Ecotourism – how can I travel more environmentally friendly?

You have probably heard about ecotourism by now. The term was invited by a travel industry that was afraid that people might get a little bit scared about the environmental footprint of traveling. Because there is no point in pretending that travel does not have a huge negative impact on our planet.

Let us first pull out some numbers in regards to that:

Facts about the environmental impact from the travel industry

1) Cruise ships in Caribbean are producing more than 70,000 tons of waste annually.

2) The aviation industry counts for about 2 % of all CO2 emissions today. If we follow the same development as we have done over the last 10 years, it will rise to 22 % by 2050. Not only do people fly more, but other industries are also becoming much more environmentally friendly.

3) A roundtrip from Melbourne to Stockholm will generate roughly 5 tons of carbon.

4) Golfing can be costly for the environment. The average golf course in USA use as much water as 60,000 rural villages.

5) All in all, the tourist industry counts for about five percent of the total CO2 emissions.

…and so on. This list could probably be counting 50-60 relevant bullet points, but we will leave it there. This is not about how dirty and polluting the travel industry is. This is about ecotourism.

Ecotourism –  How Can I Travel More Eco-Friendly

Table of Contents

Ecotourism: definition

There are no better place to go for a good definition than Wikipedia. Quote:

“Ecotourism is a form of tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas, intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial mass tourism. It means responsible travel to natural areas conserving the environment and improving the well-being of the local people.”

In other words, it is a term to describe tourism that leaves a very small environmental impact. It can mean that you stop visiting places that have vulnerable nature. Or that you choose the train instead of the airplane. These pieces put together are designing the core of ecotourism.

List of examples

Have you heard about these places..?

Example 1: Bonito, Brazil – “the heart of ecotourism”

Many travel guides refer to Bonito as the Capital of Ecotourism. The beautiful city, which is located West in Brazil, is the result of very interesting initiatives by the national government. And in the center of the attention: the beautiful river Rio da Prata. With crystal clear water and loads of different fish species, this wet tourist spot is a “must-see” for everyone traveling to Bonito.

The beautiful nature itself is not the reason why Bonito is connected with ecotourism. But local organizations have worked together to prevent mass tourism from destroying the areas.

Example 2: Choice hotels

You have probably not heard about the Norwegian hotel chain Choice, but it has become quite popular in Northern Europe. The founder, a gentleman called Petter Stordalen, founded the hotel chain with a clear sustainable strategy in mind. He is a previous environmental activist that turned into one of Norway’s most successful businessmen.

The Choice hotels, which now count more than 6500 hotels globally, are mainly working towards the following ecofriendly initiatives:

– Water conservation
– Energy convservation
– Recycling and waste reduction
– Smart, safe and sustainable product usage

What happens when ecotourism is NOT applied?

Unfortunately, there are many examples of damages caused by tourism.

Places destroyed by mass tourism

There are some sad examples of tourist spots that have been destroyed by the lack of ecotourism. When some places simply become too popular, they seem to struggle to handle all the pressure. These are just some examples.

Giza & Cairo in Egypt

You probably know these places by the name of their famous tourist spots: Pyramids, Egyptian Museum and King Tut’s burial mask. But instead of being a charming, ancient capital, the area has turned into the definition of uncharming mass tourism. Some reports are saying that there are constantly more tourists than local residents in Giza, which is a frightening fact.

It it totally understandable that people want to see the Pyramids. After all, they are counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But when you have 20 small shops selling over expensive Coca-Cola next to them, you might understand that things are not going in the right direction.

Karl Pilkington, famous for the TV series “An Idiot Abroad”, might not be the definition of someone that looks on the bright side of the life. However, he made a pretty honest episode when he visited Egypt. Some very relevant comments are being made in this small Youtube clip:


Mauritius. Pretty beaches, but overpopulated city area. Photo: Pixabay

Mauritius is a small, pretty island located in the Indian Ocean. When you often see a white beach with crystal clear, light blue water surrounding it, chances are that you are looking at a picture from the infamous island.

The country has 1.3 million citizens spread out to no more than 780 square miles. That makes it one of the countries in the world with the highest population density. When you also add 1 million tourists annually, you will have an area that is very overpopulated.

