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Sustainable Travel


Sustainable Travel

Wanderlust With the Earth in Mind

by Sara Kaplan

Whether travel is enjoyed for much-needed relaxation, cultural immersion or the opportunity to volunteer in an eco-program spotlighting permaculture or farming, journeying to places far and near greatly enriches our human experience. During these environmentally critical times, our travels may carry a hefty price tag that the planet can no longer afford. This does not mean we need to sacrifice adventure. Every traveler can make a difference not only for the Earth but for the local communities they visit.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, 8.1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to travel and tourism. Being in the know and taking more responsibility for our environmental impact can be easier than commonly assumed, all the while inviting unexpected enjoyment.

Amanda Reiser, a global sustainable tourism specialist based in Pennsylvania, encourages her clients to consider the three pillars of sustainable tourism: environment, economy and equity. “We all can play a part in fostering sustainable tourism and creating a more sustainable world,” she explains, noting that a green-minded approach benefits not only the traveler but also the destination. “Ask yourself: Does my participation in this activity create a negative impact on the natural environment? Are there any actions to help reduce my environmental impact?”

A traveler’s footprint extends to the socio-cultural fabric of the destination, too. Reiser reminds travelers, “You may be in your destination for only a week, but the people who live there year-round feel the impacts of visitors every day, for better or worse.” By respecting local traditions and engaging locals in a respectful and inclusive manner, tourists can contribute positively to the cultural integrity of the communities they visit.

Greener Horizons

Instead of hitting all the trendy, transportation-reliant sights, opt to slow down and stay in one place for a longer period. This not only invites a richer, deeper experience but minimizes the need to hop onto another plane or bus. To support the local economy of a desired destination, buy locally produced items and book small, private hotels and inns, rather than international chains. Dining at locally owned eateries supports small business while giving travelers higher-quality fare and a more authentic cultural experience.

When planning a trip, contemplate the many treasures of domestic travel or choose a location that is not drowning in overtourism. The influx of tourists can significantly strain fragile ecosystems, deplete resources and disrupt the lives of local communities. Consider destinations that can be crossed via boat, train or bus, such as the New York-Montreal border or clusters of countries in Europe or Southeast Asia.

Packing With Purpose

Making small choices even when packing a suitcase goes a long way. Bring eco-friendly sunscreen and opt for brands that avoid chemicals harmful to coral reefs and tropical environments. Pack a cloth tote bag for daily excursions and a reusable water bottle to avoid single-use plastics. Remember that by using plastic containers more than once, we reduce the amount of waste that is released over time. Try not to overpack—bring only the most necessary items, preferably those that can be recycled, reused and disposed of properly.

Sojourning With Savvy

To avoid getaway glitches, become acquainted with local laws and regulations. When planning a fishing excursion, for example, identify the legally designated fishing spots and avoid harming endangered species, which are heavily protected under national and international regulations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) offers an interactive map to show where legal fishing areas are by state (fws.gov/fishing/map). Historical resources should also be taken into consideration. For instance, the Florida Keys require special permits for cultural, maritime, heritage and archeological explorations, including snorkeling expeditions of ancient shipwrecks and other unique, underwater sites.

It is always best to ask whether a destination is a naturally protected sanctuary or requires special permits. The FSW is a good reference site for information on activities in national wildlife refuges and the endangered animals that live there. To enjoy these areas to their fullest, make sure to find a knowledgeable local tour guide that understands the laws of the land.

Traveling consciously involves personal responsibility toward the environment through individual actions. “You can make a difference,” says David Knight, a professor of tourism management at Colorado State University. “Regenerative travel is not just leaving things the way you found them. It’s a matter of giving more than you take.”

Don’t Be Greenwashed

Greenwashing is a corrupt practice by companies that claim to support conscious tourism but fail to live up to their claims. Vetting businesses when planning a trip means delving into third-party research and reports to check the fine print. Before booking, make sure the ecolodge or eco-touring company being considered has a legitimate certification on their website. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) sets global standards and provides accreditations for destination managers, hotels and tour operators. There are also certifying groups in specific locations, such as the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii, and others that are accredited by the GSTC, like Preferred by Nature.

For tourism operations that have not been certified, the onus is on the traveler. “Check with the local chambers of commerce. They should know who is working toward sustainability and can direct you to those aligned with what you are looking for,” says Claudia Gil Arroyo, an agricultural agent for the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, in New Jersey. “If a tour operator or destination does not have a clear goal on how they’re contributing to the environment, it is unlikely that they are actually green.”

For tourism to be truly sustainable, it must also be economically viable for local communities. Economic sustainability ensures that tourism dollars benefit the local economy, creating fair wages, local sourcing and community empowerment, and allowing communities to thrive while preserving their cultural heritage. When traveling, support local, eco-friendly businesses that provide sustainable products.

A good example is agritourism—a vacation stay at a participating local farm—which can provide exciting, hands-on learning experiences. “Get out there. Look for your local growers and check out the services and activities they offer,” says Gil Arroyo. “People have this idea that agritourism is just picking your pumpkins and that’s it, and there’s so much more that can be done at a farm.”

Eco-Friendly North American Parks

North America is home to many national parks—63 in the United States and 48 in Canada. Here are five exceptional examples that provide a sustainable, eco-friendly vacation experience.

Yellowstone National Park is known for its geothermal features, including the famous Old Faithful geyser. It also has a diverse range of wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves and herds of bison. This U.S. park has implemented sustainable practices such as renewable energy installations, waste management programs and educational initiatives to promote conservation.

Great Bear Rainforest is a temperate locale on the central and northern coasts of British Columbia, Canada. It is home to a variety of wildlife, including the rare Kermode bear, also known as the spirit bear. The park works closely with First Nations communities, implementing conservation measures to protect biodiversity and support eco-conscious businesses.

Everglades National Park is a unique wetland ecosystem in Florida known as the “River of Grass”. It provides habitat for numerous endangered species, such as the Florida panther and the West Indian manatee. The park employs restoration efforts to preserve the natural water flow and conserve wildlife, with plenty of opportunities for eco-friendly recreational activities like kayaking and hiking.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park is located on the northern tip of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. It offers breathtaking coastal views, rugged cliffs and stunning hiking trails. The park implements waste reduction, energy conservation, ecological restoration and educational programs to promote environmental stewardship.

Redwood National and State Parks, in California, are home to the tallest trees on Earth, the majestic coast redwoods. Sustainable eco-practices include trail maintenance and restoration, wildlife protection, interpretation programs to educate visitors about the delicate ecosystem, and conservation efforts to combat climate change and preserve redwood habitat.

Sara Kaplan is an environmentally conscious freelance writer and eco-traveler from Fort Collins, CO.

Photo credit: Dmitry Pichugin / CanvaPro

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