It's often said that people who visit scenic natural wonders literally "love them to death." Hikers who wander off trails damage delicate soils and plant life, snorkelers slathered with chemical sunscreen expose coral reefs to materials that cause them to bleach and die, and people who simply like to drive along beautiful parkways can pollute the air with smog-forming pollutants. All that tough love has led to the growth of the ecotourism industry, built on the premise that vacations should conserve, rather than harm, wild places. And although the industry has focused mainly on exotic Latin American and Caribbean countries, with their tropical forests and sensitive aquatic surroundings, you can incorporate a few of the basic tenets of ecotourism into any summer vacation.
"More and more people are becoming aware of sustainability in all facets of their lifestyle," says Tom Enderlin, marketing coordinator for sustainable tourism in the U.S. and Canada for the environmental nonprofit Rainforest Alliance. "And people are definitely eager to travel that way."
At the same time, he says, most of the moves that hotels, airlines, and tour operators have made towards sustainability are on the individual level, without much involvement from independent groups—like his—that can certify that their efforts are genuine. "Right now it's very hard for travelers to find what they're looking for without running into a lot of greenwashing," he says. "There hasn't been somebody who's been able to bring credibility to the market." So, true ecotourism travel does take a little extra planning. Fortunately, there are some tools and resources that will help you.
If you want to tread lightly while vacationing this summer, here are a few things to keep an eye out for:
Where to Stay
To find a green hotel, start with a website like Travelocity.com, which has worked with the Rainforest Alliance through its Travel for Good program to compile a list of genuinely green hotels. They now highlight hotels with independent certifications from the Environmental Protection Agency's EnergyStar for Hotels, the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and GreenSeal (an independent agency that certifies hotels that consume the least amount of energy and water, use green cleaning products, and serve local or organic foods in their restaurants).
If you're looking for an eco-themed vacation that's a little more out of the ordinary, consider an agritourism program like the ones organized by the Vermont Farm Association or the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. Agritourism, a form of ecotourism that has you relaxing closer to a farm than a jungle, has become increasingly popular over the years, and according to the U.S. Farm Census, around 23,000 farms in the U.S. offer some form of it, whether it's taking part in the daily activities of running a farm or staying on the farm for extended periods of time to enjoy the rural life. To find agritourism opportunities near you, contact your local travel agent or your state department of agriculture. Or, just pop over to your local farmer's market and start asking the growers there if they offer farm stays or other recreational activities.