1. Travel slow.
The slow travel movement was started somewhat separately from just trying to reduce environmental impact. It was initially an attempt by travelers to more fully immerse themselves in the places they were traveling by spending more time in a place and allowing themselves to get to know the people and culture, rather than flying in, ticking items off a tourist to-do list, and then flying out. But as it turns out, slow travel is pretty compatible with ecotourism.
By moving slowly and intentionally, you’re likely to spend less time on forms of transport that emit a lot of pollution and greenhouse gases. You may even choose to bike or walk from place to place, if you have light enough luggage. And ultimately, human-powered means of travel are the most environmentally friendly ways of getting around.
2. Know the traveler’s hierarchy of carbon emissions.
If you have to travel in a way that leaves a carbon footprint, try to keep it as small as possible. The Union of Concerned Scientists put together a handy guide for the best way of doing that, and while the best method of getting from place to place changes depending on the number of people you’re traveling with and the distance you’re going, there are some basic rules you can follow.
First, the worst way to travel is almost always by airplane in first class. You’re taking up a lot of space on that plane, and the plane is spewing a lot of bad stuff into the atmosphere. Second, the best way to travel in pretty much all of the scenarios is to take a motor coach. Yes, buses have carbon emissions, but you’re sharing those emissions with dozens of other people. Third, if you have to drive, carpool, and always drive in the most fuel-efficient cars possible. Check out the other tips and travel methods here.
3. “Take only photos, leave only footprints.”
This aphorism changes depending on what you’re doing — for scuba divers, it’s “Take only photos, leave only bubbles” — but the basic sentiment remains the same. The rule is usually geared towards people taking part in outdoor activities, and basically means, “Hey asshole, don’t leave your plastic water bottle in the woods in Yellowstone.” But it can just as easily apply in cities. You should still try to recycle as much as possible, and you should still never litter.
4. Use water like there’s a finite amount of it.
Peak water is a thing, and it turns out those of us living in the developed world use a lot of it unnecessarily. It’s estimated that the minimum amount of water needed for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sanitation per person per day is 13 gallons. The average person in the US uses between 65 and 78 gallons. Honestly, this is an average you should try to work down a bit in your daily life even if you’re not traveling, but it’s important to remember while traveling, too, especially if you’re in a country that struggles with water scarcity.
Most of the ways of doing this are fairly simple. Follow the “If it’s yellow, let it mellow” rule in your hotel or hostel, make sure the hotel doesn’t wash your towel every day, turn off the water in the shower when you’re not rinsing off, turn off the water while you brush your teeth, and so on. For more tips on how to conserve when you travel, check out this post at The Frog Blog.
5. Do your research before you leave.
If you’re planning a short trip or an excursion, make sure you read up on the places you’re going ahead of time. Does that dive shop take care of the local reefs? Is that hotel a known polluter? Is there a way I can give back to the community I’m visiting while I’m there?
Keep in mind that just because something claims to be “ecotourism” doesn’t mean it’s actually helping the environment. Ecotourism is still a niche of tourism, and some less scrupulous tour operators will use the label to pull in well-meaning tourists. You should also keep in mind that many of the ecosystems you travel to may be quite fragile, and that your desire to “get out into nature” and having a low impact on the environment around you may not coincide.
For example, if you were to travel to a national park, you may want to leave the trail to get away from any trace of humankind. But there may be an environmental reason the trail goes through one section of the park and not the other. Know the rules and then follow them when you go.