Globe-Trotting Tips from an Obsessive Environmentalist

I not only love to travel—I’m good at it. I’m able to ferret out the best travel deals, bound out of bed at 3am to catch early flights, pack light, deal with uncomfortable seats, chat with immigration officers, shake off jetlag. All that’s easy. But there is one thing that really makes me uncomfortable when I travel.

I am a passionate—okay, obsessive—environmentalist. I’m one of those people who always takes cloth bags to the supermarket, and at home I meticulously recycle and reuse; I also compost organic waste (I am actually trying to figure out how to compost dog poop). We buy mostly local organic foods, I cook 90 percent of my meals and, when I eat out, I order an appetizer as a main course because big plates equal leftovers, and food waste accounts for a significant portion of methane emissions. I walk almost everywhere, conserve water and energy at home, and air-dry my laundry (that’s just one benefit of living in the tropics). I even make my own cleaning products.

"I don’t let go of my sustainability OCD just because I am on vacation or away from home. But it takes preparation, planning and courage."

As much as I love to travel, then, I also feel guilty because I can’t control my environmental footprint as I do at home. I get nervous just thinking about the carbon footprint of airplanes. When family members suggest we vacation together at a massive, flashy hotel with buffet restaurants or on a ginormous cruise ship, I roll my eyes. Forget it! Not for me. And those tours, where you sit inside a gleaming SUV with the air conditioning blasting, while it’s an infernal 110 degrees outside? Okay, yes, I admit I’ve done this. I’m not proud of it, but I make up for my rare concession to comfort by being as stringent as I can in other areas of travel.

But it takes preparation, planning and courage. Here are some practices that help me travel (mostly) guilt-free:

  1. When planning, I pour myself a glass organic or sustainably produced of wine: This has nothing to do with traveling, but why not?
  2. See the big picture: News and numbers about the negative impacts of the tourism industry can kill our traveling bug, but did you know that tourism is a key driver of socio-economic progress around the world? According to the 2015 UNWTO Highlights report, the industry creates one in 11 jobs and generates US$ 1.5 trillion in exports globally. Some of these jobs and money go to “big,” traditional, and maybe not-so-sustainable destinations, but arrivals to developing countries accounted for 45 percent of the total international arrivals in 2014. Actually, tourism is the first or second source of export earnings in 20 of the world’s 48 least developed countries. I sleep better knowing that my leisure and work trips can help boost economies, provide livelihoods and alleviate poverty.
  3. Know the difference between green, eco-, and sustainable tourism: I once thought that a green hotel, an eco-lodge, and a sustainable hotel were the same. (I know, shame on me!) Check out this article and learn the differences between these terms and why you should always go for sustainable tourism.
  4. Choose certified sustainable hotels, tour operators, and other providers of tourism services: This is an absolute must for me. I want to stay in hotels and lodges that can demonstrate (as opposed to merely claim) their commitment to conserving the environment and local communities. Certified businesses—which range from giant, all-inclusive resorts to tiny, remote eco-lodges—comply with global standards for sustainable tourism and are regularly audited by reputable international entities. These businesses have energy and water saving programs, help conserve biodiversity, recycle, buy local foods, and even grow their own veggies, and their employees have decent salaries and work shifts. For future trips to Latin America and the Caribbean, check out the Rainforest Alliance’s travel guide to certified sustainable hotels and tour operators.
  5. Offset your carbon footprint: Tourism is responsible for about five percent of global CO2 emissions, and transportation generates 75 percent of all tourism-related emissions. Since reducing my carbon footprint is key to reducing my travel guilt, I purchase carbon offsets for flights (you may be surprised to find out how affordable they are), and I hire tour operators and car rentals who offset their own emissions.
  6. Be an obsessive environmentalist during your trip: I don’t let go of my sustainability OCD just because I am on vacation or away from home. I still turn off the lights, TV, and AC when leaving the hotel room; I reuse my towels; I keep my showers quite short; I eat at à la carte restaurants; I carry my own reusable water bottle and I even bring my own shampoo, conditioner, and soap to avoid using the tiny plastic bottles provided by the hotels. Guests generate an average of two pounds of waste per night, and these best practices help bring that appalling number down. By saving water and energy we can help reduce the 20 percent of carbon emissions generated by hotels.
  7. Get out of the hotel: Even if my hotel is a certified sustainable paradise, I push myself to visit local business, museums, wildlife centers, and national parks, and to enjoy tours provided by local entrepreneurs and communities. This is not only a way to enjoy an authentic travel experience, but to support local communities. Some hotels also offer volunteer programs that let you help at a baby-turtle nursery, for example, or join a beach clean-up for a couple of hours. Many hotels also participate in the Pack for a Purpose initiative which encourages tourists to bring school supplies to be donated to local schools. Visit their website and check out if the hotel you booked participates.
  8. Buy responsible souvenirs: I stopped buying mass-produced t-shirts as souvenirs ages ago. Now I go back home with jars of fruit and veggie preserves, shampoos, and soaps made by local women, as well as hand-made bags and other sustainable handicrafts. Investing my money in the right place makes me a happy traveler!

Our travel and purchase choices can leave a positive social, economic, and environmental footprint in the destinations and communities we visit. And at the end of a long day of responsible sight-seeing, I pour myself another glass of organic, sustainably produced wine. I mentioned that I’m on vacation, right?

Yessenia Soto is a Rainforest Alliance communications consultant based in Costa Rica.

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