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Planning a trip both you and the Earth can afford

In recent years, sustainable tourism has been gaining popularity with both travel providers and travelers. Whether it’s visiting an up-and-coming “ecodestination;” supporting destinations that employ and give back to the local community; or simply minimizing waste, fuel consumption, or use of local resources, today’s traveler has much more to think about than just price. Next time you consider a vacation, also think about its cost on the environment and regional community. With a little careful planning, you can minimize the impact of your travels.

What’s the difference between ecotourism and sustainable tourism?

Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, but there is a distinction. According to the Global Development Research Center, ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.” Sustainable tourism goes one step further, with a series of clearly established benchmarks to reduce environmental damage and increase conservation, improve contributions to local development, use as little non-renewable resources as possible, help the well-being of local communities, support local ownership, and advocate for biodiversity.

What can travelers do to minimize their environmental footprint and support sustainable tourism?

“Don’t look just at the price, but ask hard questions about the area’s environmental policy,” says Katie Maschman, director of membership and communications for The International Ecotourism Society. “What do they do for local projects? How are they empowering local people? Are local people employed [at the hotel, destination, etc.], and is there advancement in the organization? What types of conservation projects are in place? Do this pre-travel.”

Joel Makower, founder of, recommends checking to see if a given hotel has been certified as “green.” “The hotel and motel industry discovered eco-efficiency several years ago,” he states. “Many large chains and independents have aggressively reduced energy use and costs through the use of compact-fluorescent light bulbs, water-saving devices, and the like. Such efforts seem to be accelerating.” To check if a hotel you’re considering is environmentally friendly, Makower suggests checking the Green Hotels Association, Green Seal, or the California Green Lodging Program.

Bruce Beckham, executive director of Tourism Cares for Tomorrow, advocates a commonsense approach. “It goes back to doing the responsible things your parents taught you: Don’t throw refuse on the ground, conserve water, shut off lights, don’t leave trash around. Be conscious of laundry requirements. Don’t leave your TV on to seem like someone is in the room—that’s a lot of baloney. Don’t be wasteful.”


There are many practices travelers can undertake to make sure they’re adhering to sustainable principles. Here are some possibilities:

  • Minimize air travel, and carpool or use public transportation as much as possible. “Consider taking the train or bus when traveling within 500 miles,” suggests Maschman. “We as Americans often jump on a plane and think nothing of it.”
  • Visit a destination committed to sustainable tourism. Beckham recommends Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Nicaragua as destinations that offer a multitude of properties and activities that help both the environment and communities. Maschman highlights Alaska; Kerala, India; Micronesia; Peru; St. John, USVI; and Thailand as places where travelers can use their tourism dollars to assist sustainable efforts.
  • Seek out hotels that have environmentally friendly practices, and then follow their guidelines. “There are those ubiquitous placards in hotel bathrooms allowing us to choose whether and when to have towels laundered, thus cutting costs and emissions,” Makower states. Beckham advocates doing the same for bed sheets: “That way you won’t waste water and detergent going in to the atmosphere.”
  • Take a volunteer vacation to help rebuild or boost a given region. Tourism Cares recently led a trip to Gulf Coast areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and regularly creates grants to support conservation and preservation efforts for tourism-related nonprofits. Global Volunteers and Transitions Abroad also offer good resources to research such trips.
  • Watch your disposables—reuse what you can, don’t toss something away just because you’re on vacation.

Checking the sustainability factor

When starting your travel planning, there are plenty of resources you can check to see if a destination, hotel, tour operator, or other provider is committed to sustainable tourism. Here is a list of some good starting points.

You can also use guidebooks to seek out different options. “Lonely Planet is one of the leading ones,” advises Maschman. “They’re coming out with a Code Green guidebook specifically for responsible travel. Depending on the success of that, they’re hoping to do national and regional guidebooks in that series. Rough Guides and the Moon handbooks do a lot for responsible travel.”

By using these strategies, you should be able to plan a vacation that takes cost—both literal and environmental—into account. Beckham stresses the importance of being a responsible traveler: “It’s really important that we have the things tomorrow that we have today. We’re here to preserve the past to ensure the future.”

Sustainable destinations

Costa Rica: Costa Rica has long been recognized as one of the world’s most committed destinations in the areas of environmental health and preservation, empowering local communities, and conserving resources.

Dominica: This year, Dominica received the Green Globe 21 eco-tourism benchmarking designation, recognizing the country as being committed to sustainable tourism practices. In addition to the national recognition, five area hotels were also awarded this distinction.

South Africa’s Phinda Reserve: The Phinda Reserve works as a wildlife preserve, safari, and sustainable destination all in one. The reserve, stocked with native wildlife, works to involve tourists in reducing environmental impact. Proceeds support neighboring communities in the areas of education, health care, and improving living conditions.

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