You might see the beautiful beaches and green jungle when you look at Mauritius in an online travel guide. But when you drive across the island, it is nothing but a concrete jungle. The center of the island is so filled with buildings and humans that they do not exactly fit to tempt people to buy an expensive airplane ticket to Mauritius.

Guide: how to make your holiday more eco friendly

There are a lot of action points you can do to make your holiday more eco friendly. But most if it depends on whether or not you have already booked your flight + hotel or not.

Before the trip

1) We know that airplane is the most efficient way to get from A to B. But the aviation industry is also one of the most polluting ones. According to a recent report published in the Guardian, airplanes count for between 1.5 – 2 % of total global CO2 emissions. It might not sound a lot, but it is.

What about trying to find a way to take the bus or train?

2) It has almost become trendy to build “green hotels”. These hotels are often installed with great food waste initiatives, eco friendly menus (=less meat products) and in general do everything to save energy. And some of them are so modernized that you do not really have to compromise on comfort.

During the trip

1) Eating the local food is a big part of traveling, especially if you go abroad. Try to eat at local restaurants instead of buying take-away. The amount of packaging that goes with some of that food when you take it home is often very huge.

2) Do not, in any way, support businesses that hold wild animals in captivity. A good example is the “elephant tours” in Thailand. It`s an amazing and exotic experience to ride on huge elephants through the jungle. But it’s not so fun for the animals to be kept in a “prison installment” their whole life.

3) In general, please respect the local environment. Do not go into areas that you are not familiar with or that seems “interesting”.

4) Recycle and reduce. Always. Not only a rule that applies when you are on vacation.

5) Do not buy unnecessary souvenirs. That “I love Bangkok” t-shirt might seem like a good idea when some local businessman pitches it to you. But the chances of you ever using that t-shirt is extremely small. So please – do not buy souvenirs that you are not going to use. It just creates even more waste in this world.

After the trip

1) Sit down and think back on your holiday. Ask yourself the question: is it anything I/we could have done differently in order to be more eco friendly? There are probably loads of things that you miss during the fun you have while being on holiday. And please don’t get us wrong: holiday should not (only) be about thinking about the environment.

But looking back and see if the trip could have been more linked to ecotourism values is definitely a nice thing to do.

The length of your stay

Planning is an essential tool to make your traveling habits more environmentally friendly. Think about the length of your stay. When you wake up after a big New Year’s Eve celebration, you should find a calendar and start planning. Going abroad can be interesting and exciting. But please try to limit the amount of trips as much as possible. Needless to say, one long holiday does leave a much smaller carbon footprint than four short holidays.

If you go abroad, it would definitely also help the experience to lengthen your stay a bit. Let us say you are an American that wants to explore China. Perfect!

And the amazing country with a long history and loads of things to do for tourists. But it would ideal to fly to Beijing, take the train to Shanghai, train to Guangzhou, train to Chongqing and then back to Beijing – before you fly back to the USA. Many people don’t do that. They would rather fly to Beijing, stay there for five days …. And then a couple of years later take a trip to Shanghai because “they didn’t have time to see that city the first time they visited China”. Think about this when you plan a trip.

What activities do you plan to participate in?

Some people tend to only lay on the beach while going on holiday. But for those of us that actually like to experience a bit more than sand and sea, doing various activities is a big part of the trip. Just make sure that these activities do not harm the environment in any way.

Examples of rules that you should follow:

– Try to stay away from any activity that would be connected with a high environmental impact. Examples are trophy hunting, walking in nature that should be remained untouched, helicopter flights, etc.

– Make sure that you are following an authorized guide. Certain “tour operators” try to offer you a trip as a part of the holiday package, but these are very often tourist traps. And they are definitely not local people. Two problems with this. First of all, they are probably not informed about the local rules and regulations. Secondly, you will not be supporting the local economy.

– Never litter. Leaving waste in nature is just as banned when going on holiday as when you are home in your “own” environment.

– Respect for other cultures and religions. When you have traveled somewhere to experience a new culture, make sure that you respect the local people. Cover the necessary body parts when entering a temple, make sure to not take pictures of people that don’t want to be photographed, etc.

If you HAVE TO travel a long way: things you need to know

Long-distance flights have a major impact on the climate. Most people do not realize how bad their one flight to China or Madagascar might influence the climate.

