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5 ways to get involved in ecotourism, foster a more sustainable travel experience

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

From transportation and accommodation choices to how travelers spend their money, many people may not consider their vacation’s potentially negative consequences for environment and local communities.

That’s why sustainable tourism is starting to catch on, as more travelers become aware of those impacts and simple steps they can do to minimize them.

A recent survey of 1,000 Americans found that 45 percent of travelers consider ecotourism and conservation when making their travel plans, according to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI).

The concept, which is referred to as a number of additional terms including responsible travel, conservation travel and ecotourism, involves respecting the environment and not contributing to its degradation.

Traveler waiting for a train - Pixabay image

The International Tourism Society defines ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and allows travelers to become educated about the local community.

“Not everyone is going to be looking for ecotourism, and not everyone is going to find it in every place, but I think that overall, the landscape is changing so that people are more conscientious,” said Daniel Jaramillo, co-founder and managing director of the Colombia Eco Travel Group.

The United Nations General Assembly designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, highlighting the role of tourism in key areas including environmental protection, poverty reduction and resource efficiency.

“Sustainable travel has several benefits; it helps spread tourist dollars to local communities, protects nature and wildlife and eases the burden of overcrowding on popular tourist sites,” said Namrata Bhawnani, co-founder of green travel and living blog, Ecophiles. “Travelers can also enjoy a more authentic experience.”

Below are five ways to incorporate sustainable practices into one’s travel plans.

1) Purchase locally made souvenirs and crafts.

Choosing to buy goods produced in the locations that travelers visit rather than picking up imported souvenirs helps keep money circulating through the local economy. These items may be more expensive than imports, but purchasing them provides more direct impact.

Souvenirs or other items that are shipped in from other places also have a larger carbon footprint, according to Green Global Travel.

2) Research your accommodation and tour operator.

One of the first steps an eco-friendly traveler can take is carefully choosing where they plan to stay as well as the tour guides they’d like to show them around throughout their trip. Experts recommend looking into their practices and sustainability initiatives.

“What’s their energy usage? Where are they getting their electrical supplies – from wind or solar,” said Jonathan Brunger, general manager of adventure travel company, Adventure Life. “Who are the staff? Are they from the local communities?”

Taking into consideration the answers to these and similar questions will help travelers find accommodations that promote sustainable practices which respect the local culture and environment.

However, travelers should be aware of greenwashing, which occurs when companies or hotels merely use the jargon of sustainable practices through advertising and marketing without actually implementing practices that reduce their impact on the environment.

3) Opt for public transportation.

“A lot of travelers want to look at their transportation options,” Brunger said. “How are you moving around? Are you taking private transfers? Are two people in their own car, or are you sharing transfers?”

Ridesharing is a more sustainable travel option whenever possible, experts say. Using public transportation, walking or biking not only benefits the environment, but it saves travelers money.

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Before your journey begins, experts also recommend selecting non-stop flights whenever possible, as it uses less fuel. Green Global Travel recommends flying with airlines that are members of the International Air Transport Association, as they offer carbon offset programs to neutralize their aircraft’s emissions.

4) Minimize waste and avoid plastic.

With an estimated 91 percent of plastic going unrecycled, it’s better for the environment if travelers cut out usage of plastic altogether. Most experts recommend avoiding products wrapped in plastic to help minimize waste.

Bringing along reusable water bottles and ditching the plastic water bottles also helps the environment.

5) Be respectful of wildlife.

Native wildlife and plants in most countries, including the United States, are protected through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), according to the World Wildlife Fund.

When traveling, people are strongly discouraged to purchase souvenirs made from various animals like elephants, birds and snakes. Selling and purchasing these items are part of the illegal wildlife trade that further compromises the futures of animals whose existences are already at stake.

It’s also important to avoid touching or feeding animals in the wild, experts say. Doing so might make them more reliant on people as a food source and might lead to attacks.

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