What is Eco Travel and Why Should You Care?

As I write this I am preparing to go on my first international trip in a verrrrry long time (thanks coronavirus!). Although taking a forced break from travel for the first half of 2020 has been challenging, in some ways I’m grateful because it has allowed me to reflect on what is eco-travel, how my eco travel practices are, and how much more environmentally sustainable they could be.

How I afford to travel: blogging

Utilizing an ethical bank and being vegan, I’m already a more sustainable traveller than many — not just because my food choices are more environmentally friendly but because I usually end up seeking out independent vegan restaurants and cafes, and therefore am supporting local businesses (here are my favourite places in Berlin, Bangkok, and Bali to get you started). However, in order for me to continue to justify my travel habit, I’m aware I need to do an even better job at being an eco traveler — from where I stay to what I pack to how I travel as a vegan.

These past months have been a great opportunity for me to research eco travel and ecotourism, and I’ve put my findings together into this guide, so as you start to plan your next trips you can become a better eco traveller too!

What’s the Difference between Eco Travel and Ecotourism?


Eco travel and ecotourism are often used as two interchangeable terms (along with sustainable travel, green travel, ethical travel, etc) — but I actually like to make a distinction between them.

Eco travel is the umbrella term for ALL aspects of sustainable travel practices, from how you travel to where you go to what you pack. The reason I like the term eco travel is precisely because it is so broad and flexible, which means as this field continues to evolve it easily encompasses new ideas, practices and definitions.

Ecotourism, however, is a fairly well-established field and term. The pinnacle body for ecotourism is The International Ecotourism Society, who have been pioneering this field for 30 years. They define ecotourism as:

responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education

They also outline the principles you must fulfil to engage with ecotourism (as both a tourism service and a visitor):

– Minimize physical, social, behavioural, and psychological impacts.
– Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
– Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
– Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
– Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
– Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
– Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
– Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.

For ecotourism you must fulfil all these criteria in some way, and that is why some travel companies are wholly dedicated to ecotourism because, unless you are able to put a lot of effort into planning out a trip that adheres exclusively to these principles, it is a lot to take on.

The approach I like to take to eco travel, as a bigger broader category, is there are some practices that will be easy to implement on a trip, and some which might be impossible. I consider eco travel to be about becoming MORE sustainable, and making better choices where possible, even if not everything is 100% sustainable all the time. If you are on a budget, or backpacking for months at a time, this is probably a more realistic ask of yourself.

The guide below is split it into various things to consider for each aspect of your trip.

The Best Eco Travel Guide

The Eco Travellers Packing List

This is quite possibly the easiest but most overlooked category of eco travel — easy because if you are environmentally conscious at home the same practices apply when you travel, like bringing a reusable coffee cup with you.

Refillable water bottle: It’s not safe to drink the tap water in many places and not everywhere you go will have a filtered water refill station, but they are becoming increasingly common. Great initiatives like Refill not Landfill and Refill My Bottle (which has an app) will show you where you can go to refill your bottle with filtered water for free. I have also heard good things about UV water purifiers, such as Steripen and Crazycap water bottles where the UV filter is built into the lid!

Plastic-free toiletries: think beyond a bar of soap to bars of shampoo and conditioner too. In my experience, most health food stores now stock these, and as an added bonus if you are flying hand baggage only you won’t be caught out by liquid restrictions.

Reef safe sunscreen: many places are starting to ban sunscreens that contain chemicals that harm coral reefs — however even if you aren’t going on a beach trip consider using a more environmentally friendly sunscreen (your skin will probably thank you for it too!).

menstrual cup: good to use wherever, but especially in some parts of the world where getting hold of sanitary products (particularly tampons) is difficult. Also, it saves the hassle of disposing of sanitary products in countries where the sewage system can’t even tolerate toilet paper let alone a tampon.

a cotton tote bag: for your shopping, groceries and visiting the beach.

ethical clothing: if you are shopping for a new holiday wardrobe, why not buy from some of my favourite eco brands?

laundry detergent sheets: these are eco friendly and dissolvable, as well as being compact and light.

bamboo straws and cutlery: to take out and about with you, and you could even bring a Tupperware and silicon ziplock bags if you think you will be getting takeaway.

These are just some starters that hopefully change how you think about preparing for your trip. Check out my full guide to zero waste living for some more tips and items.

The Eco Travellers Transportation of Choice

bicycle touring south east asia

We all know by now that we need to reduce our air travel. However, sometimes flying is unavoidable — not only is it quicker but it’s often A LOT cheaper — in these cases I recommend balancing your flight out with more sustainable travel practices.

