thinking before you realize their true nature. Where do the animals come from? Would they choose to live in captivity? How are they benefitting from your tourism?
- Does the tour visit sensitive ecosystems? What are they doing to reduce their environmental impact there?
- Is there a more eco-friendly alternative? For example, you could take a jeep tour to a local waterfall or you could choose a bicycle tour. You could do a speedboat tour of local waterways or you could choose to kayak.
- How does the tour operator give back to local communities? Do they employ local people? Do they take you to locally-owned businesses? Do they run a foundation or support non-profits?
It doesn’t take long before asking questions like these becomes second nature. You’ll develop a sixth sense that separates the eco warriors from the fakers.
5. Drink Responsibly
Plastic is a problem everywhere in the world. Whether it is thrown in the ocean, or on the street, or in a garbage dump you never see, the mountains of waste plastic on Earth are ever-increasing.
No matter where you travel, bring your refillable water bottle and always think before you grab a disposable plastic bottle of water, juice, or any other drink. We don’t want you to get dehydrated, but it’s good to keep in mind that the trash from your 5 minutes of thirst-quenching will remain on Earth for millions of years.
If you’re in a country where the water is unsafe to drink, try to find an alternative to small plastic bottles. Buy the biggest bottles of water you can find and then fill your reusable bottle from those. Ask at restaurants and your hotel if you can fill your water from the huge 20-litre containers they usually have for staff.
You probably won’t be able to eliminate 100% of your plastic use while you travel, but you can definitely eliminate a lot.
6. Eat Green
It is harder to practice eco-friendly eating while travelling than it is at home. Restaurants are huge contributors to food waste and often create excessive carbon emissions.
Here are a few things you can do to reduce your impact:
- Always eat at the restaurant. Take-out containers create more garbage and waste.
- Avoid eating at fast food places or anywhere where they serve food in disposable containers.
- Don’t order too much food. If you’re not sure how much you need, order a small amount first and then order more if you’re still hungry. We see so many tourists leaving behind plates full of perfectly good food — don’t be one of them.
- Eat vegetarian, local, and organic food where possible. This supports the local economy while reducing the impact the production and transportation your food has on the environment.
- Carry your own set of reusable cutlery so you don’t have to use plastic knives and forks while you’re on the go.
Of course, all of these tips for eating green apply equally when you’re at home!
7. Buy Locally Made Souvenirs
If you’re planning on shopping during your trip, look for keepsakes, clothing, and other souvenirs that have been made locally.
In many countries, you can find handicrafts — anything from silk scarves to obscene bottle openers to kids’ toys — made by underserved members of the community.
If you’re travelling in wealthier countries, it can be tempting to buy a fridge magnet or I Heart City t-shirt. Instead, seek boutiques run by local independent designers or stores that offer products made locally.
Not only will your shopping have better impact on the local community but your souvenirs will be more meaningful and your gifts more thoughtful than if you buy mass-produced items.
8. Speak Up
When you see a tourism professional — tour guide, hotel owner, restaurant owner — doing something that doesn’t seem eco-friendly to you, speak up. It doesn’t have to be confrontational or obnoxious. Just point out that, as a traveller who likes to engage in responsible tourism, you would prefer that things were done a different way.
Successful tourism businesses listen to your feedback and make changes accordingly.
One place we’ve seen travellers feedback make a huge impact is in northern Cambodia. Elephant rides are almost gone there as all of the sanctuaries shift to a more hands-off approach in response to tourist feedback.
This is just one example of many we’ve seen where tourists who were brave enough to speak up made a huge positive change.
As a single traveller, you can make an impact! Don’t be afraid to speak up.
9. Take Real Action
This might be the most radical suggestion we make for would-be eco travellers. Almost everywhere we go, there are local social and environmental problems that could be solved (or at least radically improved) if only there was enough money to do so.
If you are spending a huge chunk of money on travel, then you can afford to slice off a tiny portion of that to help others. It’s easy to do:
- Choose a percentage of your daily travel budget — 1%, 3%, 5%, even 10% or more
- Choose an environmental or social charity in the region
- Donate your chosen amount
- You’re on a 10-day trip and your daily budget is $100
- You choose to give 5% to a local cause
- That’s $50 to contribute to someone in need
It might mean skipping a couple of evening cocktails, or eating a budget meal or two, but it’s easy to make a difference. Of course, if $50 seems ludicrously small to you, feel free to give more — just give.
10. Find Eco-Friendly Tourist Activities
It can be tough to separate the true ecotourism providers from the fakers, who say all the right things, but don’t act. Here are a few tips for spotting the best and avoiding the worst.
