As wildlife lovers, we have always been interested in environmentally friendly travel. We followed all the basics – avoiding plastics and taking short showers – but only recently began to understand all that goes into making our travel destinations sustainable. We’ve learned that taking time to understand the issues challenging the destination, and planning accordingly, will ensure our travel supports the environment and the local community. In this post we’ll share the travel tips we’ve learned for green travel planning.
What is a sustainable travel plan?
Sustainable holiday planning, or green travel planning, is the process of designing your trip in a responsible way. For sustainable tourism the three pillars of sustainability – the environment, the economy, and society – should all be interdependent. In other words, your trip would be as beneficial to the hosting community as it is to you, the visitor.
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Seven steps in green travel planning
- Research Destination –
- avoid areas of over tourism and
- areas of unethical travel or political turmoil
- Decide on timing for your travel – Life constraints might dictate this, but if possible
- choose to travel at times of least tourism
- opt for slow travel – spending more time at your destination.
- Outline travel plans
- can you combine this trip with another so as to economize of transportation?
- research activities
- Investigate ethical options and providers
- Be sure priority activities will be open
- begin learning about your chosen destination
- Learn a few words of the language
- Create a reading list of books about your destination. Or line up some movies for a film festival.
- Research cultural customs and etiquette
- train travel is most efficient
- bus travel, and ride sharing follow in efficiency
- if flying is required, check carbon ratings
- at your destination, walk, bike, or use public transportation
- Choose lodging carefully
- locally owned and operated lodging returns the most revenue to the economy
- research sustainability practices and community support
- Begin booking (or bookmarking) local activities
- Pack light and sustainably
- create a travel capsule wardrobe to minimize clothing needed
- choose quick dry, odor resistant, wrinkle-free items
- minimize toiletries carried
The seven steps to green travel planning will help you to be a responsible traveler. Consider each as you put together your itinerary, and you’re good to go!
Bonus: Identify a charity, cause, or foundation from your destination you can contribute to.
Case Study: How we made a sustainable travel plan for a trip to Costa Rica
A trip to Costa Rica has been top of my wish list for a long time. I’m an avid birder and had researched birding expeditions to this Central American country for years. My husband is NOT a birder however and prefers a relaxing cruise or island destination for our mid-winter travel. So we compromise. Years of traveling together have helped us to arrive at plans that work for both of us. When traveling anywhere we schedule some quiet time either before or (preferably) at the end of our journey. This has worked well for us on our African safaris, and on our European vacations.
Decisions, decisions… or coming up with a plan
Note: As this was meant as a case study in green travel planning, I wrote this section before our trip. However, a family tragedy right before our travel date changed our travel plans. Read to the end to see how the trip ended up, and whether, despite changes, our goal of traveling responsibly was met.
Costa Rica – If you research sustainable travel, you will immediately come up with links to Costa Rica. This country is way ahead of the world in sustainable tourism, and is always on the list of ecotourism destinations. Almost 5% of the world’s biodiversity is found in this small nation. In 2021 Costa Rica was the recipient of the Earthshot Prize, a global environmental award.
We are traveling at the end of January to escape the New England winter, but we’ve timed our trip away from school vacation schedules when the sites might be busy. However, with COVID-19 having a severe impact on travel, deciding on an ‘unbusy’ time to travel was largely irrelevant. But deciding to go ahead with the trip this year was important to the Costa Rican tourism industry.
3. Outline travel plans:
- Combining travel – we booked our flight to begin in the NYC area and giving us the opportunity to visit our New York family. In Costa Rica we will have a week on our own, exploring nature, etc. before sailing for a week on a small ship. We had originally intended to add another week’s stay in Florida or Texas, but in light of the epidemic and possible quarantine protocols, we decided to fly directly home.
- Research activities – we decided to book our pre-cruise week with Nicole Engel (Absolute Experts Costa Rica) a local Costa Rican travel advisor. We’ve outlined things we want to see and do, and requested she book locally owned, sustainable lodging, and local guides for our tours.
- Learning about the destination –
- As we are traveling during the pandemic the most important preparation we have done is researching the health and vaccination requirements for entering Costa Rica. We are fully vaccinated and boosted, so do not need to purchase the mandatory Costa Rican travel insurance for the unvaccinated. We decided to purchase our own insurance anyway in case we got sick and had to cancel at the last minute, or needed additional medical care in Costa Rica.
- Putting together a reading list is always a fun activity for me. My favorite for this trip was Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate by Jack Ewing. It’s a collection of natural history essays – easy reading, yet informative.
- Dave is pretty fluent in Spanish so we felt comfortable with that. (post-trip note: I need to learn Spanish! Dave did great, but I missed a lot!)
There are no direct flights from Boston, so we will begin our trip in the NYC area. Undecided whether we will drive or take Amtrak to get to NY.
