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Travelers: Put Your Money Where Your Beliefs Are

Top 10 countries in the developing world that treat their people and environment well

Most of us love to travel, and most of us want to have a positive impact on the world. If you do it right, one Earth Island Institute project asserts, you can do both at the same time. By spending your travel dollars in forward-thinking countries, you can reward the good guys, and encourage good practices worldwide.  

Each year, California-based nonprofit Ethical Traveler researches and publishes a list of the 10 most ethical destinations in the developing world. Each country is reviewed for its performance in the areas of human rights, social welfare, animal welfare, and protection of the environment. That’s not all— a winning country also must have plenty of appeal as a travel destination.     

A blue-green lake with boatsPhoto by Andrew GibsonCape Verde made it to Ethical Traveler's 10 Best Ethical Destinations list for 2015.

Though we are diligent in creating this list, we must continually remind ourselves: No country is perfect. All have genuine and often serious shortcomings. Each of our winners, however, is making a genuine effort to “do the right thing” in the many areas we take into consideration. We sincerely hope that inclusion on this list will motivate them to continue and improve upon their good work.

How the List is Created:

To begin, Ethical Traveler conducts a survey of developing nations — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe — to identify the world’s best travel and tourism destinations. We begin our research by focusing on three general categories: environmental protection, social welfare and human rights. In 2013, responding to requests from our members, we added animal welfare to our investigations.

For each of these categories, we look at information past and present so that we understand not only the current state of a country, but how it has changed over time. This helps us select nations that are actively improving the state of their people, government and environment.

A streetscape in Vilinus, Latvia Photo by David Kosmos SmithEach place selected also offers unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities, and the
opportunity to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.

In this first phase of our process, we consider country scores from a variety of databases related to one of the three categories, using information from sources like Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Reporters Without Borders, UNICEF, the World Bank and LGBT resources. After identifying about two dozen “short list” performers, we turn to detailed case research, focusing on actions these governments have taken over the past year to improve (or, in some cases, weaken) policies and practices in their countries. We use many strategies to finalize our list—including engagement with civic leaders, discussions with travelers and reviews of local English-language media.

For a country to make our list, of course, it must do more than just excel in metrics. Each place selected as a Best Ethical Destination also offers unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities, and the opportunity to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.

Ethical Traveler congratulates the countries that earned a spot on our 2015 Ethical Destinations Awards list.

The 2015 winners, in alphabetical order (NOT in order of merit) are:

  • Cape Verde
  • Chile
  • Dominica
  • Lithuania
  • Mauritius
  • Palau
  • Samoa
  • Tonga
  • Uruguay
  • Vanuatu

NEW for 2015:

Tonga is taking bold steps to reduce diesel importation, substituting solar for home energy instead. Tonga's new development plan attempts to balance environmental and economic concerns. In 2015, Ha'aapai will become Tonga's first island dedicated to organic farming. The new government has also improved in terms of social welfare & human rights. 

Vanuatu has made great progress in recent years in terms of indigenous rights, democratic reforms and protecting victims of domestic violence. It also has been named the "Happiest Country in the World" by the Happy Planet Index. 

Though Samoa lost its spot in 2014 due to a number of serious issues, we're pleased to return the nation to the winner’s circle in 2015. Samoa has set new environmental protection goals for itself, and is now working with the United Nations on biodiversity, desertification, and climate change. In addition, the recent Crimes Act outlawed rape within marriage. Domestic violence measures have improved, as have LGBT rights. The Fa'afafine, traditionally thought of as a "third sex" in Samoa, are now legally allowed to dress as women.

OFF the list in 2015:

Latvia is no longer eligible for our list, as it became the second Baltic state to achieve status as a "developed country." Latvia now uses the Euro, and is one of the fastest growing economies in the EU. 

The otherwise beautiful Bahamas insists on building new captive dolphin facilities. This is a regression in terms of environmentalism and in terms of animal rights. Ethical Traveler opposes all captive cetacean facilities, but is particularly offended to see governments still supporting the construction of new "dolphin prisons." 

Barbados made some strides in terms of environmental protection in 2014. However, our researchers could find no significant evidence of efforts to stop police brutality, curtail human trafficking, or protect LGBT rights. We'll be watching developments in 2015. 

Men with horses in Tacuarembó, Uruguay Photo by Eduardo AmorimRanchers inspect their horses in Tacuarembó, Uruguay. Special recognition is due to Uruguay
and Lithuania for passing universal animal-welfare legislation in the past two years.

Costa Rica, which won in 2013 but was knocked off the list in 2014, continues to be a major Western Hemisphere hub for child sex trafficking. The government also allowed persecution, intimidation and murder of activists working against the illegal shark finning and the sea turtle trades. Rather than take steps to resolve these issues, Costa Rican officials called Ethical Traveler "outrageous" for pointing out the problems.  

Special recognition is due to both Lithuania and Uruguay for passing universal animal-welfare legislation in the past two years. Lithuania’s animal-protection standards are among the highest in Europe, and a new hunting quota was recently established to help control and protect its wolf population; a “Wolf Protection Plan” took effect in September. Uruguay’s new legislation grants animals each of the “Five Freedoms.” These freedoms, coined in 1955 by legislators in the United Kingdom, are now considered the core of animal-welfare reform worldwide. They refer to freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, suffering and disease; freedom from fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behavior.

Ethical Traveler is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization. No money or donations of any kind are solicited or accepted from any nations, governments, travel bureaus, or individuals in the creation of our annual list.

Again, the foundation of ethical travel is mindful travel. We offer these recommendations in the hope that your journeys are enlightening, inspiring and of real value — for yourself and for the people you visit.

To read the full 10- page report, with more detail on our methodology as well as each of the winners, go here.

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