By Rebecca Treon
The phrase “Leave No Trace” is nothing new. Officially adopted in the mid-'90s, its seven tenets help us interact conscientiously with the environment and lessen their impact.
But with social media, there’s another threat to the environment—and communities—that needs to be acknowledged: tourism. It’s become all too common for photos of popular destinations to promote over-visited places (or once seldom-visited places that unwittingly become hotspots), without acknowledging the impact tourism could have.
As a born-and-raised Coloradoan who’s approaching 50, I’ve spent decades hiking, biking, horseback riding, and camping, but over the past few years (and even more with the pandemic), I’ve never seen our outdoor spaces more crowded. Some popular spots have trash all along the trail, overflowing trash cans, and trail damage. As more people move to or visit popular destinations like Colorado and take up outdoor lifestyles, learning how to take care of one of our greatest resources is key.
Rebecca hiking her local trails in Colorado
Think (and Travel) Like a Local
Cities with economies that depend largely on tourism don’t want to discourage people from visiting, but in places like Colorado, Hawaii, and Wyoming, some communities are instead encouraging visitors to think like a local.
“I think part of the problem here is, people don't understand what the importance of our natural resources are,” says Ekolu Lindsey, President of Maui Cultural Lands. “People feel entitled because they’re spending a lot of money to come here, but travelers need to understand that to be respectful is to treat it like their own home or like their grandmother’s home—use the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot, ask permission to use things, treat it with respect.”
The conservation-based principles behind Leave No Trace have inspired communities to create campaigns around this “think like a local” approach. When destinations can no longer sustain the number of tourists and their needs for food and accommodation, some communities are turning to education.
Trash on a beach (photo by Dustan Woodhouse)
"Take It Easy" Tourism
For cities that don’t want to dissuade people from coming, but do want to see less of a negative impact from tourism, unique campaigns to encourage lighter travel are a great strategy.
“We are all trying to protect and access our natural resources in a respectful way.” —Elsa Tharp, Chair of the Leadville Tourism Panel
In Carbondale, CO, for example, the “Take It Easy” stewardship guide helps guests lessen their impact in a positive and proactive way with three easy phrases:
- “Take It Easy on Our Wild Places”
- “Take It Easy on Our Town”
- “Take It Easy on Each Other”
They’ve even created a set of funny animated short videos with guidelines on topics like how to have a safe campfire, trail etiquette, and disposing of litter (dog poop is a particularly big deal).
A sign encouraging Leave No Trace recreation in Florida (photo by Florida Guidebook)
“Carbondale Tourism shifted its approach from destination promotion to visitor education earlier in 2022,” says Andrea Stewart, Executive Director of Carbondale Tourism. “We do not post Mt. Sopris clickbait on our Instagram anymore—our visitor education messaging is far more meaningful and has been well-received by our community members already."
Think before you post (photo by Dylan Mcleod)
An Education in Stewardship
Across Colorado, cities like Carbondale, Leadville, and more than 100 organizations and businesses have joined Care for Colorado, a coalition founded by the Colorado Tourism Office and Leave No Trace that’s dedicated to educating visitors on protecting the state’s natural and cultural resources. Their goal is to help everyone—residents and visitors alike—protect the places they love in Colorado.
"... travelers need to understand that to be respectful is to treat it like their own home or like their grandmother’s home ... treat it with respect." —Ekolu Lindsey, President of Maui Cultural Lands
The Colorado Tourism Office added another resource this summer, called Do Colorado Right, featuring Black outdoors enthusiast Nelson Holland. And in the towns of Leadville & Twin Lakes, the local tourism entity asks visitors to take the Adventure By Nature pledge, promising to recreate responsibly to protect our natural resources.
Rebecca's daughter stops to smell (but not pick) the flowers
“We are all trying to protect and access our natural resources in a respectful way,” says Elsa Tharp, Chair of the Leadville Tourism Panel and Owner at S.Lumber Yard, a historic lodge and venue. Tharp adds that COVID led to an “unsustainable” surge in the use of Colorado’s public lands, prompting the tourism agency to pivot from advertising to acting as “a destination management group.”
Wyoming is taking a similar approach to Colorado, with its own campaign encouraging lower impact visits: WY Responsibly. This includes asking people to post and tag pictures on social media of how they’re traveling responsibly in the wild.
There are more people than ever realizing the enjoyment of getting outside—2020 saw record numbers in particular. While this puts an extra strain on the environment, it’s also the beginning of a new age in educating people about the common sense principles of recreating outdoors and responsible tourism.
Responsible Tourism Tips
Planning a trip to a popular destination? Here are a few ways you can be a responsible tourist and reduce your impact on the environment and the community in general.
1. Pack it In, Pack it Out: Whatever you bring on an adventure should go back with you. Store food and water in reusable containers to reduce waste and bring a bag or two for trash and recyclables. This includes food scraps like apple cores—they may decompose, but they’re not good for wildlife.
2. Practice Trail Etiquette: Most trail systems require mountain bikers to yield to all other trail users, and hikers to yield to equestrians. Downhill mountain bikers also typically yield to uphill riders. Follow local trail etiquette and be respectful to anyone you encounter on the trail. Also don't veer off trail for that scenic selfie, since you might unwittingly ruin vulnerable plants and animal habitats.
Rebecca's son hiking in Colorado
3. Keep Wildlife Wild: Protecting wildlife means letting them be wild. Keep your distance from animals for your safety and theirs. A good rule of thumb (literally) is if you’re holding your arm out and covering the animal with your thumb—you’re at a safe distance. It’s also important to safely store food so wildlife can’t get to it. And never feed wildlife—it leads to behavior changes like associating humans with food, difficulties sourcing their own food, and even euthanasia.
4. Leave What You Find: One of the tenets of Leave No Trace is to Leave What You Find and that includes not picking flowers, disturbing historic or archeological sites, carving tree trunks, and disturbing sticks and rocks (that means you, cairn lovers!). This lets others enjoy nature in its natural state, too. Take it one step further and clean your gear well after each adventure to help prevent the spread of invasive species like pine beetles, Zebra mussels, and creeping thistle.
Crowds in the Narrows at Zion National Park
5. Be Careful With Fire: 87% of forest fires are caused by humans—meaning they’re preventable. Education is the answer, including learning where to put your campfire, abiding local fire restrictions, building and burning safely, and extinguishing properly. While Smokey Bear offers plenty of tips, Care for Colorado adds that no matter what you’re smoking, don’t toss your butts—it’s a common cause of wildfires.
6. Think Twice Before You Tag: Whether or not to tag your location in a social post is a somewhat controversial issue. But if you notice that the place you visited is suffering from the effects of over-tourism, consider foregoing the tag, and/or offering your observations and tips in the caption to encourage others to travel and post responsibly.
7. Be Respectful to Locals: A little kindness goes a long way. Go out of your way to be nice to any locals you encounter—whether that's a fellow hiker, a shop owner, or your server—to bring positive energy to the places you visit. You might just get some insider tips in response!
Rebecca Treon is a Denver-based freelance food and travel writer whose work has been featured in Travel + Leisure, Hemispheres, BBC Travel, Thrillist, and others. Find her on Instagram @RebeccaTreon.