Choose overland transport where possible. I’m grateful that Germany reduced its train prices this year in a bid to encourage rail travel over flying, and in Europe a few airline agencies and train operators are joining forces to replace short-haul flights with better train travel options. Remember even though air travel can feel quicker you need to filter in how much time you will spend at the airport before and after. Other perks of trains and buses are the fact there is (usually) no liquids/or weight restriction for your baggage, and that their economy tends to be more comfortable than when flying, and their first-class upgrades are much more affordable than their aeroplane counterparts! In SE Asia travelling by bus is a much cheaper alternative than flying, and often there are budget and more luxe bus companies to choose between. If your pocket allows upgrade to that squishy seat.

Pick public transport. I used to opt for taxies a lot in Asia, mainly because they are so cheap but remember that a private car drastically increases your carbon footprint. If you are going by taxi choose a local service over Uber, as you will be supporting the local economy as opposed to a multinational.

Chooser a green airline: Alternative Airlines is a travel search engine that helps find the most eco-friendly airline for your planned trip.

Carbon offset your flight (or even your whole trip!): carbon offsetting is not without its pitfalls, but done well it is at least a start. If you decide to use a carbon offsetting company, please find a reputable one, but another alternative is to make a donation to an environmental NGO or charity you believe in — this prevents you from falling into the trap of greenwashing companies.

Best Accommodation for Eco Travel

I can honestly say that some of the best travel experiences I’ve had are when staying in eco-hotels, such as Jaya House in Siem Reap, and Bangkok Tree House in Bangkok). However, these are wayyyy outside my normal price range. They have however been a useful inspiration for what sustainable travel and ecotourism could and should look like.

Ecobnb is the sustainable alternative for Airbnb.
Local guesthouses: staying in a guesthouse owned and operated by locals means you are supporting local business over larger chain hotels. Usually your favourite travel blogger will have some good recommendations for this (hint hint).
camp or glamp: better for your pocket and MUCH better for the environment.

I have also found when recommending retreats that sustainability is built into the fabric of these trips, such as these yoga and detox retreats near Barcelona, in the UK, and Costa Rica.

Other Eco Travel Tips and Tricks

Shop local and seasonal! Whether it’s for clothes, gifts, or food, support a local business. If you love your tropical fruit as much as I do make sure you are only eating them in season. In the past have been known to sniff out a durian (pun intended) when I’m in SE Asia but it’s not in season, and the reality is it’s not only pricey and less delicious, but it’s often imported too.
Support the local or indigenous communities: if you are visiting somewhere that has indigenous communities, particularly if it has historically been colonized, then I recommend donating to an indigenous-led organization and making the effort to support their business. This isn’t just in Africa and Asia, but also Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US too (if you visit the US consider donating to Black Lives Matter too). Many indigenous communities are actively involved in conservation efforts too so you will also be helping environmentally.
Eat vegan: this is an easy one for me… but being vegan massively reduces your carbon footprint! If you need help getting started, check out my Venanuary tips.
Don’t leave the lights on or the tap running. Be mindful of your electricity and energy consumption. It can be easy to forgo your good habits you have at home when you aren’t paying the bill, but remember you are draining somebody else’s pocket as well as increasing your carbon footprint.
Fan over AC: if you can bear it, opt for a fan room — and if you can’t survive without AC then be mindful of how often you are using it.
Dispose of your trash: my recycling habits tend to go out the window when I travel — it’s not that I don’t want to recycle, I just often find recycling bins aren’t provided. Try and recycle as much as possible, or better still try and reduce the amount of trash you are generating. It should go without say, but don’t litter — even if the people around you are.

Ecotourism Options

If your budget permits, why not support an ecotourism company or operator? Not only do they do the hard work for you, but they invest more in local culture and sustainable practices (as well as providing fair wages for workers) than it is probably possible for you to do by yourself — no matter how hard you try. They just have all the infrastructure in place, also if you want to see more affordable ecotourism options then supporting existing places and showing it is a financially viable option for the tourist industry.

My top ecotourism recommendations are:

&Beyond is a luxury tour operator that provides tailor-made trips to Africa, including safaris, Asia and South America. They are undoubtedly expensive, but if you do have money to spend they are worth the investment.
Responsible Travel is a platform that will help you find your perfect trip. They work with small operators to provide the most ethical trip possible for your preferences. They have a ton of search criteria from destination to the type of trip (such as safari in Africa or trekking in Nepal), and they even have an accessible option for people with disabilities.
Kynder is a great way to design your own eco-friendly trip. They are a travel search engine that lists accommodation and places to eat that meet their ethical criteria which include:
eco practices, from organic products to waste reduction and vegan options; company culture and fair labour; and community impact and mission — as well as quality and aesthetics!

I know that the pandemic will end up changing how I travel in the future, and I would love to know about how your travel is changing too. Drop your eco travel tips and tricks in the comments below!

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