Most of the people who start researching ecotourism are looking for a way for their travel itineraries to not destroy the planet. I get it, and honestly, I applaud you for that mindset.
Ecotourism tends to attract travelers and tourists who are animal lovers. Nature enthusiasts. Conscious consumers. Beautiful websites touting an “environmentally friendly” resort stay or animal sanctuary visit sounds to most like the perfect getaway. I can relate!
I mean look, you’re busy and looking for a unique, but ethical experience on your vacation. That is completely understandable. However, for travel to not make the world a shittier place, it can’t simply tout environmentalism as it’s redemption.
The hard truth is that eco-travel is not the quick fix we’ve been told it is. Eco-travel is not the savior of the travel industry or a way to assuage your guilt for trashing the planet.
So what is the solution, and how can you be sure you’re making the right decisions?
What is Greenwashing? Why Should I Care?
Horror stories have come out in the last few years about ecotravel companies greenwashing their vacationers — that is, misleading consumers by promising an ecofriendly experience but delivering something that is anything but ecofriendly. Greenwashing is when a company purposefully misleads the consumer into believing that its products or services are environmentally friendly or otherwise sustainable when they are not.
Many brands outside of the travel industry do this, and quite a few within the travel niche are guilty as well. One example of greenwashing in the travel field is Carnival Cruise Lines. The cruise company has a clearly readable “Ethics and Compliance” section on their website navigation. Here, Carnival pledges to “protect the environment” and “promote a strong corporate culture of openness, trust, care, and respect”. However, independent studies on cruise ships and their environmental impacts give Carnival the lowest score rating possible for a cruise ship to have. Carnival has known criminal violations, has little to no transparency about their actions, and continually has terrible scores for their water quality, air pollution, and sewage treatment initiatives.
Basically, Carnival sells one face to the media and wears a completely different face when no one is looking. That is classic greenwashing.
In terms of ecotravel, other forms of greenwashing are just as disappointing. Animal sanctuaries, for instance, that are advertised as havens for abused creatures but which often turn out to be little more than the zoo’s in disguise. Only probably with worse ethics. Ask yourself something before you take a picture with an apex predator or otherwise dangerous animal: what has been done to this animal for me to be safe in its presence? Without exception, the answer is always abuse. I’m talking ethics like cutting the tendons of tiger cubs so that if they take a swipe at you, you don’t die. Declawing big cats, which involves removing an entire bone, is also very common. Do you really think that elephant wants you to ride it? No, buddy, it has been shocked with electricity or whipped for it to perform this way.
Animal sanctuaries, for the most part, greenwash tourists by touting a safe and healthy environment for rescued animals while allowing tourists an up-close and personal look at some amazing creatures. However, if an “animal sanctuary” allows you to ride an undomesticated animal (like an elephant), pet an apex predator, or take a picture with an animal in a way that seems too good to be true — you’re being greenwashed. That is a form of ecotourism with which you simply don’t need to bother.
Travel itself has hugely negative environmental impacts. A flight from New York City to Los Angeles generates over 65 short tons of carbon emissions one way. So if travelers are focused only on the environment while at their destination, they’re hugely missing the point.
For tourism to truly not suck the life out of the world, it must go beyond the environment and instead:
- provide economic incentives to protect natural heritage
- fight against poverty
- seek sustainable development
- provide a positive experience for both the host and tourist
- empower the underprivileged
- contribute to the economic well-being of local cultures
The hard truth is that ecotravel is not the quick fix we’ve been told it is. Ecotravel is not the savior of the travel industry or a way to assuage your guilt for trashing the planet.
I love a good Eco Lodge as much as the next girl, but you’re not living in an Instagram-perfect world. Sleeping in a glamping tent twenty feet from an elephant sanctuary in Bali and having room service bring you organic coconut smoothies for breakfast isn’t going to save the world. I mean it sounds like a nice vacay, but it’s not the gold standard we should be striving for. For one, that shit is expensive and unobtainable to many travelers and we should stop shaming them for that reality.
For tourism to work as an industry and global hobby long term it must: empower the local culture, promote economic development, and support conservation. If it fails, it is doubly useless.
Don’t fear. You might be asking yourself right now if ecotravel is truly the thinly-veiled shitshow I just said it is, then how can you as an ethical and intelligent human travel the world without guilt?
Well, I’ve got two answers for you.
One: ensure that your “ecolodge” or “eco-friendly tour company” is actually doing what they say they’re doing. Sure, that Eco Hostel with the rooftop pool looks like a fun place to stay (and they have solar panels!) — but how do they support the local community? Are they locally owned? What about that animal tour you’re going on — are they promising you the chance to ride an elephant? Pet a baby lion? Do you really think there is any chance that is actually ethical?
A tour company or hotel doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth your time — they just need to be transparent. If they can’t answer your questions, move on. We don’t need to expect perfection, especially from the smaller companies of the world who desperately need our business. These companies, after all, are run by human beings and human beings are fallible. If the answer to your question is “not right now, but we are working on it!” you’re probably safe to do business.
Take cruise ships for example. Would I go on a cruise run by Carnival? Hell no. They have the money and a large enough team to fix 90% of their environmental issues. Instead, they promise one thing and deliver the opposite. However, would I go on a cruise with Disney Cruises? Probably! This is an example of a cruise ship that isn’t perfect, but they rank high in transparency about their practices. Meaning, maybe they aren’t perfect but they have very little to hide, and they are trying.
The second answer is to make sure that you aren’t greenwashing the world yourself. Does your eco-friendly mindset go beyond your two-week vacation, or are you just doing it for the Likes? Yeah, flights are stupidly bad for the environment, but you can offset that cost in your daily life. Consider going vegan if it makes sense for you. If full veganism doesn’t make sense, just you know, reduce your consumption when applicable. Move towards a zero-waste lifestyle. Stop utilizing single-use plastics. Buy carbon offsets. Support local businesses.
Once you start utilizing these values in your everyday life your #ecofriendly travel goals will move away from being lip service and move towards authenticity.
So with all of this being said, what is truly the 1 reason why you don’t need to worry about ecotravel? It’s because if you make sustainable principles a 24/7 aspect of your life, you’ll never need to worry about ecotravel again. You’ll already be doing the most possible good, with or without your travel itinerary.