Can We Balance Travel and the Environment?

pristine environment in the Galapagos islandsBalancing preservation of the land with our desire to travel is a challenge not just for us travelers but for the localities we visit. When I was in the Galapagos Islands in March, I was stunned that the islands actually had real cities. I pictured the Galapagos as places people fly into to take boat tours around. There might be a few hotels in a few small towns simply filled with supply shops and science stations. But that wasn’t even close to the case.

Instead, I found a place where 20,000 people live.

The cities on the islands may not be huge cities with skyscrapers, but they are big enough to strain the ecosystem. The cities face constant resource and waste problems. While looking out at the city of Santa Cruz one night, I couldn’t help but think about how much travel can affect the environment. After all, how much of the city supports the over 200,000 tourists who visit the islands each year? How many less people would be there if the tourists were gone?

Back in my youth, I was an environmental activist. My main issue was energy and I ran a statewide outreach initiative for the Sierra Club. We went around to various organizations and towns and told people how they could save money on their energy bills and save the environment at the same time.

But, over the years, I’ve become less environmentally conscious. I leave the lights on. I fly a lot. I drink out of plastic bottles. I eat a lot of meat. And I love fish, especially tuna. However, over the last year, I’ve begun thinking harder about how travel affects the environment and how I affect the environment. In doing so, I’ve tried to be a lot more aware of my actions.

However, in the larger context, I’ve come to realize that travel is not the most environmentally friendly activity. And though sustainable travel and the environment have become hot topics over the last few years, for the most part things haven’t changed much.

the australian outback

Take, for example, Thailand. The Asian tsunami was a huge human tragedy, but if there was any good to come out of it, it was the fact that it gave a country like Thailand a clean slate to rebuild upon. With everything wiped away, officials promised a new start. An end to pollution, dirty beaches, and polluted water. There was a lot of talk about how they would focus on sustainable tourism and how they would build within the confines of the environment and think long-term.

But it never happened. Talk became simply talk. When the huge amount of tourism dollars were looked at, the long-term didn’t matter. It was back to the way it was before. Now, the area is built up even more than before. And the tourists never seemed to be too bothered by it.

Thailand is just one example, but it happens in countless countries around the world. Sure, many countries try to protect their environment, but far many more don’t.

beaches in ko phi phi thailand

I don’t know if there is an easy solution for this problem. The most environmentally friendly activity is to not travel at all, but that’s unrealistic and too extreme. The only good way is to get people to be more environmentally conscious and make better decisions. There’s so much money in travel that I don’t think the government and regulation can do much. It’s all about the consumers. Only when their profits are hurt will hotels, operators, and the industry as a whole begin to listen.

Consumers have a lot of power. Why did Wal-Mart start selling only sustainable fish and whole milk? Consumers wanted it. I think if we as travelers begin to demand more environmentally-friendly practices and avoid companies with poor environmental records, we can change things.

After all, most countries, especially those that rely heavily on tourism, cater to tourists. They bend over backwards to make sure visitors are happy and safe. If tourists begin demanding something loudly enough, they will get it. There’s too much money at stake to ignore the group of people bringing in that money.

tourists in manuel antonio feeding monkeys

But too many of us seem to check-in our environmental awareness at the security gate when we board the plane. I used to, too. But now I think – “I visit all these places for a reason. Why contribute to their ruin? It’s illogical.” Now, I recycle more, I use fewer water bottles, I shut off the lights, I pick up my trash, and, in national parks, I even pick up the trash I find left behind. I try to avoid big resorts. I don’t drive. I take public transportation. And I try to eat local cuisine when I can. Most importantly, I use operators and stay at places that are reducing their environmental impact.

Travel doesn’t have to be environmentally destructive. Travel can destroy the environment but it doesn’t have to. We have the power to make things better. We can do small things and demand more of the places we stay and visit. We can and should demand more of places, and of ourselves.

Because once a place is gone, it is gone for good.

For more, here is the CEO of one of the largest tour companies in the world talking about how his company handles sustainability.

  1. Matt, I think you bring up some very good issues in this article. Possibly one way to leave less of an ecological footprint is to travel slower – stay in places longer, eat locally and make overland crossings as much as possible as opposed to flying. This kind of travel though isn´t easy for those only going on short trips and is more suited for a backpacking lifestyle I suppose. One thing I noticed is that locals can be their own worst enemies at times. I´ll never forget an elderly local Peruvian man throwing a coke bottle out of a boat into the pristine Lago Titicaca without even batting an eye. I wanted to dive out in the water and retrieve it right then and there. It´s certainly something that needs to be a joint effort – locals and tourists alike – with some serious effort and consideration.

    • I agree with the idea about slower travel, it’s my preferred way of travelling but like you say – how realistic is it for the majority of travellers?

