Why do we collectively shudder at the thought of tourist traps? Maybe it’s the idea of facing body-to-body throngs of tired, sunburned people. Or swarms of selfie sticks poking over the crowd like prairie dogs. Or souvenir shops with the same overpriced shirts and mugs — just a different city stamped across the front.
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The wear and tear of tens of thousands of feet and hands and photoshoots sucks authenticity out of a location like nothing else. This is exactly why ecotourism — responsible travel achieved by conserving the areas we visit, supporting the local community in those areas, and deepening our understanding of both — has steadily gained traction in recent years. When we resolve to care for the unique environments we have the privilege of experiencing, we ensure others enjoy them long after us. Here are a few ideas for the mindful traveler:
We’ve all been to a national park where the squirrels, birds, or monkeys are so accustomed to handouts from humans they’ll literally come sit on your shoe… Yeah, that’s not how wildlife should be acting. Sure, these creatures make for a magical Snow White kind of photoshoot, but feeding wild species encourages aggressive behavior and even shifts migration patterns. Remember that you’re a visitor in their home so respect the environment’s natural rules.
A safari is one option to minimize impact, allowing you to admire species from a respectable distance. Binocular-clad tourists scoping out the landscape also happen to be a great deterrent to poachers. To care for the flora as well as the fauna, keep from wandering off designated paths or tromping through the underbrush. Touchless activities like ziplining or carbon-neutral helicopter rides let you enjoy all the plants you want without accidentally flattening rare flowers.
When it comes to the idea of Ecotourism, another form of preservation is community conservation. You’ll find that financially backing small businesses not only helps the region but benefits you too. When you opt for a bed and breakfast or Airbnb over a hotel chain, you support locals while also getting the chance to explore a neighborhood outside the tourist bubble. And when you choose family-run cafés and restaurants over Big Coffee and fast-food joints, you aid mom-and-pop shops while also encountering the authentic flavor of a place. It’s a win-win.
On the topic of assistance, we’d be remiss not to mention volunteer opportunities. To give back, consider signing up for surf outreach in South Africa, helping with turtle conservation in Costa Rica, building houses in Mexico, teaching English in Nepal, or any number of other service trips. Volunteers also have the chance to meet like-minded folks while growing in gratitude, empathy, and perspective.
Respect Your Hosts
Imagine a house guest poking their nose into all your cabinets, tossing trash on your floors, and climbing onto your counters and tabletops to take pictures. Not ideal, is it? Inconsiderate tourists are a lot like bad house guests. Except the local community calling this vacation spot “home” can’t point to the door and tell people to leave.
A little common sense creates a positive experience for guests and host alike. Like not sticking gum to random surfaces (unless it’s the Seattle Gum Wall). And not taking pictures where we’re not supposed to take pictures. Especially, if that includes blocking heavily trafficked areas, hopping fences, or climbing on or in things we’re not meant to. Berlin wants visitors to stop striking sexy yoga poses atop the stone blocks of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, and Rome is fed up with tourists treating the Trevi Fountain like their personal swimming pool.
Cultivate Cultural Awareness
Another way to show regard for your hosts is to be mindful of the social and cultural norms of your destination. No one expects you to be an expert on the area — people can live in countries for years and still tread on taboos — but brushing up on the basics and going in with a teachable mindset will gain you credibility.
Did you know Hungarians want more personal space than your typical American, while Argentinians want less? Or that an early dinner in Spain is 9pm and that salads in France are served after the main course? Social interactions, time management, etiquette, values, and gestures of respect vary widely from place to place… and that’s part of the charm!
Besides, learning cultural differences deepens your appreciation and understanding of the place you’re visiting. Don’t be surprised if you start admiring details and undercurrents you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. On the topic of illumination, we highly recommend signing up for at least one tour on the history of a place. An area’s past events, architecture, and artwork each play a factor in shaping its identity and ideals.
A Final Thought on Ecotourism
Mindful travel shouldn’t feel like a hassle… It benefits us too! When we respect natural and manmade environments, it deepens our admiration for those places. And when we pay attention to the needs of wildlife and local communities, we strengthen our connections with both. That is what Ecotourism is all about.
Johanna Harlow is an arts and culture journalist for several publications. She enjoys dipping her toes into worlds different from her own by interviewing everyone from cinematographers to photographers, architects to actors, lyricists to muralists. She is also a screenwriter and lives in California’s sunny Bay Area.