Like the 18 other passengers on the ship Origin, from expedition cruise company Ecoventura, I went to the Galápagos Islands in May to be awed by nature. Swimming with barrel-rolling sea lions, seeing a blue-footed booby chick peeking out from beneath its mother, kayaking with flamingoes and experiencing the meditative pace of a giant tortoise — all exceeded the goal.
Along the way, encountering the most beautiful white sand beaches I have ever visited, with no hotels, but plenty of sea turtle tracks and sun-bleached whale bones, I became awed not just by nature, but also by humanity.
Ecuador’s decision in 1959 to create the Galápagos Islands National Park has preserved an archipelago with some of the highest levels of endemism, or species found nowhere else. “I can say without hesitation over 40 years working in and out of there as a tropical ecologist, if the tourism control and management of visitors hadn’t been put in place in the ’60s, it would have been lost,” said Gregory Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Responsible Travel, or CREST.
Now it is also up to visitors to do their part to tread lightly in the Galápagos and other environmentally sensitive places.
Interest in sustainable travel is on the rise — in a recent Expedia Group Media Solutions survey of 11,000 travelers globally, 9 in 10 respondents said they looked for sustainable options when planning trips. In the same survey, 70% said they were overwhelmed by the process of becoming a more sustainable traveler.
When I was planning my trip last winter and keen to travel as responsibly as possible, Miller helped me break down the options through the lens of sustainability, which was time consuming. It took months deciding where, how and with what company to go; sifting through operators’ websites for sustainability practices; and committing to putting my money — triple my normal travel budget, in part because the Galápagos is not cheap — where my mouth is.
“Unfortunately, not a lot of sustainability is mainstream yet,” said Paloma Zapata, CEO of Sustainable Travel International, which consults with destinations and educates consumers in sustainable travel. “People, businesses and local organizations do not know what sustainability is and how to really fulfill those criteria.”
Here, she and other experts helped provide guidance for travelers who want to plan sustainable trips, especially to sensitive destinations such as the Galápagos or Antarctica.
Fortunately, both the Galápagos and Antarctica make it easier to travel sustainably through their strong environmental regulations, including mandates to leave no trace on shore and ensure that all landings are guided. In the Galápagos, no ship may carry more than 100 passengers; in Antarctica, vessels with more than 500 passengers are prohibited from making landings.
Sustainable travel advocates say their best practices apply everywhere, but in such ecologically fragile places — like Antarctica, which most regard as sensitive as it is the last great wilderness where humans have had little direct impact — the urgency is greater.
“If you’re going to walk the streets of Paris, that’s a different thing than Galápagos,” Zapata said. “When you go to highly sensitive places, be even more mindful of what you’re doing.” If you buy new clothes for a trip, for example, clip the tags off at home. Or if you must buy a bottle of water, when finished, collapse it and take it home to recycle.
Miller advocates broadening the definition of “sensitive place” to include not just these pristine ecosystems, but rare areas or refuges surrounded by developed or degraded lands, including parks in East Africa and biodiverse preserves in the United States like Everglades National Park in Florida and Muir Woods National Monument in California, as well as socially sensitive communities, such as Indigenous ones.
“That’s where the traveler should be looking at travel and tourism as a privilege, not a right, where your choice matters,” Miller said.
Asking Questions, Vetting Answers
Choice begins with research into the issues affecting the destination and asking questions of travel operators, according to CREST’s responsible travel tips. Most companies that are working to protect the environment and support local communities will be transparent about it.
“I should be able to ask questions and they should have answers and know where to direct me,” said Erin Green, an agent with Pique Travel Design, based in Excelsior, Minnesota, who is on the sustainability committee of Virtuoso, a travel agency consortium. “If not, it tells me sustainability might not be a central tenet of their business.”
Answers should go beyond eliminating plastic straws and reducing laundry, which she calls “gimmes.”
“I’m looking for a specific attainable goal like cutting back emissions or going carbon neutral. Where is their staff from? Are they working with local communities? Where is the food coming from?” Green said.
Among operators, she singles out Lindblad Expeditions, an expedition cruise company, which pioneered non-research-related travel in Antarctica and the Galápagos in the 1960s, went carbon neutral in 2019 and serves sustainably sourced seafood (10-day Galápagos trips, from $7,710). Quark Expeditions has hired Inuit chefs on its summer cruises in Greenland and Canada, and Ponant recently launched a hybrid electric ship operating in the polar regions.
