Ecotourism and Sustainable Air Travel

Traveling, especially by air, became much more accessible in the last decades. It is now very easy to take a trip on a budget, thanks to low-cost air carriers and cheap housing options. The number of tourists worldwide has increased significantly and local governments, tourism organizations, and tour operators face more and more challenges with each year that passes. Yes, the world could “take a break” during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the passenger traffic stats over the past two years are back up.

No doubt, the high numbers of tourists boost local economies, but they also bring along a lot of issues. Not enough staff at the airports, hotels and restaurants, pollution and travelers who disturb the peace and quiet are just some of the problems. 

Mass tourism also leads to tons of waste, littering in nature and reports of damage to the world’s natural and cultural heritage. And while travelers come and go, locals are left to deal with the aftermath after every tourist season.

But we shouldn’t be all negative: more and more people are starting to realize how important it is to preserve the planet we live on. And many information campaigns urge us to be kind to the environment not only in our hometowns but also when we go on holiday.

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So tourists from all over the world are now looking for ecological options when they hit the road. As a result, eco-friendly travel is becoming very popular. And this is where we introduce ecotourism: enjoying your vacation while protecting nature and supporting local communities. 

But you may ask yourself how air travel fits in this context. Indeed, flying is not the most ecological means of transportation. Tourists who want to minimize their carbon footprint face some moral dilemmas when they board a plane. 

The good news is that airports and air companies follow the trends, and try to not fall behind. They do their part of the job in protecting the environment. Many air hubs and airlines invest in alternative fuels, modern hybrid aircraft, carbon offset programs and renewable energy sources. They are also working on reducing single-use plastics, managing waste and conserving water.

If you are interested in ecotourism and its compatibility with air travel, keep reading! In this article we will:

  • explore the world of ecological travel experiences;
  • discuss how air travel is adapting to the goals of ecotourism;
  • emphasize the importance of being kind and respectful to the environment.

 

What is ecotourism

Ecotourism’s main goal is to change the way we think about traveling. It teaches us to enjoy our time away from home while being sensible and respectful. The “father of ecotourism” is Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, a Mexican architect and environmentalist. He first coined the term in 1983 and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) adopted it a bit more than a decade later. 

Ceballos-Lascurain defined ecotourism as "environmentally responsible visiting of relatively unspoilt natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features - both past and present)”. Apart from that, ecotourism promotes conservation, doesn’t let visitors leave a negative impact, and involves local populations. 

Later on, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) added an educational component to the definition and said that ecotourism “involves interpretation and education." This is indeed a main part of today’s understanding of this type of tourism. Travelers and hosts alike learn about their surroundings and the highest goal is to make people aware about how important it is to preserve the environment. 

We have to make an important distinction, though. Ecotourism is not the same as sustainable tourism. The latter is a much broader term that can be applied to all types of tourism. So to fully practice sustainable tourism, you need to consider a lot more than what you do at your vacation spot, including the way you get there.

 Ecotourism beach

 

Preserving nature and helping local communities

If we go back to the definition of ecotourism given by Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, we can turn our attention to three important keywords:

  • “unspoilt natural areas”;
  • “enjoy and appreciate nature”; 
  • “involvement of local populations”.

Ecotourism usually means traveling to natural areas protected by the law, such as national parks, far from the busy city life. When you choose this form of tourism, you are in for an enriching and often educational experience. Ecotourism activities are nature based and can be anything from observing wildlife and learning about different plants, to climbing, hiking, and kayaking. All while being mindful of your surroundings and preserving everything that nature has to offer. 

Tour operators also offer guided tours, led by local people who have the experience and knowledge to show you their home and teach you how to benefit from it without causing any damage. 

Indeed, ecotourism strives to involve and support communities by creating jobs that allow locals to teach tourists about the flora, fauna, and culture of the area they are visiting. That gives people in these areas a meaningful way to put bread on the table and limits financial dependance on activities harmful to nature.

And since we mentioned money, one of the main goals of ecotourism is to support conservation efforts. The profits are usually invested in research, environmental protection and restoration projects. That means the money you pay as a tourist will help save threatened natural environments, ecosystems, and species.

 

Costa Rica: a leader in ecotourism 

Costa Rica is anything but a big country: the Central American state spans only over 51.100 km2. But get this: almost 26% of its territory is devoted to reserves and national parks (28 of them to be exact). With such a head start, it is no wonder that ecotourism is thriving there. The biodiversity in the protected areas is unbelievably rich and the locals are doing their best to preserve it. 

Costa Rica invests a lot in sustainability and the results are impressive: the tropical country managed to reverse deforestation! Local communities are very much involved in preserving their land and the Costa Rica tourism marketing targets people who want to contribute to these efforts. 

