Americans are returning to travel in a big way as pandemic restrictions continue to loosen. More popular than ever are destinations where travelers can explore the natural world and connect with wildlife. But, whether a big-ticket international trip—birdwatching in Costa Rica and volcano tours in Iceland are trending—or simpler sojourns close to home, mindful travelers are aware of the tenuous balance between environmental conservation and tourism.
“Especially after COVID, people are anxious to spend time outdoors in wide open spaces,” says Kerri Conrad, development coordinator for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge who has worked in Costa Rica with Kids Saving the Rainforest, an international nonprofit committed to responsible tourism. The organization offers tours to the public of its wildlife sanctuary with the caveat that visitors enjoy the natural habitat and wildlife without a negative effect. “Given the environmental crises facing our planet,” says Conrad, “it’s more important than ever that people consider the footprint they leave behind.”
It’s not always easy. Even when environmentally sensitive travelers try to do the right things, (i.e., resisting selfies with a wild animal, for example) the fact that thousands may descend upon a popular destination each day means there will inevitably be an impact. The awe-inspiring natural wonders of the national parks are perennially popular in the summer months; during the pandemic, when travelers were looking for social distancing and outdoor vacations, the crowds showed up in record numbers. The U.S. National Park Service issued alerts this spring that nearly all reservations for the summer months were already snatched up, often booked within minutes of becoming available. While the full house may inconvenience travelers, it can leave a greater toll on the animals who live in the wild.
“Nature-based tourism is the fastest growing sector of the fastest growing industry (tourism),” says Court Whelan, the sustainability officer for Natural Habitat Adventures, a pioneer in sustainable travel practices and tour partner with the World Wildlife Fund. Whelan has led wildlife expeditions all over the world while practicing a simple rule of thumb: Use less and pay attention to your waste stream. This means reusable water bottles and coffee cups (even Starbucks is now touting personal mugs rather than paper ones, he points out), take-along toiletries rather than packaged, and wasteful, hotel soap and shampoo amenities, and even your own mesh laundry bag to avoid the plastic ones offered at hotels.
“These may seem like small things, but they add up,” Whelan says. “It’s all about being aware of what you are discarding.”
Other ways for an eco-friendly holiday? Here are some suggestions from likeminded travel experts:
• Be aware of your carbon footprint. It is said that tourism contributes to more than 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions with transportation accounting for 90 percent of that. Consider public transportation, if available, rather than auto rentals or, if you do rent, make sure it is fuel-efficient.
• Do your research and ask questions. Travelers should do their homework on brands and make sure they align with their own values. Many tour operators now promote sustainability practices and design trips to operate with a minimal impact on the environment. A tour through India might involve train travel. You can tour cities by e-bike and kayak pristine lakes and rivers. Book eco-friendly hotels and eat at restaurants that serve local foods rather than items that must be imported.
• Photography is always fun when you travel, but be mindful of wildlife by not infringing on their space, disturbing their habitat or using a flash camera. Be patient. Let nature come to you; i.e., no loud noises to attract wildlife.
• It may be more expensive, but if you are doing group travel think small. Meaningful nature encounters are difficult in large groups. Imagine trying to walk silently along a trail and not disturb wildlife with 20 or 30 others. A small group means not only a more personal interaction with nature but a lower impact presence on the planet’s fragile habitats.
• Think about giving back to the area you are visiting. There are many volunteer activities aimed at improving the environment. For example, scuba divers can join efforts to re-seed damaged coral reefs; hikers can pick up trash off trails; anyone can contribute to conservation programs in areas they visit.
“The good news is more people today than ever before are conservation conscious,” Whelan says. “We only need to be mindful and educate ourselves on the right things to do.”
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide wildlife conservation education. To help save wildlife, donate and learn more, visit AppalachianWild.org.