The Golden Rule of Travel is: Take Nothing but Photographs, Leave Nothing but Footprints. Sadly, not every traveler has gotten the memo. After a busy tourism season, some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and serene forests can feel a like the frat house on a Saturday morning. You don’t have to be an ecowarrier, indulge in ecotourism activities or even visit ecotourism destinations to make a difference. These tips for eco-friendly travel will make it easy for you to leave the beach, or any place else you visit, better after you leave than it was before you arrived.
Why the World Needs Ecotourism
When I still had little ones, we used to like to take our vacations in early September. Chicago weather was still warm and lovely and families with school-age kids were home waiting for the school bus. One year, we took a few days the week after Labor Day to explore Starved Rock State Park. It’s a lovely spot about two hours west of Chicago.
As we walked the trails, we were stepping over discarded soda cans, beer bottles, the remains of someone’s picnic lunch. But the worst was the used diaper tucked into the limbs of a tree. That’s right. Someone with a baby—a baby who would grow up to inherit this world—had changed that baby’s nappie and stuck the dirty diaper in a tree.
Not expecting to find everyone else’s garbage, I didn’t have a way to pack up and carry out the mess. But, as a journalist, I did see an opportunity to enlighten the world about the mopes who messed with Starved Rock.
What I learned from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was nothing short of depressing. The department simply doesn’t have enough money to hire people to clean up after the visitors. Heavily visited weekends like Memorial, July 4th and Labor Day mean that the garbage really can pile up. And that was long before Illinois’ massive budget woes meant big cuts in state budgets.
That means cleaning up after yourself during visits to national parks, and other fragile natural areas is more than simple ecotourism. It’s also offers economic benefits. Every dollar not spent to clean up after tourists can be spent improving the parks.
The Benefits of Ecotourism
I was reminded of that long-ago experience when I got a press release from the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It included these 10 great tips for leaving the beach better than you find it on your next family vacation. The National Aquarium is asking beach-goers to leave their favorite seashore destinations better than they found them this summer.
Simple changes, family-friendly activities and thoughtful actions that fit seamlessly into a summer vacation can make a huge difference, aquarium officials say. Try one or two – or perhaps even all – to help protect the beaches so all of us – and our babies – will have them for the rest of our lives.
1. You CAN Take It with You
If you are strong enough to carry the full picnic basket down to the beach, you are strong enough to carry the reminds of your lunch back to the car. Take along a garbage bag and think about picking up after other folks too. Every can, bottle cap, wrapper, plastic bag and –ew! – cigarette butt can hurt the beach and the wildlife that calls the beach home.
2. Pay to Play
Funds collected by municipalities for beach access typically go directly to cleaning and maintaining the very beach you’re using. So, rather than trying to find a way to get to the beach for free or park without paying, think of that money as a donation to your favorite beach and pay it proudly.
3. Walk This Way
This is not the time to go off the beaten path. Use boardwalks and wooden walkways instead of climbing over the dunes as you come and go. Dune erosion endangers the longevity of the beach and the fragile habitats that are home to wildlife, from birds to lizards to turtles.
4. Keep Off the (Beach) Grass!
While you’re respecting the dunes, make sure to never disturb, crush or pull the grasses that grow there. What might look like reedy weeds to you actually play a critical role in protecting the beach ecosystem.
5. Grow a Better Beach
Looking for an educational activity that actually makes a difference? Contact local environmental groups to and see if you and your kids can take part in a beach planting project that works to foster and restore healthy beach grasses. Other opportunities might include organized beach cleanups and dune restoration projects.
6. Pick Up After Your Pets
Pet waste may seem harmless in the great outdoors, but it can actually be a powerful bacterial pollutant if left unchecked. Clean up after your pets and dispose of waste properly.
7. Take Trash, Nothing More
It’s that Golden Rule of Travel. When you find that lovely shell, think twice; every time you remove a natural element from an ecosystem, you leave that ecosystem just slightly less balanced than it was. That shell might be someone’s next home! If you must collect something, collect the trash. You can even turn it into a game for the kids—offer a prize to the one who returns with the heaviest trash bag.
8. Going Boating? Make Sure She’s Shipshape
Whether you’re a novice or an old salt, there are few things better than getting out on the water. But a boat in disrepair puts out dangerously elevated levels of pollution. Whether it’s a rental or a charter, do your homework and make sure your vessel is well maintained and in good repair. When in doubt, skip the engine; sail or row instead. It’s better for the environment and your body.
9. Respect the Locals
Few things are more magical than seeing marine animals in their natural environment. But remember to see but not touch. If you believe an animal is in need of assistance, look for a lifeguard, park ranger or other official who will know which local entities – like the National Aquarium in the Mid-Atlantic region – are qualified and ready to assist. Nobody around? Use your phone to check the internet for appropriate local authorities.
10. Think Before You Flush
Caring for the beach doesn’t end when you pack up and call it a day. When we visit coastal areas, it is just as important to be mindful of the pollutants we introduce into the groundwater and wastewater through everyday chores and habits. Chemical pesticides, cleansers, paint and oil all work their way very quickly from gutters and sinks to the oceans, rivers and streams of the local watershed area, as do extra or expired medications, non-biodegradable personal items or potentially hazardous cosmetics. Don’t flush them down the toilet.
It’s Easy to Be an Ecotourist
You don’t have to have an opinion on climate change or to travel to far-away ecolodges in Costa Rica, sail around the Galapagos Islands or commune with the local people in of Kenya to practice sustainable tourism. Low-impact, responsible travel requires environmental awareness and a willingness to do your small part to leave the earth in better shape than you found it.