Here are some of the most famous Costa Rican destinations:

  • Arenal volcano; 
  • La Paz waterfalls;
  • Rio Celeste;
  • Corcovado national park. 

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Of course, the list goes on and on and there are many other gorgeous places you can see. What’s more, the activities you can try are endless: hiking, swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, river rafting, zip lining… Costa Rica has it all. And last but not least, you have the opportunity to meet animals like macaws, toucans, sloths, jaguars, and many others.

 

Ecological advancements in aviation technology

Ecotourism mainly focuses on responsible behavior once you reach your destination, but how you get there is just as important. Sure, there are many green transportation options like electrical cars, trains and buses. However, air travel is still the fastest, safest, most convenient, and sometimes the only option to get to some destinations.

As good as it might be to get on a plane, sit back, and relax, you might feel a little guilty when you think about the carbon footprint you will leave. But don’t worry, the aviation industry is trying to stay on top of this issue and has been making significant advancements to reduce its negative impact on the environment. That includes electric and hybrid aircraft, sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), and carbon offset programs.

 

Electric and hybrid aircraft

Just like the automotive industry, aviation is looking to minimize the use of fossil fuels and rely more on electricity. Electric and hybrid aircraft are already a fact and will be more and more widely used in the future. They will not only reduce carbon emissions, but also help with noise pollution. 

 

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs)

Sustainable aviation fuels are called sustainable for a reason. While traditional fossil fuels increase the levels of CO₂ in the atmosphere, SAFs actually recycle CO₂. They can be produced from waste oil or fats, non-food crops or regular household waste. 

Many air companies are already using SAFs on some of their routes (usually mixed with jet fuels though). United, American Airlines, JetBlue, KLM-Air France, Lufthansa and even low-cost carrier Ryanair are among the companies that use the most SAFs, and all of them plan to use them even more in the next 4-5 years.

 

Carbon offset programs and other initiatives

Almost all airlines nowadays kindly invite passengers to help offset the carbon emissions from their flights by donating a small amount of money that goes into helping eco-initiatives. Additionally, air companies are trying to optimize their flight routes and reduce the flight frequency if it doesn’t inconvenience their customers. On a bigger scale, they also invest in environmental projects and green initiatives.

 

 

Sustainability at the airports around the world 

More and more airports worldwide are adopting sustainable practices in an effort to minimize their carbon footprint and set a good example in the aviation industry. Here are some examples of ecological solutions in airport management:

Renewable Energy: The goal for many airports is to limit the use of fossil fuels, so the focus is now on renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. The management of Denver International Airport for example has installed a solar farm which is currently the biggest than at any other U.S. airport. 

Another American air hub, Boston Logan, is a leader in using alternative energy sources. Wind turbines, materials that reflect excess heat from the terminal building were used for the floor and roof, and low-flow water fixtures are the main ecological features of the Massachusetts major airport. 

Waste Management: Travelers produce and leave a lot of trash behind, especially at airports: just imagine the pile of plastic bottles before the security check. All airports have to face the challenge of effective waste management. Recycling, composting, and minimizing single-use plastics are some of the ways to reduce the negative impact on the environment caused by the huge amounts of waste. 

Rome Fiumicino Airport for example is dedicated to recycling its waste and is building a huge compost site which will be used for the food waste from the airport’s restaurants. The Italians have also pledged to become completely plastic-free in the next few years.  

Ecotourism bridge

There are many other good examples for “green” airports around the world:

Galápagos islands, Ecuador. Located in the Galápagos archipelago with Heritage status, this airport was completed in 2012 and has since evolved into an amazing eco-friendly hub. All operations are powered with solar and wind energy, a desalination plant purifies the seawater so that it can be used in the terminal, and the facilities were built with 80% recycled materials. 

Changi Airport, Singapore. This modern airport is committed to sustainability and has plans for zero carbon growth until 2030. Among the eco-friendly features are an indoor terminal garden, recycled concrete for the runways, baggage tractors with clean energy, and perhaps the most impressive - a system that recycles food waste into water!
Zurich Airport, Switzerland. The Swiss airport impresses with a fossil-free electricity grid (they use underground soil energy piles) and always available SAFs for refueling. On top of that, Zurich uses rainwater for the toilets and even recycles the water from plane de-icing operations during the harsh Swiss winter.

 

In conclusion 

As you now know, ecotourism is not just about being mindful of your environment once you reach your vacation destination; it involves responsible travel, too. Luckily, the aviation industry is trying its best to keep up with the “green” trends and soon enough, we will all be able to enjoy our flights without any second thoughts. Practicing eco- and sustainable tourism even when choosing air travel is already possible and we are excited to see what the future of aviation holds!

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