      • NomadicMatt

        I don’t think there has to be a real trade off. We can have environmentally efficient quick travel. Hotels, cruises, planes, tours- they can all be made more environmentally efficient. We just have to fight for it to happen. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

    • Laura

      I like the idea of slow travel, much like the slow food movement. In fact, I just wrote a short blog on how people should plan to stay in towns on my island for 3 to 5 days to really experience the town

  2. Very interesting article Matt, I think we need to find a balance between our love of travelling and our love for the environment – are we unrealistic in hoping to find that balance? Perhaps…

    It’s interesting how you have pinpointed Thailand – as long travellers/backpackers/tourists supply the demand the Thais’ will provide.

    Look at some the developments in Spain, absolutely horrendous.

  3. It’s a hard balance, especially if you’re traveling by plane. There are so many places I want to see (or I just want to go home and see family and friends), but I do feel bad knowing that getting there is so environmentally unfriendly.

    If you’re still interested in energy, you might find it interesting to read up on the HidroAysen megadam hydroelectric project that’s just been approved for Chilean Patagonia. The last numbers I saw said 71% of Chileans are opposed to it as it will destroy a lot of the environment down there, and part of the argument is that in doing so it will wipe out the tourism that brings money to the region because gringos aren’t going to pay to go see a flooded area with transmission lines all over the place.

    • NomadicMatt

      I love the tourism argument! Glad to see it’s being used down in Chile too! I use it a lot when I talk about this issue. Tourism dollars last much longer.

  4. _getagrip

    Ha ha, your writing is even stupider than your politics. Why don’t you stop polluting the Internet with your half-baked opinions? You suck! Ban ‘tarded first world green imperialists from traveling and oppressing third world poor people NOW!

    You had to travel to the Galapagos Islands to figure out that people live there? Ever heard of Wikipedia, moron?

    • NomadicMatt

      Normally, I’d delete such a worthless comment like this but the last line so amused me that I’m keeping it.

      Apparently, in order to find out how the world is, we never need to leave our computer. Wikipedia will solve everything. I guess we should all go home now. No need to learn about other cultures now that Wikipedia is around.

  5. Of course we love this article! You have a lot of great points Matt. Unfortunately, often times the development of tourism in pristine locations can destroy the qualities that once drew tourists there in the first place. Like you said, it is not always financially feasible for locations to start over and build completely sustainable options. Collectively by doing little things, such as eating locally to support the local economy, recycling, and using reusable water bottles we can contribute to the growing green travel trend. Eco travel has become the fastest growing segment of global tourism and we’re hoping to continually see more and more sustainable travel options! Thank you for shedding light on this topic! :)

    • NomadicMatt

      Sometimes though, green travel is simply a whitewash. Not all companies that claim to be green really are and that’s just really sad. It’s a marketing tool designed to get guilty Westerners to pay more for a trip to feel good. That being said at least it is part of the travel conversation now because it needs to happen more.

  6. Thanks Matt we need more travel bloggers to bring this up. One thing we can remember is that travel is a healthier alternative than heavy use industries like oil, logging, mining, etc. So it’s a great way to preserve natural resources. But it can get out of hand so demanding reduction of impacts and better planning is essential to the future of these places, and not just for us tourists to enjoy, but for future of the people who live there.

  7. Some good points. Tourism absolutely impacts the environment, if a place becomes popular with tourists, then you can be assured that people are going to try to develop the area to cater for the tourists. Not only does this bring up environmental issues, I think it can often take away some of the reasons to go to the place for a lot of us. My Father traveled through Thailand in the very early seventies, and when he went to Phuket he was able to camp on Patong Beach, and he said the very first hotel had just started being built. Now the place has changed so much because of Tourism, he could never go back there. Back to the environmental issues – It is up to us as travelers to set a good example, practice “green traveling”, and help the locals learn to be environmentally conscious, as many of them just don’t know about the issues. Great article Matt.

  8. We were similarly surprised by how many people lived on the islands when we went to the Galapagos. Our guide’s family had been living in the Galapagos for generations – I asked him many questions about the changes he had seen in his lifetime and there had been a lot. Perhaps most disturbing was that he said the government was issuing more and more land to inhabitants to farm so they could make a living -because local families were big, the population was growing on its own without immigration. Really rather depressing – he thought the islands would be changed completely in 10-20 years.

    Even though we – as travelers – do leave an environmental footprint everywhere we go, we also have the ability to raise awareness to issues in different countries and try to get our friends and families to change their behaviors back home. When we were in Antarctica, a veteran scientist told us that the melting glaciers had basically nothing to do with tourism and had everything to do with what we do at home and our behaviors. So he asked us to try and raise awareness of the connection between how we use our cars and leave lights on at home with the melting glaciers.

    Travelers need to be aware of the environmental impact of their travels, but can also use what they learn from their travelers to help change behaviors locally and back home.

    • NomadicMatt

      I had always assumed that travelers made the most impact on the Galapagos, in part because I never imagined there were cities there. I was surprised to see how damaging the locals were to environment. It was a big change in thought for me.

