As we continue to cover the incredible places around the Southern United States, it’s become much more important to focus on sustainable and responsible organizations and locations, especially considering the unique ecosystems found here. Sustainability is more than just recycling and turning off the lights when you leave a room. There are many ways you can travel responsibly in the South and we hope to take a stand for them on This Is My South.
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There are lots of animal encounters around the region, especially in coastal areas. But just because a place calls itself a “zoo” or “aquarium” or “sanctuary” doesn’t mean you should visit. For most, AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accreditation is the gold standard for attractions. The Brevard Zoo, the Tennessee Aquarium, and Busch Gardens are just a few of these AZA-accredited facilities that focus on conservation and education over entertainment.
Speaking of entertainment, we don’t recommend visiting anywhere that forces animals to behave outside of their practices in the wild, namely shows or performances. This includes the baiting or feeding of animals for the purposes of an encounter like with sharks or alligators.
We also recommend keeping an appropriate distance from animals like the Crystal River manatees and discourage the horse carriage tours in places like Charleston because of the hot conditions. Hunting and fishing is also a big part of the culture here and helps control overpopulation, especially of deer and invasive species like pythons. But only hunt when in season and with proper permits from the Department of Natural Resources.
For more on animal-related experiences to avoid, see this article on Green Global Travel.
You don’t think much about how your food impacts the environment but it does, especially in coastal communities. Some species are overfished to the point of near extinction. Like with hunting, only eat fish found nearby and considered to be sustainable through the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. You can even dine on an invasive species! Restaurants in Key West serve lionfish, an aquarium fish native to Asia.
Beyond seafood, be mindful of what is in season and local. This is not only for taste (why have items frozen and shipped when there’s an alternative nearby?) but also for impact in terms of shipping costs and carbon footprint. This supports fishermen and farmers in communities close to home. That apple may cost you more than if brought from overseas but helps keep up this region focused on agriculture. Visit farms and farmers markets for a unique experience. Try items like Virginia oysters, Mississippi catfish, Ellijay apples, and Louisiana crawfish!
Many destinations are taking a stand against plastic straws and shopping bags. Hampton, Virginia and St. Petersburg, Florida have initiated measures to limit them while Miami Beach and Fort Myers have banned them outright. Washington DC has a tax on plastic bags. Counties and cities in North Carolina and South Carolina have also banned the bags.
Protect the coral reefs in Florida and other beach towns by using reef safe sunscreen (like this one). Sun shirts are also a good alternative. Only go on bioluminescence tours like the ones on Merritt Island when available because of the hypersensitivity of the ecosystem. Beyond the Bayou is one of the responsible swamp tour operators in New Orleans that uses boats that limit noise pollution.
And, of course, don’t litter. If you’re camping, like on the Appalachian Trail, pack out your trash. Recycle whenever possible and practice Leave No Trace principles!
Because of the long history of this region, it’s full of cultural landmarks. It might be cemeteries, Civil War battlefields, or memorials. Be respectful of the people and places connected to tragedies like the Trail of Tears. Selfies in slave quarters or the imitating of Native Americans is never appropriate.
Remember that real people live in the photogenic homes found in places like Savannah, New Orleans, and Charleston so respect their privacy. Don’t walk up to anyone’s door, even if the location has been featured in film and television. This story on Curbed highlights the importance of respecting homeowners.
Also, be mindful when going on tours. While slum tourism is uncommon in the United States, think twice before going on tours like the Katrina-affected Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Instead, check out the Treme & Mardi Gras Indian Cultural Tours.
It’s not uncommon to see those massive beach shops in coastal areas selling bright t-shirts, shell jewelry, and hermit crabs. But many of these items actually come from overseas. As the saying goes, leave only footprints and take only photos.
Instead, look for locally made products and brands unique to your destination. That might include designer bags from Spartina 449 on Daufuskie Island, Pigeon River Pottery from the Smokies, or a bottle of wine from Virginia.
Arts and crafts are a great purchase, especially the sweetgrass baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry. But be prepared to pay a fair price. Haggling is not commonplace and is generally considered to be disrespectful.
It’s easy for hotels to limit water use with towels and sheets, so choose places that take these steps. If they have in-room recycling, even better. Keurig coffee makers are now commonplace in hotels but create waste with their used pods, so opt for coffee from the breakfast buffet when possible, and skip the lid and straw! Bring your own travel mug and reusable straw. Leave the toiletries if you don’t need them or donate to a homeless shelter back home. Locally owned properties usually do a better job of highlighting unique elements of their destination and keep the money within the community. But, of course, treat yourself to a nice hotel on your vacation!
And lastly, we always recommend Airbnb in our weekend guides, but the rental property giant isn’t a good fit for some destinations. Some places have outlawed short-term rentals. New Orleans is one place in particular that has seen a rise in housing prices and a decrease in inventory because of the popularity of Airbnb. If you absolutely have to stay in a rental, choose one that has a private area within the main house (like a guesthouse or above-garage apartment) over a full property rental. You can also look into other vacation rental websites.