Eco-Friendly Tourism in the San Juan Islands

According to the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, about one million people visit our archipelago each year to immerse themselves in our Pacific Northwest wonderland. That’s a huge impact on people and nature alike. Whether you are a resident looking for tools to share with your guests or are planning a visit yourself, there are some tangible steps you can take to be a good friend to the San Juan Islands! 

It’s no secret that there are some sensitive topics at play when it comes to tourism in the San Juans, from vacation rentals to wildlife viewing to navigating a busy tourism season on the tail end of a pandemic. If we work together, sustainable tourism in the San Juans is achievable! Here are some tips for stewarding both our ecosystems and our thriving communities while vacationing in the San Juan Islands.

Honoring and Respecting Coast Salish Ancestral Lands — Let us all start with an acknowledgment that this beautiful place is comprised of the ancestral lands, waters, and natural resources of the Coast Salish peoples. These Tribes and First Nations have cared for and stewarded the San Juan Islands and the Salish Sea since time immemorial — and continue to do so. We hope you’ll join us in honoring the inherent, aboriginal, and treaty rights that have been passed down from generation to generation. Friends of the San Juans encourages visitors to give time and thought to weave education about these sovereign nations into their visit. Here are some starting points for your journey:

Consider the Impacts of Where You Stay — If you are camping, do so in designated areas and use the principles of leave no trace. If you stay in a vacation rental, please be considerate of the neighborhood and the Islands’ limited natural resources. For example, water can be scarce, so try to conserve it. Similarly, septic systems can fail when too many people are using them, and that can have big impacts on the land. Finally, give some thought to who owns that hotel or vacation rental; “shop local” applies to lodgings, too — by choosing a locally-owned place to stay, you’re supporting the local economy.

Transportation Matters — Whenever possible, carpool, bike, or walk. This not only reduces your carbon emissions but also conserves space on an already-overloaded ferry system. Many visitors are surprised to learn that island locals do not receive special rates or priority when traveling to and from their island homes via the Washington State Ferries. There are many local transportation and bike-rental companies that need your business to thrive throughout the year.  The San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau has some great tips to Travel on Island Time. Drive slower, and take time to wave!

Wildlife Viewing — Watching wildlife is inspiring and uplifting! However, it is important to let wildlife be wild and watch from a respectful distance. Friends of the San Juans encourages people to watch whales and other marine wildlife from the shore. One of our favorite spots is Lime Kiln Point State Park; more spots can be explored via The Whale Trail.

Finite Resources, Water and Waste Management — As the local saying goes, “You have to be more careful with an island!” Remember this saying as you accumulate waste and use water during your stay. Fresh water is scarce in the islands, especially during the dry season, which happens to be the height of tourist season. It’s not uncommon for full-time residents to see their water wells run dry by the end of the summer. Practice the same waste, energy, and water-saving techniques you might use in your own home to cut down on your utility bills; this will help minimize your environmental impact. Consider bringing your own drinking water from off-island in reusable containers; that way, you’ll cut down on the use of local water reserves, and you’ll reduce the amount of single-use plastics you’re buying from the store.

Green Boating — If you are traveling via boat, use our detailed Boater Guide to plan ahead and ensure your boating experience in the San Juan Islands is safe and enjoyable for people and nature! For instance, our Boater Guide will give you tips on avoiding sensitive and ecologically important eelgrass beds when you drop your anchor. And be sure to give the critically endangered Southern Resident orca the space they need to find scarce prey, socialize, and rear their young! Here are more resources about being good friends to the orca:

Island-Specific Culture and Expectations — They don’t call it Slowpez for nothing! Lopez Island’s nickname speaks for the pace of life on all of the islands. Common complaints are the amount of time it takes to get your food at a restaurant, delayed ferry schedules, and unpredictable business hours. Expect everything to come at a slower pace, and you will find your time spent in the San Juans far more enjoyable. Here’s what locals want you to know about the local culture and pace.

Tread Maintained Trails Lightly! — There are some fabulous trails throughout the islands. The San Juan Preservation Trust is a great resource for inter-island trail maps and nature preserves. Check out their recent Instagram post on trail etiquette and care.

Advocate + Engage! — You can be a voice for sustainable tourism in the San Juans! This past spring, San Juan County conducted a series of community meetings to gather feedback for its Sustainable Tourism Management Plan. A summary of community input is now available and illuminates local issues and concerns on tourism. Throughout the summer of 2022, they are seeking additional online written comments from interested individuals, businesses, and organizations. Weigh in for environmental protection! Your comments can be sent to [email protected].

Do you have other tips and resources for sustainable tourism in the San Juan islands? Email us your thoughts! [email protected]

Friends has done so much to identify those critical beaches where the forage fish are spawning and that is work that I value greatly. Once we know the spawning locations, we can permanently protect those very important beaches.

Debby Clausen and Kim Sundberg

members, San Juan Island