All of us are part of a social revolution that is transforming the planet. Environmental and human rights movements in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America now hinge on our ability to communicate, in real time, with allies across the world. But as we navigate the global village on our tablets and smart phones, let’s not forget the power of actual, physical travel. Where we go – and where we spend our travel dollars – has real economic and political significance. Ethical Traveler believes that mindful travel can bring many benefits, both personal and global. By choosing our destinations well and remembering our roles as citizen-diplomats, we can create international goodwill and help change the world for the better.
Ethical Traveler recently released its annual survey of the world’s most ethical tourism destinations. The list highlights 10 countries – all in the developing world – that combine best practices with superb scenic and cultural attractions. Destinations were evaluated on a broad spectrum of criteria including: ecosystem support, natural and cultural attractions, political rights, press freedom, women’s equality, and commitment to LGBT rights.
This year’s 10 best ethical destinations, in alphabetical order, are:
This tiny, 166-square-mile Caribbean island nation, famous for its rum and surf, has been working with the UN to figure out ways to bolster its green economy and protect its social fabric. Last year, the government approved a $188 million green energy complex that will include solar and wind power facilities, and a solid waste-to-electricity conversion program. Barbados has the highest Human Development Index of all the Caribbean states. It ranked second best in the Americas, after Canada, in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. Areas the country could work to improve are human trafficking, greater participation by women in the government, and improving LGBT rights – homosexuality is still a criminal offense in the country.
This archipelago of 10 islands off the African coast has West Africa’s highest standard of living and received the second-highest ranking for governance in the 2011 Ibrahim Index of African Governance. It has no laws that discriminate against people based on sexual orientation or gender. Cape Verde is working toward being powered 100 percent by renewable energy. The nation’s islands feature black sand beaches, bleach-white beaches, high cliffs and desert plains. Tourism is relatively new in Cape Verde, which means you can still sample the real culture of the islands from the more European (Sao Vicente) to the more African (Santiago). But more people flocking to the islands could threaten marine life.
Ranked the happiest country by the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica shelters 5 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, and nearly 26 percent of its area is either part of a natural park or protected territory. The small Central American nation banned shark-finning and hunting for sport last year. It also halted the $2 billion Disquis Dam project that would have flooded the Terraba Indigenous territory. On the downside, increasing coffee bean production is causing deforestation and river pollution; its human rights commission voted against passing a LGBT rights bill; and the country doesn’t comply with minimum protections against sex trafficking.
Ghana has a good record of power changing hands peacefully, a high degree of press freedom, and is, for the most part, respectful of civil liberties. The country has a wealth of national parks and vast array of wildlife. About 15 percent of Ghana’s land is under some form of protection. It is a pioneer in community-based ecotourism. However, the country discriminates against same-sex couples, its prisons are overcrowded, and Human Rights Watch reports that the mentally disabled suffer abuse in psychiatric institutions.
Latvia is ranked above average among the world’s sovereign states in democracy, press freedom, privacy, and human development. Virtually half of this Baltic nation is unspoiled nature. Nearly all inland waters in the country are pollution-free. It ranks as the “most improved country” on the Environmental Protection Index. Latvia has several small harbors, once neglected or destroyed during the Soviet era, that have been revived and now support a thriving fishing culture. However, non-citizens have historically suffered from limited or no access to a broad range of rights in the country.
Located on the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea, Lithuania has a strong culture of historic preservation and natural resource conservation. The Lithuanian city of Kaunas is a candidate for the 2015 “European Green Capital.” However, the country is still experiencing some issues with human and drug trafficking. Its greenhouse gas emissions increased by 3 percent in 2011–12.
Mauritius’s economy is ranked the “eighth freest” in the Heritage Foundation Economic Freedom 2012 Index. The island nation has one of Africa’s highest per capita incomes. Mauritius’s literacy and life-expectancy levels continue to rise and it has a laudable healthcare program. It has invested heavily in greening the economy. Sadly, domestic violence is still an issue. Abuse of suspects by security forces, prison overcrowding, sexual exploitation of children, and discrimination against AIDS/HIV victims are also ongoing problems.
Palau has been on the forefront of conservation efforts through the Green Energy Micronesia Initiative, which includes such initiatives as creating of the world’s first shark sanctuary and leading the Organization of Tuna Exporting Countries. The Pacific island nation has an excellent human rights record and ranks 49th in the Human Development Index. Last year, UNESCO named Palau’s Rock Islands Southern Lagoon as one of the new wonders of the world. Overfishing, dredging of coral reefs, and inadequate waste disposal thereaten the environment here, but steps are being taken to address these issues. More troubling are the country’s plans to drill for oil.
The Polynesian nation of Samoa has a strong environmental ethic stemming from the traditional Samoan concept of va tapuia, which emphasizes the sacred relationship between all things. The Samoan government was one of the first to sign the Kyoto Protocol. For culture aficionados, the traditional village life on the island of Savaii is a special attraction. However, domestic violence is still a problem in Samoa. Spousal rape is not illegal. Same-sex relationships are illegal. Child abuse and poor prison conditions are ongoing problems.
This small South American nation gets top billing in the region for safeguarding LGBT and women’s rights and for its investment in children’s education. Uruguay was the first nation to ratify the Domestic Workers Convention and it has consistently pursued agricultural policies that are environmentally sustainable. It has also invested in renewable energy and pushed for an international treaty on mercury mining and use. The country’s rare and colorful birds make it a birdwatcher’s paradise. Unfortunately, Uruguay is increasingly being used as a transit zone by drug traffickers.
To learn more about these destinations and review the additional “Destinations of Interest,” visit: www.ethicaltraveler.org
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