Understanding environmental tourism ahead of spring break


Collegian | Anna von Pechmann

Southwest Airlines airplane parks at the terminal at Denver International Airport March 18, 2020.

Ivy Secrest, Arts and Culture Reporter

Arguably, one of the most important parts of the college experience is spring break. With the stress of the spring semester, many students make an effort to take advantage of this short holiday with flights, cruises and more. 

What many students don’t consider is how they travel and what impacts that travel has on the world around them. These careless travelers aren’t entirely to blame; many people don’t realize the impact their vacation could have on the communities they’re visiting. 


Tourism is responsible for about 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to Sustainable Travel International. Within that 8%, nearly half of tourism’s overall footprint comes from transportation alone. This means that if students choose to travel sustainably, it could help curb the persistence of climate change. 

“Climate change is real, and we have to be aware of how our travel contributes to climate change,” said Ryan Finchum, co-director of the Warner College of Natural Resources Center for Protected Area Management, in email correspondence. 

There are several things to keep in mind when trying to travel more sustainably. Students and faculty alike can consider how they get to a destination: Is it by plane or train? Can you carpool in an electric car? Are there opportunities to do carbon offsets for your flight or take more direct flights? What activities are you doing? Do they support the environment and the community? Finchum said all these topics should be considered when planning a trip with the environment in mind. 

“You can’t ignore that burning fossil fuels to get from point A to point B is going to contribute to a negative part of our trip,” Finchum said. 

How you indulge on your vacation also impacts the community you visit. You are not inherently boosting the economy of a community by participating in tourism, even if it is volunteer tourism or ecotourism. 

“A lot of times when we travel, we like to think our money benefits the community,” said Suzanne Kent, an associate professor and sociocultural anthropologist at Colorado State University. “In order for it to do that, we have to support local businesses rather than foreign corporations.” 

Traveling with the environment’s and community’s needs in mind isn’t as hard as it may seem. For those interested in more meaningful ways of travel, there are several options.

Ecotourism incorporates experiencing and learning about nature while being “ethically managed to be low-impact, nonconsumptive and locally oriented,” according to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council

“I think of ecotourism as more of an ideal that we’re trying to reach — … it depends on every trip,” Finchum said. 


Volunteer tourism, also called “voluntourism,” combines some form of volunteering with tourism and ideally benefits the community. 

Alternatives like ecotourism and voluntourism can be incredibly beneficial when executed correctly; however, this is not always the case. 

Kent said there are several issues to consider: local laborers being displaced, children being put in unstable situations with volunteers in orphanages and money being gathered for profit rather than for the benefit of the community, for example.

“If they’re there volunteering, it suggests there’s a need, and I think it’s important for volunteers to engage with the question of, ‘Why is there this need?’” Kent said. 

Should students dedicate their breaks to volunteer work, it is important they do this research and engage with why they are needed there in the first place, Kent said. While there’s a noble pursuit in voluntourism, sometimes what is really needed is a break from all the work. 

“People need to take breaks, and a good voluntourism program is not a break,” Kent said. “You’re there to work, you’re there to learn and sometimes you’re there to engage with things that are discouraging and to engage with things that are not uplifting.”

“Whichever one of those (voluntourism or tourism) a person does, though, they can be deliberate and strategic about their impact,” Kent said. “Because whether you’re a voluntourist or a tourist, you have an impact. I think it’s more about thinking about your impact and being thoughtful.”

College students often set the trends for the upcoming decades. When looking at the makeup of Generation Z — people born in the late 1990s to early 2000s— with trends of vegetarianism and support of climate activists like Greta Thunberg, it’s clear that Gen Z has an interest in the environment. 

“I think the travel and tourism industry has become a great opportunity for collaboration across generations,” Finchum said. 

While it is likely that students won’t opt to give up their fun spring break plans in favor of a volunteering program, they can still change the way they approach travel to better consider the environment and communities they visit.

Reach Ivy Secrest at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @IvySecrest.