As Bill McKibben writes,

“We want to see the world, meet new people, learn about other cultures, widen our perspective; one of the sweetest gifts fossil fuel has given us is the sense of a larger world filled with beauty and diversity.”

I find myself drawn to visit some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems and exotic destinations. Yet, ironically, tourism and the carbon emissions to get to these places contributes to destroying these environmental and cultural marvels.

With Americans taking 1.8 billion leisure trips in 2017, travel is a good place to consider when we green our lives. A desire for environmentally responsible vacations has led to the development of ecotourism, defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

Keeping these distinctions in mind, follow these tips when planning your next green vacation.

gardeners maintaining local plants

Consider a Staycation

Have you thoroughly explored all that your local area has to offer? McKibben describes the epitome of a staycation: “I had one of the best vacations ever a few years ago, when I just started walking out my back door in Vermont, traipsing 10 miles a day from one friend’s house to the next until, three weeks later, I’d covered my entire region. I learned more about where I live in those weeks of walking than in the five years I’d spent driving through it.”

For your next vacation, consider staying at home or a nearby B&B while taking day trips to local attractions. Long-distance travel will boost the carbon footprint of your vacation, making a staycation very appealing. With the money and time saved on plane tickets or gasoline, you can treat yourself to fancy dinners or fun events. Be sure to make it a real vacation and save home improvement or housekeeping projects for another time.

open-air market

Support Locally Owned Businesses

By supporting locally owned businesses, our travel dollars stay in the local economy, creating the multiplier effect. This is the principle that more jobs and wealth are created when we support locally owned businesses. One study in Austin, Texas, shows that purchases generate more than three times the local economic activity when shoppers make their purchases from locally owned merchants instead of chain stores.

If you are in a country with markets, this is a great way to support small local merchants. Whenever possible, dine, sleep, and shop in locally owned businesses.

If you are having difficulty finding lodging, consider Airbnb, which connects people and accommodations across the globe. This can involve renting a room or even an entire apartment. Be sure to read the reviews to find a home that is a good fit for you.

Use Green Travel Companies

There are certainly different shades of green and cultural sensitivity associated with tour companies. Although mission statements can be deceiving, it is a good start to select a company with a positive green mission statement, such as this one for Arutam Ecotours. This is especially important when traveling to highly sensitive ecosystems or interacting with indigenous populations.

Smiling guide in canoe on Isla Corazon

Seek Attractions That Protect Habitat

While traveling in Ecuador last month, I heard many locals express how creating national parks is attracting tourists. In other words, protecting wildlife habitat is attracting tourists and creating green jobs.

A great example was Isla Corazon on the southern coast of Ecuador. The ecotourism initiative seeks to educate visitors and restore the mangrove resources of this ecosystem. Now a mere 15 years after this initiative began, the island is reforested and home to numerous bird species, including egrets, heron, frigatebirds, kingfisher, and warbler. There are now a handful of guides employed, and numerous nearby business that benefit from the stream of visitors.

Use Public Transportation

Most cities have decent public transportation systems, and many countries have good rail or bus systems throughout. Using mass transit will keep your carbon emissions down while traveling. Getting information on routes can be tricky and may require asking knowledgeable locals. Google Maps has public transportation routes information for some areas, with train stops indicated on most maps. If you have a GPS, this can help prevent you from getting hopelessly lost or missing your stop.

Reduce Your Home Energy Use

Don’t forget to taper down your home energy use while traveling. If your home will be unused, turn off your hot water heater to eliminate standby loss. Turn your heating system down and unplug any unnecessary gadgets, such as alarm clocks, electric toothbrushes, televisions, DVD players, computers, modems, and printers, which often drain electricity even when not in use.

Images courtesy of Sarah Lozanova

Editor’s note: Originally published on April 7, 2015, this article was updated in December 2018.


By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.