Our research on Google Flights gave us information on flight efficiency. We are booked to fly on United Airlines on a flight rated as producing 18% lower emissions than average.
We have planned our nature week in Costa Rica with Nicole. We discussed with her our commitment to sustainable travel, and she selected lodging accordingly. Costa Rica makes this easy as the Costa Rican Tourism Institute has developed criteria for lodging to receive certification for sustainable tourism (CST).
Nicole has booked us at the Hotel Belmar near the Monteverde cloud forest. This hotel is rated 5 leaves – the highest rating given by the tourism board. We’re looking forward to learning about how they’ve created a model for sustainable tourism.
After the land portion of the trip, our challenge come in. Cruising can be notoriously UN-sustainable, but we researched and chose to book a small ship cruise with Windstar on one of their sailing ships. This ship carries only 148 guests as opposed to the thousands carried on other lines mega-ships. Windstar has made a commitment to sustainability. The company is upgrading its ships, installing new wastewater treatment systems and new engines which exceed the efficiency standards put in place by the International Maritime Organization limit.
6. Begin Booking and Bookmarking Activities:
We’ve settled on a schedule that will allow us some time in San Jose city, several days in nature reserves, and a day or two of complete relaxation. I’ve prepared a journal where I’ve gathered ideas for local restaurants to try, responsible tours, etc. Again, as the pandemic is still ongoing, we do not need to reserve spots for these activities immediately.
Reading reviews on TripAdvisor (or similar review sites) has helped us to decide on what to do and what to avoid. We’ve decided to skip a wildlife refuge that some felt was ethically questionable.
7. Pack light and sustainably:
Not a challenge for me! We will likely carry-on with one bag each. Over the years we have invested in quality, lightweight, quick-dry clothing. Our gadgets will go in our under-seat bag and will take up much of the baggage weight. In our bags we will be sure to include:
- reusable water bottle
- coral safe sunscreen
- a reusable shopping bag (no plastic bags in Costa Rica)
- reusable straws
Identify a cause, charity or reserve to support. We’ve searched Pack with a Purpose and found a list of school supplies being collected at Hotel Belmar. Pack with a Purpose is a nonprofit organization that lets travelers identify supplies needed in destinations they are visiting. Hotels and lodgings around the world submit lists of community needs and disperse whatever the traveler is able to fit in their suitcase.
That’s a good start for our giving back. Will have to see if we find more causes when we get there!
How’d we do? Was the trip an example of sustainable, green tourism?
Over our years of travel, we’ve learned that the most important thing you can bring on any trip is flexibility. Certainly this was the case for this trip. Right before we were to leave for our trip, we lost a sister to cancer. Though she’d been sick for a while, her death was completely unexpected. We were shattered, and unsure whether to go forward with the trip. We made the difficult decision to adjust plans and go to Costa Rica directly from the funeral.
Almost all the plans we’ve outlined above changed. We left from Texas, cancelled the cruise portion of the trip, and slowed down our schedule to add more time to rest. As a result, the trip was more sustainable than we’d planned. We know it was more of what we needed after our loss. Not only did we have privacy to mourn, but also the days in small towns gave us the opportunity to enjoy local restaurants, and hear live music.
Green Travel Planning Success – local guides!
We met the most extraordinary nature guides, who not only shared with us their knowledge of wildlife, but also took the time to talk about their lives, their struggles these past two years, and cheered us with their good humor. Undoubtedly, having tourists back in Costa Rica is essential to the country and these people. They were justly proud of the work Costa Rica has done to protect its environments:
- Karen Castillo (Smilisca Natural Expeditions), our guide in Manuel Antonio National Park, shared how this immensely popular park has not only set limits on the numbers of visitors daily, but also has made the decision to close one day a week to allow nature to recover. In this way, the government is prioritizing nature over money. BTW Karen was the first female guide in the national park!
- Felix Barrantes (Pasión Costa Rica) gave us an amazing tour of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, but also shared his concerns for the effects climate change has already had on the ecosystem. In the 1970s the cloud forest averaged no more than 23 sunny days a year, in 2021 there were 132 sunny days. This change has resulted in many species disappearing, possibly forever.
Felix told us about the quality of life in the country, and the laws enacted to preserve health and the environment – no smoking allowed in ANY public space, fines of littering, etc.
- Giovanni Bogarin has single-handedly reforested 30 acres in the town of La Fortuna. This reserve is now home to sloths, iguanas, and hundreds of bird species. Giovanni has been featured in the New York Times for his work. Our day with Giovanni was extraordinary!
Now that we’re home and reflecting on the past month, we recognize how restoring it was to spend time with each other and with the friendly local people of Costa Rica. As we said goodbye to each guide, each hotelier, and each driver, my husband assured them that we would come back to Costa Rica. I think my ‘birding dream vacation’ was a hit with him too!