Photo: How to be a good eco-tourist

Beware of eco-tourism gone awry. Choose sustainable get-a-ways! (Credit: Lindsay Coulter)

I love to travel.

The most amazing place I've been to is the Galapagos Islands. I bought a zoom lens and never used it because frigate birds, blue footed boobies, marine iguanas, and sea lions were always under foot!

Unfortunately, there are limited resources to help you find eco-friendlier resorts and vacations, even green hotels. But generally speaking, the more rules, the better. Don't allow your presence to compromise the last tract of intact Amazonian rainforest or the only nesting area for a rare species!

Beware of eco-tourism gone awry.

The motor of the craft I was on in Costa Rica on a howler monkey and bird extravaganza boat tour leaked fuel the entire time. We were surrounded by 20 others all doing the same, and together generating a cacophony of noise pollution.

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But on the same Costa Rica trip I witnessed leatherback sea turtles nesting at night. This outing was packed with rules; no white t-shirts, no flash photography (nesting sea turtles navigate by the stars so they're sensitive to light pollution), only eight people at a time, stay behind the park ranger, don't make any noise and don't touch anything! The small fee also went directly to support the park.

How to find eco-tourism done right

  1. Read the "environment" or "sustainability" section of company websites
  2. Read reviews by other tourists
  3. Ask questions like: What's the resort's waste-reduction policy? Where does wastewater go? What about transportation options? How are they reducing their impact? How does a resort protect the species they're planning to show you?
  4. Respect the rules. They exist to help an endangered species, landscape or culture, and so that others like you might catch a glimpse.
  5. Find out if a resort or tour company gives back to a non-profit or the local community through funds or jobs. One resort I visited in Costa Rica employed the locals who were previously out collecting endangered leatherback sea turtle eggs to sell on the black market as aphrodisiacs.

If a place is advertising ATV tours at night to see the turtles, trust your hunch—this is not a sustainable activity!

Where in the world have you stayed and enjoyed eco-tourism gone right?

Comment on this blog for a chance to win a bottle of true natural sunscreen (SPF 50) and an apricot lip butter by Rocky Mountain Soap Company (draw date August 9th)!

Lindsay Coulter, Queen of Green

July 15, 2012

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Jul 05, 2013
1:23 PM

I realize that travel is a great way to destroy your misconceptions and prejudices, but maybe leaving natural sites natural by not sending millions of tourists there every year might be a good thing. As you report, many of these so-called eco-tourist vacations prominently feature herds of people trampling the local flora and fauna and polluting the water with gasoline and garbage.

I see little benefit to burning tons of hydrocarbons to transport you to a place so that you can take photographs of things that have already been photographed by other people. Such travel is now and almost always has been the domain of the wealthy so that they can brag to their friends that they’ve experienced something different than them.

Aug 10, 2012
8:46 AM

Thanks for the thoughtful article. I agree that being a responsible traveller means asking the right questions before making travel decisions (and while on holiday), and supporting those tourism businesses which have made a deep commitment to sustainability. There are many out there … check out the companies of the BC Sustainable Tourism Collective, the Adventure Collection, or the companies of Cayuga Hospitality. Let's not forget, though, that not travelling is not the answer. Tourism, done well, has the potential to create economic, social and environmental benefits around the globe

Aug 09, 2012
1:17 PM

Lindsay, I completely agree. The world of eco-travel has become increasingly muddied in the last few years and travellers are being tricked by 'greenwashing'. A good resource for researching sustainable travel options is The International Eco-Tourism Society, or TIES. You can find them at The Adventure Travel Trade Association also screens tour companies before admitting them. Find them at There's some great companies out there that are doing it right and in many places travel provides critical dollars for sustainable development.

Aug 09, 2012
10:16 AM

Thanks for the tips! I visited Costa Rica earlier this year and found some spots more eco-friendly than others which surprised me because most everything I had read commented on how green Costa Rica was and how eco-tourism was important. I didn't do my homework.

SO. I'm planning a trip to SE Asia early next year and now I have a few ways to make sure to spend my dollars in a responsible way.

Thanks for the great article

Aug 09, 2012
9:59 AM

There's always a chance of "green-washing" in everything. Careful research is key to ensuring sustainability, whether it's a product or a service.

Aug 09, 2012
9:48 AM

Great tips! I'll pay closer attention next time before I book my vacations!

Aug 08, 2012
5:37 PM

My instincts tell me that hotels likely have a higher carbon footprint than staying in a vacation apartment. I like being to shop for and prepare a lot of my own food. Plus there is usually only one housecleaning visit — at the end of your visit. Does anyone have any data that supports my instinct?

Aug 02, 2012
7:33 AM

Thanks for the great article! It's so important for travelers to do that little bit of extra research to ensure that their hotels and tours are truly sustainable, and not just using "green" marketing.

Our directory at has hundreds of VERIFIED sustainable tourism businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Helen's two favorites— Yachana Lodge and Hotel Mocking Bird Hill! We are a nonprofit organization and do not charge a thing for businesses to be listed on our site — all that's required is that they meet our strict sustainability credentials.

Cheers, Dipika Editor

Jul 29, 2012
2:49 PM

As alluded to by others, to be truly sustainable our travels need to not involve travel by jet, which makes an enormous constribution to global warming. If the use of carbon was appropriately limited to mitigate global warming and distributed equitably among the citizens of the world one round trip by jet from Canada to one of these locations you mention would more than burn up a year's worth of an individual's fossil fuel allotment, leaving nothing left for day to day travel, cooking, heating, purchase of fossil fuel derived food and goods, etc for the year. Carbon offsets for flying, while better than nothing, don't begin to address the seriousness of the issue. It would be great if you would write an article raising this fundamental concern and comparing the carbon impact of travel by jet, train, driving a Prius or Smart Car on biodiesel, or as a paying guest on an ocean going freighter. And there is usually much to see and enjoy nearby.

Jul 28, 2012
10:02 AM

Great tips. I always try and follow my home rules and bring a reusable bottle and coffee mug where ever I go. Small things, but they all add up in the end.

Jul 25, 2012
11:32 AM

A good article. Things many of us don't think about much when booking a vacation (though we should)!

Jul 24, 2012
10:56 AM

It is sometimes difficult to justify the negative environmental impact caused when one must use air travel to reach these exotic "eco" destinations.

Jul 24, 2012
8:33 AM

You might find this article in the Guardian interesting. It is an interactive map showing the carbon footprint of UK'ers various holiday airflight destinations.

Jul 22, 2012
11:32 AM

Thanks so much for this! We're currently trying to plan a short summer vacation,

Jul 17, 2012
4:50 PM

Another great resource for finding 'green' properties (a term which I think should also include social responsibility) is

But it should be noted that most of the "green travel" sites (including Green Key named in the article) charge hotels a fee to be listed, so many properties where standards are exceptionally high either can't or don't pay and are therefore overlooked by consumers. It's a shame that something so well intentioned has to be so mercenary, but I guess that's business.

I've been in the travel industry for years, and for what it's worth, a couple of my favourite properties are:

Yachana Lodge in Ecuador: and Hotel Mockingbird Hill in Jamaica:

Both of these places are the real deal — but don't trust me! Do your homework and see for yourself :)

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