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.
Wherever your travels take you, says Enderlin, speak up if you see things that conflict with a hotel owner's green message. For example, if you hang up your towels in the bathroom so they'll be reused a few times rather than replaced daily, only to have the housekeeping staff replace them with fresh towels anyway. "It's very important for consumers to talk to employees and make sure people understand they care," he says. "It improves business for the hotel."
How to Get There
Nearly all major car rental agencies rent hybrids nowadays, so be sure to consider that option if you'll be driving, particularly if your personal vehicle isn't fuel-efficient. When it comes to other transportation alternatives, you can opt for trains or buses, but airplanes will most likely be the most convenient way to go. Major airline carriers now offer travelers the option to balance the greenhouse-gas emissions from their trips by purchasing carbon offsets, a small fee added to your ticket that is used to fund reforestation programs, wind or solar farms, or organic agriculture programs that mitigate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Environmentalists have often taken issue with these offsets for not being transparent with their projects and how they spend your money, or even with how they calculate the greenhouse-gas emissions you'll supposedly be creating by your flight. The Tufts Climate Initiative, a program operated by Tufts University that has studied carbon offset programs, has found that the prices for a single flight can vary widely, based on who's doing the calculations.
The Tufts program suggests that you buy carbon offsets as a last resort. If you want to fly greener, the best thing you can do is to take nonstop flights, as taking off and landing burn the most fuel of any stage of your trip. And, says Enderlin, "there are other things people can do while on vacation that are just as good as an offset," in terms of being green, such as supporting small, community-owned businesses and patronizing restaurants that serve organic food in the towns you're visiting.
What to Do
When you finally reach your vacation destination, as Enderlin says, do your best to support local businesses. Doing so allows the money you spend to stay in the local community and support other conservation efforts. Find local tour operators and shop at locally owned businesses, and always pay entrance fees to parks (even if they're just suggested fees) to help fund environmental initiatives.
At the same time, you want to be sure the businesses you patronize are responsible. The Rainforest Alliance has a list of third-party-certified tour operators, and you can find local, organic restaurants by searching the database of the Green Restaurant Association.
Last but not least, be creative. Enderlin says that there isn't really one definition of an "eco" vacation anymore, so if hiking isn't your thing, rent a bike and ride around town rather than driving. Park the car and take a historic streetcar downtown, or pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it outside, rather than driving through that fast-food restaurant off the highway. "With ecotourism, it's all about how you operate that makes a vacation sustainable," he says.