How to Tread Responsibly in Endangered Places

Seven tips to help you care for the destinations you love.

By Carrie Miller

From pollution to the impact caused by rising visitor numbers, there’s little doubt: We affect the world around us. According to the World Tourism Organization, tourism is currently responsible for roughly 5 percent of global CO2 emissions, a figure that’s been steadily growing since the term carbon footprint found its way into the Merriam-Webster dictionary 18 years ago. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t travel. Far from it, in fact: Tourism does more good than harm.

Promoting cultural understanding, protecting heritage, supporting local economies—exploring the globe has substantial benefits, not least of which is seeing the world with our own eyes. As renowned marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle has said, “Knowing is the key to caring, and caring is vital to inspire people to take action.” The tips below outline ways you can help safeguard some of the world’s wonders for your fellow travelers and those to come.

1. Preserve the greats: Most of us want to experience the world’s iconic sights, such as Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef or the Grand Canyon. These ecosystems are often fragile and, due to their popularity, under pressure from tourism. To help alleviate that pressure, you might consider exploring them during the off-season, when local resources aren’t as strapped, or choose a less popular but no less alluring alternative. For example, the Philippines’ stunning Apo Reef is the second-largest connecting coral reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, while the vibrant Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, like the Great Barrier Reef, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Websites such as Galapagos.com can help you find sustainable destinations.

2. Remember every footstep has an impact: Straying from designated routes can cause damage to the landscape and pave the way for more people to follow in your footsteps. Walking off marked paths or taking shortcuts can erode soil, scar the landscape by widening trails and damage vegetation. Some plants can take up to 500 years to recover once trampled or destroyed.

3. Seek out environmentally friendly or reusable essentials: All travel products are not created equal, so it’s important to do your research. Sunscreen, for example, is a travel staple, but oxybenzone, a UV-filtering chemical, is toxic to coral (this may not seem all that harmful, but the world’s most popular reefs are exposed to 14,000 tons of sunscreen a year, according to a 2015 study). Opting for environmentally friendly sunscreens and cosmetics is a simple way to do your part. We also tend to rely more on single-use plastics (such as water bottles, takeaway coffee cups and straws) when we’re not at home. To avoid this, pack a reusable water bottle or mug.

4. Consider offsetting your carbon footprint: Organizations such as Carbonfund.org, Carbon Footprint and TerraPass help mitigate the ecological impact of greenhouse gases emitted by flying or driving by means such as planting trees. You can find more offsetting groups here.

5. Be locally aware: Some popular destinations are coming up with ways to encourage visitors to travel more thoughtfully, not only for the good of the environment but also for traveler safety; Venice, for example, is going so far as to levy a fine for negative tourist behaviors like swimming in the canals. A good rule of thumb is to shop locally, give back to the community and think through how your activities affect the day-to-day life of residents.

6. Travel with responsible operators: As a traveler, you have more power than you may realize. Your choices influence the industry, and your money can make a big difference. Dr. Andrea Marshall, a marine biologist, concurs: “Pick conservation operators and soon there will be only conservation operators.” Do your homework, even if it’s a quick online search. A company’s website, reviews from other travelers and even news articles will paint a picture. Also, ask questions: What policies are in place to minimize impact? What is the commitment to conservation efforts and the local community? What safeguards are there to protect the landscape and wildlife? Does the operator maintain a safe and respectful distance from the animals? Responsible operators will have thorough answers for all of these questions. Lastly, trust your instincts: If you don’t see any evidence of recycling or proper waste disposal from guides or on the premises, if there isn’t any mention of responsible travel or if you feel you’re being oversold on conservation messages, it’s likely that best practices aren’t in place. If you have concerns, share them with the management and in a forum for other travelers to see. That will encourage operators to reassess their practices.

7. Conserve water and electricity: Simple steps—such as turning off lights in rooms you’re not using, shutting off the water while you’re brushing your teeth or shaving, and taking shorter showers—all add up to global savings.

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: October 2017