Whether you choose to call it ecotourism, geotourism, or sustainable tourism, travelers have never been more interested in “going green.” Generally defined as travel that benefits local communities, minimizes negative social and environmental impacts, and helps local people to conserve fragile cultures and habitats or species, these responsible forms of travel are currently growing at an impressive rate that outpaces traditional “sun and sand” tourism by a wide margin.
But what is it that makes a travel destination sustainable? And which destinations are most worthy of consideration? To answer these questions, we assembled a panel of the world’s leading authorities on the subject.
Here are their picks.
Boats on the beach in Cape Verde (Photo: Corbis Images)
Ethical Traveler founder Jeff Greenwald calls this archipelago of Portuguese islands off the coast of West Africa “a model for political and civil rights.” Cape Verde recently hosted its first gay pride event, the second pride week ever to take place in an African nation. Last year, the World Bank commended Cape Verde for its efforts to expand tourism while protecting its communities and environment. The nation has also announced impressive renewable-energy goals, aiming for 35 percent renewable use over the next two decades.
Gwaii Haanas, British Columbia
Relaxing in a natural pool (Photo: Corbis Images)
“This Canadian gem is an exemplary partnership between an indigenous community and a federal government,” says Jonathan Tourtellot, geotourism editor of National Geographic Traveler and principal of the Destination Stewardship Center. “The Gwaii Haanas National Park and Haida Heritage Site form the southernmost tip of Haida Gwaii, which was formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. It’s soggy, remote, and authentic.”
The Blue Lagoon geothermal hot springs in Iceland (Photo: Corbis Images)
Soraya Shattuck, founder of Sustainable Tourism Solutions, sings the praises of this perennial adventure travel hot spot for its emphasis on alternative energy. “With 80 percent of its total energy use being generated from renewable sources (hydro and geothermal), Iceland is committed to creating a culture of sustainable development. It monitors sustainable initiatives through a variety of strategies, including Welfare for the Future, the Nordic Strategy, and Agenda 21, which all strive to measure performance against specific triple-bottom-line key performance indicators.”
Rice boats in Kerala, India (Photo: Corbis Images)
Most people don’t think of India as particularly eco-friendly. But Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health, points to this South Indian state as the exception. “Kerala has long been an innovator in tourism, with its traditional rice boats converted to houseboats and comfortable tree houses located near spectacular waterfalls,” says Wood. “Kerala’s upland tiger reserves and history in Ayurvedic medicine are unmatched. The state links community well-being to all tourism development and has entrepreneurs with exceptional vision. It’s also the first Indian state to win the United Nations World Tourism Award for Excellence and Innovation in Tourism.”
Lithuania is a leader in going green and civil rights. (Photo: Corbis Images)
This Baltic state earned one of the highest scores for environmental protection among Ethical Traveler’s 2014 Ethical Destinations winners. “Lithuania also scored top marks for their political rights and civil liberties,” says Greenwald. “The country reached its Millennium Development Goal for the under-5 mortality rate, which is down 52 percent since 2000. And it has impressive women’s rights and gender equality laws, including the longest paid maternity leave available in Europe. A woman can take paid maternity leave for up to two years!”
Monteverde, Costa Rica
Rain forests in Monteverde (Photo: Corbis Images)
Best known for the rich biological diversity of its cloud forests, this mountainous region of Costa Rica gets top marks from Dr. Martha Honey, director of the Center for Responsible Travel. “Monteverde stands out as a place of peaceful and natural beauty intertwined with a vibrant and welcoming community,” says Honey. “Businesses, travelers, and NGOs came together to form the first-ever destination-wide Travelers’ Philanthropy Program, which allows visitors to support environmental and social/cultural projects throughout the community from donations collected at Monteverde’s hotels, restaurants, and shops.”
Stormy skies and giraffes in Namibia (Photo: Corbis Images)
Although many African nations pride themselves on offering incredible wildlife safaris, Soraya Shattuck praises Namibia for being the first African country to include protection of the environment in its constitution. “Strategic partnerships with organizations such as WWF have engaged more than 250,000 community members, created 64 communal conservancies, and protected 35 million acres of wildlife habitat. As a result, not only has the wildlife benefited from the protection, but human welfare has also improved, thanks to $5.5 million in annual income and benefits that the conservancies generate for local communities.”
Northeast Kingdom, Vermont
Try your hand at farm work in Vermont (Photo: Corbis Images)
Tucked away in the northeast corner of the Green Mountain State, the Northeast Kingdom has been named among the world’s most desirable destinations in both National Geographic and Patricia Schultz’s book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Martha Honey suggests that this is because the region “has embraced the concept of geotourism, offering a plethora of localized experiences for visitors to enjoy, including hands-on opportunities at many area farms. Carefully avoiding mass tourism, the area has been able to build up its heritage and create tourism based on community, small businesses, and stewardship of their abundant natural resources.”
Arial view of Saba Island (Photo: Corbis Images)
Saba is much less well known than its former sister islands of the (now dissolved) Netherlands Antilles, including Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten. But, according to Jonathan Tourtellot from the Destination Center, this relative anonymity has only enhanced the island’s eco-friendly allure. “With no beaches and no port, this volcanic spar of an island juts vertically from the Caribbean, forever safe from mass tourism,” says Tourtellot. “Furthermore, Saba protects its marine surroundings and its mountain forest and keeps its architecture charming.”
Crystal blue waters in Samoa (Photo: Corbis Images)
This Polynesian paradise in the South Pacific — an archipelago spanning more than 3,000 square kilometers — offers an exceptional balance of nature and indigenous culture. “Samoa is playing a leadership role in adopting standards for sustainable tourism based on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s Destination Criteria,” says Megan Epler Wood. “Its breathtaking coastline, coral reefs, marine life, and rainforest-covered volcanic peaks are greatly valued by Samoans, who retain an authentic communal way of life. Samoans are setting a clear standard for other island nations to follow.”