Your Summer Vacation Doesn’t Have to Wreck the Planet

Make responsible choices about where you go, how you travel, and how you connect with local communities

Photo: Gary Yeowell / Getty Images

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What if one of the few silver linings of the global pandemic – environmental gains linked to millions of humans staying at home – didn’t have to immediately backslide just because we’re all ready to get back outside? While we’re busy making summer plans, we can all make an effort to focus on sustainable travel and take our trips in ways that are lighter on vulnerable ecosystems, respectful of local cultures, and kinder to wildlife.

“Each of our travel choices makes a difference,” says Costas Christ, global sustainability expert and brand leader for Beyond Green, a purpose-driven hospitality brand with hotels, resorts and lodges around the world. “And when we choose to travel the sustainable way, we are making a contribution to protecting our planet for future generations while also having a wonderful holiday.” 

10 ways to make more sustainable travel choices:

Choose less-popular destinations. When it comes to traveling sustainably, don’t just follow the pack. “Over-tourism can harm the natural and cultural heritage of very popular destinations” says Paul Melhus, CEO and founder of ToursByLocals, a tour company that offers curated experiences hosted by locals in 192 countries. “It can also have a negative impact on the quality of life of local residents. Consider lesser-known places, where you will find fewer travelers around, and you can have a significant impact on the local economy. If you want to visit popular cities, consider doing so off-season; it’s a better experience for you and the people who live there.”

Stay true to your plant-based lifestyle. “A plant-based lifestyle goes beyond diet,” says Jessica Blotter, who serves on the board of directors for the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) and is the co-founder of socially conscious booking platform Kind Traveler. “Travelers can choose to stay at plant-based hotels and explore plant-based nature activities, such as vegan food and wine tours, and farm animal sanctuary visits. Eco-conscious travelers can commit to an entirely plant-based itinerary to offset the carbon impact of travel.”

Beware of mixing with wildlife. In general, wildlife experiences that encourage touching or interacting with animals are a red flag. “Avoid captive animal attractions of all types, as they are usually linked to animal suffering,” says Blotter. While some sanctuaries and rescues operate ethically, many do not — so do your homework. If you want to help with local wildlife conservation efforts, look for programs that are associated with a trusted brand and have a clear mission.

Do your research. Do your due diligence before booking a hotel, tour operator, or activity. Christ suggests asking companies the following three questions: Can you provide an example of how you are operating in an environmentally friendly way? How do you support and promote cultural diversity and protecting nature? And finally, how — and in what way — does your company benefit the local community? “If you cannot get a direct answer and example to each of these questions, move on and find another hotel or travel company that can provide clear answers,” says Christ. “Today, there are so many travel companies and great hotels that represent travel as a force for good.”

Take public transportation once you reach your destination. While it might not be feasible to reach your destination via train or bicycle, those modes of transportation are often quite dependable (not to mention cost-effective) upon arrival. “Not only is it more environmentally friendly, but it will also help you to embrace the Slow Travel movement — which is all about experiencing, more than just seeing, a place,” says Christ.

Give the right way. “Instead of bringing clothing, books, pencils and treats to hand out to villagers, seek out reputable local social and economic development organizations that work on community upliftment and partner with them,” says Christ. “Giving in the wrong way can cause community conflicts or promote begging. True giving impact is about community empowerment. A good place to start is with woman’s organizations, as it has been shown time and time again, that supporting women’s micro-enterprise has a greater impact to touch and help more lives.”

Pack responsibly. “Conscious and sustainable travel begins with your suitcase and continues with recognizing your purchasing power,” explains Blotter. “When it comes to packing, bring reusable items and make sure to recycle or properly dispose of any waste.” She also suggests choosing eco-friendly materials and storage, such as a stainless-steel water bottle, reusable utensils, a reusable tote bag, silicone pouches instead of plastic bags, and bamboo cotton swabs.

Shop ethically. While you’re on the ground, Blotter says to never underestimate the power of voting with your dollar: “Support local communities by visiting locally owned eateries and shops. Always be mindful of ethical purchasing decisions by avoiding the purchase of souvenirs made out of animal materials — such as skins, leathers, furs, and ivory — as you may unknowingly be supporting the illegal wildlife trade. And lastly, follow the golden rule to leave no trace: Take only photos, leave only footprints.”

Make smart choices in your hotel room. Sure, it’s tempting to throw a perfectly good towel on the bathroom floor after one use or help yourself to a tiny bottle of shampoo because it’s “free,” but each choice has consequences — reusing towels saves on water and energy, while forgoing the single-use toiletries cuts down on plastic waste. “I never allow maid service during my stay, bring my own soaps, and turn everything off when I leave a room,” says Jeff Wilson, host of Real Rail Adventures on PBS.

Reduce your footprint when flying. When possible, book nonstop flights and choose economy over business class to help reduce your footprint. You can also purchase carbon offsets for your flight, a practice intended to mitigate some of the emissions caused by air travel with environmentally-positive projects. Many airlines have their own programs; for instance, United uses the carbon credits you purchase to protect forests and support local income-generating activities that promote conservation, such as ecotourism, beekeeping and sustainable crafts. Another option is to book your ticket through the FlyGRN flight search engine, which offsets your flight’s CO2 emissions for free, or use Cool Effect to calculate and offset your emissions from flying, driving, accommodations, or cruising.