Ecotourism: What you should know about going green and responsible travel

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Travel is costly.

Booking flights and hotels, buying supplies at your destination for the duration of your stay, eating at various restaurants and eateries, and going out to explore and do fun activities can burn a hole in your wallet in a matter of days.

What you might not realize, however, is what your travel might cost to your destination.

This isn’t a monetary cost—the tourism industry has earned over US$ 1 trillion worldwide in 2016.

Rather, the costs of travel are environmental, and aren’t often noticeable to the individual.

When you consider that according to UNWTO, over 1 billion people traveled internationally in 2016, however, the environmental costs add up.

 

What does traveling cost (in environmental terms)?

As I said earlier, the environmental impact of traveling is difficult to conceive of to an individual, but they exist and are easily compounded.

 

Flying

The most common issue way people travel is by airplane, which takes a significant amount of fuel to travel from one place to another.

Planes require a lot of energy to take off and stay in the air, which means that fossil fuels are the only source of aviation fuel right now.

Every flight contributes to the erosion of fossil fuels due to the current lack of viable alternative fuels, and every traveler that flies to their destination further spurs this on.

via Shutterstock
While flying to Hawaii is unavoidable, you can make your flight more eco-friendly by packing light, flying economy class, and taking direct flights.

 

Consumption

When traveling, you probably notice that you spend a lot more money on basic necessities than you might at home.

Food, water, clothing, and a place to stay are always significantly more expensive when you’re away than when you’re at home.

The main reason for this is that when you’re at home you can invest in the things you buy—you’re going to be there for a while, after all.

For example, you might make a big batch of food on Sunday for meal prep and divvy it up for lunch throughout the week, which saves you time, money, and effort, and also lessens your impact on the environment since you’re consuming less.

 

When traveling, you can be in one place one day and another the next: your schedule isn’t set, so a lot of what you do is in-the-moment.

This leads to the trend of travelers using a lot of disposable products, such as bottled water, packaged foods, and various items meant for limited use.

And why wouldn’t they? Buying bottled water is cheap, simple, and easy, for example, and means a lot less trouble getting through airport security compared to packing a reusable bottle.

However, bottled water comes in plastic containers that, if not reused or recycled, are disposed of and go to waste.

 

Tourists generally use more resources in an area compared to residents, which isn’t necessarily bad when considering that they also spend more resources.

However, it becomes a problem when resources are scarce in ways that can’t be made up with the income that tourism provides.

Resources like fossil fuels used in airplanes, rental cars, and tour buses are finite and take millions of years to replenish, making current usage unsustainable.

Endemic plants and animals may have their habitats endangered by development and increased human traffic that tourism creates, which threatens the population of unique species.

via Shutterstock
Endemic species are threatened by human development and pollution, which is why the Hawaiian Monk Seal is protected by a regulation that bans any human from approaching them.

Visitors to the Big Island account for 44.7% of the island’s water consumption, a telling figure when visitors comprise as much as 20% of the daily population—this means that the average individual tourist on the Big Island uses (at least) over three times the water as a resident.

Fresh water is a valuable resource when you’re in the middle of the salty Pacific Ocean.

 

Mentality

A lesser-recognized problem with traveling is the mindset of temporariness that tourists often adopt when staying in a new area for a limited amount of time.

This is what allows tourists to “let loose” and try new things, spend more money, and behave in ways they wouldn’t at home.

Think of it this way: are you more careful about taking care of your room in a hotel or your house?

Most people are more conscientious about taking care of their home, since they plan to live there for a long time and want things to be in good shape.

In a hotel, on the other hand, people only stay a few days, so they aren’t really concerned with the state of the room past the short time they’ll be staying—room service will take care of it, right?

 

The same logic, however, often applies to the destination itself.

People who wander off the main hiking path on a trail, whether for a nice view, a shorter route, or a novel experience, often cause damage to the environment by trampling native plants or eroding the soil.

via Shutterstock
The silversword plant, or ‘ahinahina, can only be found at the peaks of Haleakala and Mauna Kea. Driven near extinction due to vandalism and negligence, the species is slowly recovering due to conservation efforts.