Follow the 4 Cs
The travel companies who are doing the best work have an eye on all the angles of ecotourism. Especially if you’re choosing a multi-day tour, ask how they are involved in the four Cs:
- Conservation: Are they actively working on environmental protection in the areas they operate?
- Culture: Do they provide information and education to their guests about the local way of life and indigenous cultures?
- Community: Do they employ locals and do they have a way to share profits with the local community, either through social programs or direct profit-sharing?
- Commerce: Does the company bring money into the local community, besides what it receives itself? Do the profits filter down or flow directly to some giant corporation in another country?
To be honest, this is only helpful if you know what to look for. Most travellers will not notice, or will not mention, environmentally destructive practices once they’ve already bought and paid for an experience.
Sometimes, it is painfully obvious that a so-called eco-friendly experience is just a poorly disguised cash grab. Other times, it can be a little harder to tell and you’ll need to learn to read between the lines.
If you have any doubts about an organization, it’s probably better to find one that ticks all the boxes.
If you end up on an activity that isn’t eco-friendly, please leave an honest review online, so other green travellers will know to avoid it.
Don’t go too cheap
While it is completely possible to be an ecotourist on a budget (and often budget travellers are unwittingly more environmentally friendly, just because they can’t afford the bigger, more damaging aspects of travel), it’s not usually the cheapest activity or tour which is the most eco-friendly.
Why? Because it costs money to give back to locals and to do things in a more environmentally friendly way.
Usually, eco activities end up being somewhere in the middle of the scale — not the cheapest ones but not the most expensive luxury ones either.
Use your common sense
Does something seem off to you? Then it probably is. Don’t engage in mental gymnastics to justify an experience.
Is riding a dune buggy through sand dunes going to damage the sand dunes? Yes. Is a kayak tour less damaging than a speed boat tour? Obviously! Is riding an elephant or watching it paint pretty pictures good for the elephant? Clearly not!
It’s easy to try and fool yourself into thinking that the thing you really wanted to do is “not that bad” or “totally fine”.
We have vegan, animal-loving friends who have given us long-winded explanations of why it was OK to ride elephants in India, for example. Other friends have performed logic-bending miracles to explain away their questionable activities.
We do it, too. For example, we fly way more than we, as eco-minded travellers, should and rationalize it on the basis of our otherwise incredibly small eco footprint.
The point is, to choose truly environmentally friendly activities when you’re travelling, it’s important to be aware of the human tendency to rationalize and try your best to look at your plans objectively.
11. Travel with Proven Green Companies
It might seem easier to just book whatever your hotel is offering or opt for the cheapest trip you can find, but, unfortunately, the easiest option is hardly ever the most eco-friendly option.
It’s hardly ever the most fulfilling option either!
Once we find a tour or travel provider we like, who has a proven track record of offering eco-friendly and responsible travel experiences, we like to use them again and again.
A few of our favourites are:
Intrepid runs exceptionally eco-friendly tours. They use local transport when available, take their guests to independently owned restaurants and hotels, and educate travellers about the local issues. They also give money and support to local development organizations and run their own foundation.
Of course, we love them for the eco acumen and social responsibility. But we also love them because they run small group tours that get you up close and personal with the local people while showing you an incredible time.
We always say the most eco-friendly way to travel is by bike. A Grasshopper Adventures multi-day bike tour will immerse you in the local culture, take you to places where other tourists don’t go, and give you an excuse to try all the amazing food where you’re travelling. If you like active travel, take a look at Grasshopper Adventures.
Vegan Travel and Tours
You’ve probably heard that one of the most impactful things a person can do for the environment is to give up meat. Well, if you’ve already done so, or you’re vegan-curious, then taking a vegan travel tour will satisfy your curiosity.
There are only a few companies offering this kind of tour around the world. We suggest taking a look at:
- World Vegan Travel, who offer luxury tours on a limited basis
- Veg Jaunts & Journeys, who specialize in slow travel and off-the-beaten-path experiences
We hope this post has helped you understand what being a green tourist means and how you can make your travels more environmentally friendly. Now let’s get out there and paint the tourism industry green.
♥ Happy transformational travels, Jane & Stephen
We’re not going to lie, it takes a LOT of work to create travel guides like this. But it’s easy to help us out! If you book or buy something using one of our personal links in this post, we’ll earn a small fee at no extra cost to you. Of course, we would never recommend anything we didn’t 100% believe in! Huge thanks in advance! –S&J
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