On land, Big Five Tours & Expeditions, which blends culture and adventure in trips to Africa, South America and other places, champions social sustainability by patronizing locally owned safari camps in Kenya, for example; its safari listings include an “Elephant Ranking,” representing each African country’s sustainability achievements. Natural Habitat, which runs wildlife-watching expeditions, has been carbon neutral since 2007, and in 2019 operated the first net-zero-waste trip in Yellowstone National Park. For budget travelers, she recommends G Adventures, which has a “ripple score” for most trips that evaluates how much of the company’s trip expenses stay in the destination. (iIt doesn’t score its Arctic or Antarctic expedition cruises.) Trips with a score of 100% include an eight-day tour of the Galápagos (from $3,199 a person) and 13 days in Vietnam (from $1,999).
Beware of hollow incentives to do the green thing. Impact Travel Alliance, a nonprofit that argues for the positive power of travel, offers tips to avoid greenwashing, including looking for businesses that are active in areas such as recycling, waste reduction and supporting biodiversity, not just talking about the topics or recommending that travelers buy carbon offsets.
“A $5 food-and-beverage credit to not have a room cleaned is effectively greenwashing,” said Justin Smith, owner of the Evolved Traveler, an agency based in Beverly Hills, California, noting the reduction in housekeepers’ hours. “You’re causing more pejorative impact on the local economy for a minimal amount of energy savings.”
For independent travelers, sustainable certifications can help identify responsible operations. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which sets international standards in the industry for sustainability, recognizes several certifying bodies for tourism businesses and destinations, including Bureau Veritas, EarthCheck and Green Destinations. “Not every place has the means to be certified internationally,” said Zapata, who suggests looking at national certifications established by countries such as Costa Rica and New Zealand.
GSTC recognizes national certifications in several countries including Indonesia, Norway and Japan.
For alpine resorts, Mountain IDEAL certification assesses a destination on more than 40 sustainability criteria, including environmental stewardship, adapting to climate change, addressing workforce housing and reducing greenhouses gases and waste. Colorado ski towns Vail and Breckenridge have qualified for the badge.
But with so much fragmentation, certifications can be tough to decipher. Check a destination’s website for information on sustainability. Aruba, for example, has distinguished itself for its use of solar and wind energy, powering roughly 20% of its needs. And the country of Jordan created a Meaningful Travel Map that identifies 12 social enterprises — including a cafe with food from a woman-led farmer’s cooperative and a Bedouin camp run by a local tribe — that it encourages travelers to visit.
Resources for Planning
The carbon emissions associated with flying keeps any travel from being fully sustainable. Aviation is responsible for an estimated 3.5% of global warming, and while relatively small, it’s difficult to decarbonize. A White House initiative to promote the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel aims to meet 100% of demands by 2050.
Meanwhile, though, there are plenty of committed travel agencies, organizations and operators providing guidance to conscious consumers.
Regenerative Travel, a consortium of 30 independent hotels vetted for their practices in supporting local communities and the environment, recently switched to a subscription model, charging $99 a year to travelers who receive weekly and monthly updates on regenerative issues. Members get that $99 back in the form of a credit at any of the group’s hotels if booked for a minimum three-night stay.
“We work with incredible independents that don’t have the backing of large groups and financing to reach consumers and typically aren’t on OTAs” or online travel agencies, said Amanda Ho, CEO of Regenerative Travel. Colorado-based OneSeed Expeditions operates adventurous trips around the world — such as hiking in the Himalayas and Patagonia — using local guides and earmarking 10% of its revenues to microfinance small businesses where it operates.
Now it is launching OneSeed Collective, a group of custom-designed trips from similarly minded operators that tend to be small, underfunded and hard to find. Its initial destinations under the Collective include Bolivia, India, Ecuador and the country of Georgia.
Its own trips address regional impacts, such as deforestation in the Himalayas and waste management at Mount Kilimanjaro. With Collective trips, “We’re doing the legwork to ensure that our principles align,” said Chris Baker, founder of OneSeed Expeditions.
The agency Evolved Traveler recently introduced sustainability icons applied to each itinerary that represent activities or places that have positive social or environmental impacts or community engagement.
“By putting it there, we hope it sparks a client’s interest and gets them to talk to us about it,” Smith said.