10 Ways to Be an Eco-Conscious Tourist

Show respect for the place you visit by minimizing waste and other damage.

woman hiking

Getty Images/Jordan Siemens

There is some irony to writing an article about travel at a time when no one's really traveling at all, but there will come a time – hopefully before too long – when we'll be adventuring once again. Not only will it be wonderful for our minds, bodies, and souls, but it will be crucial for the many countries and communities that have long relied on tourism dollars to make ends meet and have suffered tremendously as a result of the pandemic.

Travel, however, cannot go back to being what it was. It's a notoriously polluting, dirty industry, and that's why it is important to "rebuild responsibly," as goes the message from major players in the sustainable tourism sphere. A big part of that responsibility falls to us travelers; we must relearn certain travel behaviors so that our desire to see the world does not result in loads of trash and ecological damage for others to contend with long after we've finished our vacation.

I've written before about 7 Items for Zero Waste Travel and How to Avoid Being Another Annoying Tourist, but I'd like to go a bit more in depth with strategies for travelers to leave less of a mess behind. While not commonplace practices now, these would ideally become mainstream in a new, reformed, post-COVID travel industry. (For the sake of simplicity, I am not addressing air travel in this piece. There are plenty of articles about that on Treehugger; you can start here.) 

1. Pack with Great Care

How you pack sets the tone for how you will interact with the place you visit. Invest in high-quality, lightweight reusables – like a water filter bottle, collapsible coffee mug, eating utensils, amenities for travel like headphones, cloth face and eye masks for sleeping, menstrual cup or period underwear, cloth shopping bag, and so on. Pack versatile items like a large scarf or a quick-dry towel that can double as a blanket, pillow, or sun guard. Keep your bag light and portable; take as little as you can. See these tips for building a travel capsule wardrobe.

2. Bring Solid Toiletries

Skip the liquids and discover the wonderful world of solid beauty products. From lotion, deodorant, and toothpaste tabs, to soap, shampoo, and cosmetics, the sky's the limit when it comes to these cool new products. They don't weigh much and won't cause problems in airport security and you won't have to use the single-use plastic containers offered at your hotel. (No accidental suitcase spillages, either!)

3. Use Public Transportation

When you travel with minimal luggage, it's not a big deal to hop on a bus, train, or ferry – all of which come with a smaller carbon footprint than private cars or plane rides. I've found that fitting all my belongings into a single backpack makes me feel bolder with my transportation choices and this has opened doors of opportunity. Public transportation routes give you a different view of a city and a culture, bring you into contact with locals, and will inevitably add some colorful stories to your adventure. With a single backpack, you can also walk much further, potentially eliminating the need for transportation altogether.

4. Conserve Water and Energy

Just because you're paying for a hotel or hostel room doesn't mean you should squander the resources required to run it. Treat it as you would your own home – or perhaps with even greater care because you might be in a place that has less resource availability than your home does. Turn off the lights and turn down the AC or heat when you leave. Unplug electronics. Take short showers and reuse towels. Hang a sign on the door that says no housekeeping is required to avoid unnecessary laundering. Your bed linens are probably fine for up to a week. Hand-wash and hang clothes to dry if you can.

5. Avoid Single-Use Plastics

Act as you would at home and please don't use your vacation as an excuse to let standards slip. If anything, you have more of a responsibility as a guest to practice excellent eco-friendly behaviors. When out and about, carry a cloth shopping bag for any purchases or put them in a backpack. Avoid takeout meals that generate waste; you'll have more fun anyway if you sit down in a locally-owned restaurant for a meal, or opt for street food that comes straight from the vendor and is minimally packaged. Carry a water bottle to avoid single-use plastic bottles (and yes, you can still have clean water by using some of these strategies I employed in Sri Lanka).

6. Be Mindful of Seasonality

This advice comes from "The Eco Hero Handbook" by Tessa Wardley, in which she responds to a question about how to minimize one's environmental impact at a place of accommodation while traveling. She writes:

"Don't demand orange juice or other fresh produce out of season – there are bound to be locally produced goods you can enjoy, and you will be developing an understanding of local resources. You want your accommodation to provide an environmentally friendly service within the constraints of its location so don't expect or ask for western decadence in a developing country or capital city provision in a remote location. Hosts will often bend over backwards to provide what their guests request but at great cost to themselves, and the planet."

This is sound advice. Use your trip as an opportunity to discover what kinds of food are harvested as specific times of year. Take this a step further by trying to eat like locals do. Not only is it educational, but it's also a sign of respect. If a typical diet consists mainly of black beans and rice, or dal with chapati, eat that every day, too.

7. Choose Carefully Where You Stay

I once made the bad decision of renting an apartment in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro that didn't look too far from the downtown core of Ipanema and Copacabana, but in reality took two hours to travel because of horrendous traffic – and it did not have any decent public transportation options. While I may have saved money in the moment, I paid the price in inconvenience. Don't do that! Do your research thoroughly and choose a location that's within walking distance of the places you want to explore. Not having to rent a car and navigate dense urban traffic jams is always worth it.

8. Leave Reviews

This is important yet often overlooked aspect of travel. By taking the time to leave a thoughtful review that analyzes the eco-credibility of a place you've stayed or visited, you (a) help the business get recognized for its effort, and (b) encourage other travelers to prioritize environmental standards. Wardly writes:

"Businesses rely heavily on these sites to sell their products, so use your voice to identify their environmental credentials. Shout about organizations and companies that provided you with responsible travel options. Help others to see what it means to be an eco-conscious tourist and how you managed to make that choice."

As with all environmental issues, the more it's talked about, the more it's normalized, and then it becomes more widely accessible over time. 

9. Avoid Contributing to Overtourism

Overtourism is a very real problem, with many locals becoming resentful of the hordes of (often thoughtless) visitors that descend upon them at a particular time of year. Put yourself in their shoes and choose to travel in the off-season, if you can. Pick places that are off the beaten track, maybe not the Instagram-famous ones, but possibly more interesting because less is known about them. 

There's no lack of places to go; it's estimated that "half of all tourists visit the top ten destinations and every year more people visit the tiny remote Easter Island than go to the whole of Bangladesh" (via Wardly). Pick a country to visit based on its own government's commitment to rebuilding better; see this list from Ethical Traveler for some suggestions.

10. Choose Sun Protection Wisely

If you're fortunate enough to be traveling somewhere hot (I'm writing this while looking at snow outside), be considerate of the chemicals in your sunscreen that could be damaging marine life. An estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen washes off every year when we swim or shower, causing significant harm to coral reefs. Many tropical destinations like Key West and Hawaii are banning chemical sunscreens, but it still falls to travelers to take responsibility to choose the right products. Avoid oxybenzone, octinoxate, and other ingredients. (See full list here.) 

Choose creams rather than sprays to minimize losses into the environment and allow it to soak in fully before entering water. Look for products that have the Protect Land+Sea Certification. Apparently 'reef safe' is an unregulated term, and even 'biodegradable' sunscreens can still cause damage to reefs, so don't rely on it exclusively. The best thing is to protect yourself physically from the sun using a rash guard or other clothing, a hat, a sun umbrella or other form of shade, and to time your outdoor excursions for off-peak times.