Back to the Land

Sustainable eco-tourism is regenerative and restorative to the planet, not just your state of mind

The pristine nature that often attracts us to our favorite vacation spots also beckons us to be more responsible when we visit. Tourism places significant environmental pressure on many of the places we visit, and represents 8% of the globe’s carbon emissions, according to Sustainable Travel International. That’s why the concept of ecotourism—at its most basic, a promise to respect the land and leave it the same or better for the next visitor—is so resonant, and important.

There are many definitions and origins for the idea. Megan Eplar Wood, who founded Harvard’s International Sustainable Tourism Initiative, says it’s travel that makes a positive impact on both the ecology and economy of a given destination. Mexican architect and environmentalist Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin helped coin the phrase back in the ’70s, before publishing pioneering guides on more sensitive, sustainable travel. And not surprisingly, some of the first examples of this ethos at play come from California, where the Sierra Club’s Outing program, launched in 1901, took hikers through the backcountry in such a way “that those persons could become active workers for the preservation of the forests.”

We say, if it makes you participate more fully in the world around you and aware of the impact we have on one another and the planet, that’s good enough for us.

Here are some contemporary examples of off-beat ecotourism opportunities in California, both with and without backcountry treks. Reaching them with more sustainable flights via Surf Air takes even more pressure off the crowded tourist landscape.


Stay at Ventana Big Sur

Set amid a 160-acre woodland forest, this sprawling escape blankets a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with views and prices to match. But the operations of this gem in the Hyatt hotel portfolio showcase a commitment to sustainability. Furniture is made from felled trees onsite, many workers live on the property to reduce travel emissions, much of the food locally and sustainably sourced, and the gorgeous landscape (drought-tolerant and native species irrigated with recycled grey water) is especially charming due to the commitment to a more circular approach.

Sip sustainable wine

California’s wine industry is a world leader when it comes to producing natural and organic wines. Statewide, there’s a Down to Earth celebration in April, when sustainable wineries throw special events, and the Napa Green initiative features tours and itineraries focused on producers that support nature restoration and renewable power. Better yet, numerous wine regions in the state offer cycling rentals and tours that allow (non-tipsy) riders to indulge in zero-emission explorations of fields and vineyards.

Palm Springs biking tours

A place for Hollywood party pads and golf courses, the region’s unique landscape offers plenty of its own rewards. Travelers can rent a mountain bike and begin with a tour of the region’s architectural treasures, spying the city’s legacy of excellent midcentury modern residential design. Then, explore the Indian Canyons, ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and stop in a palm tree oasis. It’s a unique blend of nature, and nature-inspired design.