  9. Interesting article, Matt. I have to agree with many of the points you made. We’ve often hesitated when heading somewhere ‘iconic’ (in other words touristy) because we wonder firstly if tourism will have started to degrade it, and secondly if it will be so hyped up that we will be disappointed.

  10. NomadicMatt

    Most people don’t care. I think most people just don’t even think about it as much as they do when they might be at home. I do think it will change but very slowly. However, maybe if we all start blogging about it, we can make the change happen quicker! Go green!

  11. Nice article Matt. We always use public transportation where ever we travel. I love your idea of not only cleaning up after yourself but after others as well. I’m always shocked when I see children throwing garbage on the streets and sidewalks in front of their parents. I don’t say anything I just pick it up and try to lead by example. Here’s hoping it works or at least helps.

  12. Recent experience has shown me that it isn’t always that people don’t care (although I’ve seen evidence of that too), but that there is still a lot of ignorance. I joined an environmental group a year or so ago, and was amazed even within that group how little people knew. ….well done to them for wanting to know more though! And that’s also where “educating the locals” comes in too, though it’s hard to know how to find a balance between being hectoring and rude oneself and thereby alienating the boat driver or whoever it was just did something outrageous. My take is that we need to make being environmentally conscious “sexy,” or make it too expensive not to be. And articles like yours I’m sure help a huge amount, since your lifestyle is the envy of many young folks. Hope they want to emulate you!

  13. Great post! I believe there is no easy solution. I am very fortunate to live in nature and we try our best to protect the trees and environment that we have here. Unfortunately you have to be prepared to put up a fight at times especially when we have people cutting of trees for firewood. It is incredibly difficult to change the mindset of people.

  14. First time at your site. I really like your idea of slow travel and that is what we do staying in one place for weeks. But with many people traveling during vacation I am not not how practical it is for many…

  15. yeah this insensitivity makes me sick!

    I was myself in this Thailand picture february last, looks like ko phi phi…and I acknowledge I’m part of the problem, since each winter I travel down to a tropical destination like the typical snowbird I am to my great shame. I try to compensate in pulling garbage off beaches and nature (at least 2 hours each day), but I know it’s a drop of water in the ocean.
    I’m weary of the destruction us humans are inflincting on this planet and on living things. I hope humanity will disappear december 21, 2o12, as the Mayas predicted!

  16. Great post, Matt! Wish everyone could read it. When traveling, the main thing to keep in mind when you’re experiencing exotic and beautiful locations is that we all have to do our part and be as environmentally responsible as we can for those places to last for future generations.

  17. Colin

    Wonder what percentage of travelers worldwide pay for carbon offsets on their flights? My guess is very low, I know I haven’t in the past — but will in the future and try to consider alternatives to flying. Along with many of the things mentioned in the article. has opened my eyes — I hope its not too late.

  18. Great post Matt. I agree that as travelers we need to start really adopting a eco-friendly lifestyle that goes with us..even in small ways. Sometimes it all feels so overwhelming that I think we kind of just turn away from it instead of starting out by doing small things to help. We need to start a green revolution. As travelers, we have the privilege of seeing so many incredible natural places and the benefit of having our minds (hopefully) opened to what works and what doesn’t in different places. I know I could do a lot more to reduce the effect that I have on the planet. Thanks for writing this. It’s a start. I will be writing on this subject on my blog and I hope that a lot of other travel bloggers will as well. I don’t know if it is ‘too late’ or not, but better that we at least TRY to stop and reverse the damage as much as possible. We have to try.

  19. GREAT article and a good one to resurrect – and a topic that bugs me too in that I would like to do more but at the same time am born with a nomadic gene and given I haven’t stopped moving since leaving schooling I know its not going to change. Small things – Airlines these days usually offer an option for paying for carbon footprint. I am yet (hate to admit) to check out how this is really spent. Using public transport when on the road is an easy one. When living in a place for a while I try to travel locally as much as I can, but then I know I’m going to be moving on so its not the same as someone who is based in one place and goes on holiday – and I cant expect others to act like that (but for other long term travellers and nomads its food for thought). Also – I aim to eat organic food wherever I go – pretty hard in much of the world but if its there I will go for it as that is another way we are helping to stop more chemical pollution being thrown at the earth. I lived in southern Spain and it is a bit of a nightmare as someone said – but I lived in an old fishermans house literally on the beach and every day the kids and I would take a few bags of rubbish off the beach. A lot of locals (thinking I was slightly mad I’m sure) started talking to me about what I was doing – so hopefully it helped a little although the only ones that ever joined me were guys on ‘community service’ with a guard! The ex-pats that lived in the area I lived in Costa Rica banded together to clean the beaches regularly there and got the locals involved so that was great. To note – one of the hotels (about the only hotel in the area) also meticulously cleaned ‘their’ beach every day so in a way tourism actually was helping. Its all small but it helps. I would be interested to see more of us talking about this – and very keen to join in any discussions. Must write a post myself and share the thinking!

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