The tourist state of mind that causes people to let loose also allows them to do things like ignore rules and warning signs, which are often put in place to protect native places rather than restrict visitors.

People tend to forget that although they might just be visiting Hawaii for a week, the islands have been around for millennia, and will likely be here for millennia more.

 

What is ecotourism?

Ecotourism is generally understood to involve travel habits that reduce (or eliminate) a visitor’s environmental impact on their destination.

The specific definitions may vary from place to place and depending on who you talk to, but the basic idea remains the same: ecotourists want to travel sustainably.

Most ecotours are generally focused on the environment or culture of an area, whether it’s a sightseeing tour that uses a bike rather than an automobile, a whale watching tour which depends on a healthy population of humpback whales, or a fun zipline course built above a farmland.

 

There are three main ways tours aim to be more eco-friendly:

  1. Minimizing resource use and environmental impact
  2. Increasing awareness of natural species and resources
  3. Supporting local people and efforts in the destination

 

In the above examples, the bike tour uses human energy to go from place to place rather than a resource-hungry tour bus, eliminating the need for fossil fuels.

A nature tour that involves sightseeing at natural locations or wonders isn’t necessarily an ecotour unless it reduces the impact of bringing thousands of visitors there per year.

The whale watching tour, on the other hand, increases awareness for a local species while allowing residents of the area to make money off of their presence—a significant paradigm shift since humpback whales were historically endangered due to whaling.

via Shutterstock
Once the target of a major hunting economy, the humpback whales that visit Hawaii’s waters every winter now thrive due to an increased focus on conservation, largely due to the success of whale watching tours.

Lastly, the zipline course built above a farm not only has little impact (the lines don’t encroach on the existing agricultural land), but also provides additional income for local farmers and supports locally-grown produce.

 

If you want to consider yourself an ecotourist, however, you’ll have to do more than just attend a few ecotours.

An ecotourist generally does whatever they can to reduce their environmental footprint wherever they may travel, meaning doing ecotours instead of big-group sightseeing, avoiding fossil fuels (when possible), supporting local communities in the destination, and being conservative with water, food, and waste even when on vacation.

Not all of these things are possible for every traveler, but when you consider the sheer volume of people flying around the world, if everyone made a conscious decision to travel responsibly, even if it was just a minor change, it would make a significant positive impact.

 

If you’re looking for ways to make your next trip to Hawaii more eco-friendly, travelandleisure.com wrote a great article with infographics on how to reduce your carbon footprint when traveling.

For now, here are some ideas to get your started:

1. Fly responsibly

Everyone has to fly to get to Hawaii, but there are good and bad ways to catch a flight. Flying directly to your destination generally takes less fuel than taking off, landing, and taking off again. Check if your airline sells a carbon-offset, which is an optional fee that goes towards helping the company reduce their carbon emissions. Pack light so you reduce the weight of your baggage.

 

2. Stay at a home rental or airbnb instead of a large hotel.

Houses and apartments are generally more energy efficient lodgings than hotels are, especially when larger hotels come with their own golf courses, swimming pools, fountains, and other amenities that consume more than they provide.

 

3. Walk, bike, or use public transportation to get around instead of renting a car.

Rental cars have notoriously bad gas efficiency, and are simply not worth it if you’re traveling solo. If you’re considering renting a hybrid, consider that the major benefit of hybrids—using electric energy for short trips like around city centers—is still sub-optimal when compared to taking a bus or bike.

 

4. Eat locally-sourced foods and produce and avoid imported goods.

Hawaii has a burgeoning local produce market, so consider visiting farmers’ markets, locally-sourced restaurants, and breweries that serve local beers!

 

5. Participate in ecotours (Hawaii has many!) provided by Hawaii locals.

Remember that not all nature tours are ecotours, so use some discretion: Visiting Kauai’s biggest natural attractions in a luxury, air-conditioned tour bus? Not so eco-friendly. Biking from Waimea Canyon down to Waimea Town? Much more eco.

via Shutterstock
Hawaii has a wide variety of amazing hikes, and many natural wonders, such as lava flows, are only accessible by foot.

 

Hope you’ve learned something about ecotourism and the environmental impact of traveling. If you have any questions, ask them in the comments!

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