When you think of ecotravel, a thatch-roofed hut in a Costa Rican jungle, or a canvas tent overlooking an African savannah, likely comes to mind. Such trips may have a green sheen, but a conscientious traveler needs to do some digging to find the deepest hue.
The definition of ecotourism, according to the International Ecotourism Society, is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.” The group offers easy steps to avoid getting greenwashed, including asking questions about a tour operator’s social and environmental policies and searching for lodgings with eco-certifications. Look for seals of approval from Global Sustainable Tourism Council, The Long Run, and Rainforest Alliance; all of these groups factor energy and water use, as well as sustainability and improving the livelihoods of local people.
The key word is “sustainability,” says Rainforest Alliance tourism expert Saúl Blanco Sosa: “Being sustainable is more than just being green. It means economically viable, environmentally and socially responsible, and culturally respectful.”
Whether you’re planning a vacation in a major metropolis or a backpacking trip in remote wilderness, nowadays most lodgings are doing something environmental, such as saving energy or water. “But it’s important to look for more than a towel re-usage program,” Blanco says. “You should investigate what the company is doing to support the natural area, and how it is working with the community to make sure livelihoods improve as a result of the tourism happening around them.”
Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, emphasizes the importance of choosing accredited accommodations and operators. “Certification equals verification by neutral third-party assessment,” he says. “That’s true of proving that an electrical appliance is safe, and true of businesses certified as sustainable. Certification verifies self-made claims.” He recommends the website bookdifferent.com, which filters hotels by carbon footprint and sustainable certifications.
Beyond looking for a seal of approval, it’s also important to talk directly with the companies you’re thinking of traveling with, says Justin Francis, CEO and co-founder of the U.K. company Responsible Travel, formed as a match-making service pairing eco-travelers with sustainable tour operators. In addition to the important questions about water and energy use, conservation initiatives, and whether a lodge employs locals, he asks if the company has banned single-use plastics; follows certain guidelines for viewing wildlife; and enforces limits on tour group sizes to sensitive wildlife areas such as where birds are nesting. He likes to ask operators this simply question: “What is the single biggest threat you see to wildlife locally, and what can we do about it? If a traveler starts down this line of thinking they'll pretty soon start to either feel comfortable or uncomfortable and be able to make a decision.”
The best ecolodges typically advertise the ways in which they’ve incorporated environmental technologies into their designs, how their protecting wildlife, and the ways in which they’re giving back to their communities, Durband says. Even major hotel chains are making strides, he added. For example, “Marriott has taken the very progressive and positive step to require all properties to be certified sustainable by 2025.”
The bottom line for travelers: Choose companies that are environmentally, socially, and culturally responsible. “Anything within the tourism business has to be economically viable,” Blanco says. “The power is in your hands.”