One roundtrip between Copenhagen and Thailand affects the climate almost as much as driving a normal car for a full year.

However, sometimes we just feel that it is needed to experience a totally different culture. And I get it: most people DO want to travel far during their lifetime. If you first decided to leave, there are several considerations you can take that reduce the impact on nature, environment and local communities.

These are some tips on how you can travel in an environmentally friendly manner despite traveling a long distance:

Prepare for the journey

Get acquainted with the local mindset wherever you travel. Also make sure to educate yourself on any environmental concerns you may need to take. You are only a quick Google search away from the information you need.

Use eco-friendly transportation

If you travel within Europe: Deutsche Bahn will sell you Interrail tickets that literally takes you ANYWHERE in Europe. In addition to the convenient way of traveling, their trains are quite comfortable as well.

Train rides in Asia do have a bad reputation – apart from in China. If you ever travel to China, you would be stupid not to try the high-speed train that connects Beijing with most of the big cities (Shanghai, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, etc.)

If you are interested in China, please read this article about how to travel eco-friendly in China. 🙂 It will help you to understand why China is the perfect country to experience a new culture and travel far without contributing with loads of greenhouse gas emissions.

Stay there for a long time

I read somewhere that it had become a “trend” among Scandinavians to do a weekend trip to Abu Dhabi. Nauseating.

If you already travel far – you save your health and the environment if you stay there for a significant amount of time. Two weeks to a month is the perfect holiday duration if you plan to visit another continent.

From an economical perspective, you will save more money the longer you stay. Just think about how much you pay for the flight ticket – and how cheap you will find accommodation through hotels/hostels/Airbnb.

Use public transport instead of renting a car

Traveling with local buses, boats and trains gives a better insight into the local culture. Those of us that have been sitting on a bus in Bangkok do definitely agree with that… J

Maybe not comfortable, but definitely more eco-friendly. You should take it as an exotic experience.

Only purchase services from responsible tour operators

Ecotourism, Responsible Tourism, Geotourism, Low Impact Tourism. The terms are many – and none of them are protected. Use common sense and ask critical questions before choosing a tour operator.

“Greenwashing” is a big problem in the tourist industry.


People are not going to stop traveling. We all know that the world is getting smaller. What seemed impossible one and two generations ago is now easily accessible. One person can literally choose to travel the whole world in a week. California on Monday, Beijing on Tuesday, Hong Kong on Wednesday, Moscow on Thursday, Oslo on Friday, Reykjavik on Saturday and back home on Sunday. But with possibilities comes responsibilities.

And when we know that the travel industry is growing significantly every year, it is time to embrace the concept of ecotourism. We have to think more about the environment when we travel. And it all starts with you that reads this article. Please feel free to share it and show the world what ecotourism is. Be a part of the change that needs to happen!

4 thoughts on “Ecotourism – how can I travel more environmentally friendly?”

  1. Thanks for picking up on such an important subject. I am quite a traveler and an environmentalist, but I really do understand those who says that claiming to be both is impossible. For let’s face it: stepping into an airplane as a passenger should make your environmental brain go: “Damn, this is not good!”.

    All I see that people travel both more frequently as well as further.

    Do you have any ideas on what we could do to make people travel less?

    1. Hi Namib, thanks a lot for your comment. Happy to hear that you are an environmentalist.

      In regards to what we can do to reduce the number of people who travels: no idea. Frankly, I do not think it is possible. I am afraid that we need to put a quite heavy tax on air travel + cruise travel. We really need government regulations in order to make the travel industry more environmentally friendly.

  2. We know that two things are most important to travel without producing too much greenhouse gas emissions.

    1) Avoid using an airplane. I mean, it is hard to take the train from Bangkok to Washington. But if you travel domestically, you really need to think about how you travel.

    2) Do not eat beef.

    If you are following these two simple rules, more or less everything else you do during the holiday will not be significant in the big picture.

    1. Hello Eva,

      you are right. As a human being living in a developed country, these two action points will definitely make the biggest impact on your greenhouse gas emissions.

      The “eating beef part” is not only related to traveling, though. You should easily swap beef with chicken if you want to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle – also when you are home.

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