When (So-Called) Eco-Travelers Sin

Travel Blog  •  Joanna Kakissis  •  06.11.09 | 4:24 PM ET

Photo by stevendepolo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

When I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man a few years ago, I was struck by an exchange between the nature-embracing mountain man Eustace Conway and an acolyte whose idea of life-changing sustainability was to turn off the water when she was brushing her teeth.

I wonder if some so-called “eco-travelers” operate the same way. Maybe they book a “life-changing” holiday at an eco-resort in Costa Rica and declare themselves sustainable travelers. But what if they take their unsustainable bad habits with them?

I was reminded of this question when I saw a recent tweet about the Top Ten Eco-Travel Mistakes by Traveling the Green Way, summarizing a survey by the eco-tourism agent Responsible Travel. It turns out that travel providers working with Responsible Travel noticed a lot of mindless behavior by their tourists, including littering (especially plastic bags and cigarette butts), disrupting wildlife, wasting water and energy, buying illegal products and even standing on coral reefs (thereby killing a marine organism that takes, oh, 100 years to grow one inch.)

Maybe we travel because we want to check out of our own reality, but why check out altogether and treat our vacation fantasyland as a place with unending resources and a magical ability to absorb our discarded cigarette butts? Many non-eco-travelers have been doing that for years, and they deserve to be derided. Those of us who want to be eco should use our brains, or, at least, National Geographic Traveler’s nifty guide to sustainable tourism.

So, I’m curious: Do you have any tales of bad eco-behavior by proclaimed eco-travelers? I’m still cringing over a former friend (and self-proclaimed environmentalist) with whom I traveled to the mountains of northwestern Greece in 2004. He had a majorly acidic meltdown when I accidentally stepped on a wildflower (“It’s a native species!”) to avoid falling off a cliff—but not five minutes later threw a candy wrapper into the tangle of purple flowers and tall grass. Nice!

Joanna Kakissis's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, among other publications. A contributor to the World Hum blog, she's currently a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

7 Comments for When (So-Called) Eco-Travelers Sin

Cruise Blackwell 06.12.09 | 12:43 AM ET

I’m as big of an environmentalist as the next guy, but I’m not confortable with the idea of anyone being derided. 

I can see the point of saying something like “you’re staying at an ecoresort don’t litter,” but different people have different ideas of what’s environmental.  I could easily see it leading to “your staying at an ecoresort, don’t eat any meat.”  I guess I’d just prefer not having people preaching at me when I’m on vacation.

Janelle 06.12.09 | 10:02 AM ET

Hi Joanna,

Great post, and thanks for including NGT’s Sustainable Tourism guide. One thing I’d also like to note is that as easy as it is to point out littering and other faux pas while traveling, there are a lot of other actions and decisions that we make that leave an impact on the places we visit. Eating at fast food or chain restaurants diverts money from local businessowners, or staying at an all-inclusive resort means you’re not really interacting with the culture. That’s why in addition to eco-tourism, we at National Geographic promote “Geotourism” which espouses both environmental concern and cultural appreciation. You can learn a lot more about Geotourism at our Center for Sustainable Destinations:



Joanna Kakissis 06.12.09 | 12:46 PM ET

I understand how some people would stretch the idea of being environmentally responsible into being sanctimonious and preachy. For example, if you want to eat meat, why not?

But I don’t think being nice to the place you’re staying—i.e. don’t trash it or waste limited resources or stand on coral reefs—is being preachy. It’s just being decent. You wouldn’t want people to trash your home, so why trash theirs?

And Janelle makes a good point about the cultural payback in practicing geotourism. I have no idea why people choose to only stay at isolated resorts or only eat at McDonald’s when they’re abroad.

Jeff 06.12.09 | 5:29 PM ET

I think a lot of people don’t even realize the impact they are having on the environment when they travel.  Many US citizens don’t truly understand what it means to be eco-conscious.

Ling 06.14.09 | 10:23 AM ET

It’s still early days for sutainable tourism. Maybe travel writers and environmentalists and people who really care go out of their way to be more eco-friendly, but for most people it’s just a question of available choices - if you put a green hotel in front of them, they’ll prefer it over others, but it doesn’t really matter to them if there is no green hotel.

Tara 06.22.09 | 3:06 AM ET

Great post and great link to National Geographic, thanks :)

Lindsey 07.12.09 | 10:54 PM ET


Great to hear you read the book. Eustace is a good friend of mine and his place is amazing if you ever get to go visit.

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