Ethical Traveler

Best ethical travel destinations

Earth Island News

During the past 20 years, the phrases “ecotravel” and “ethical travel” have entered the globetrotter’s lexicon. The first term has been so co-opted and abused that it’s practically stripped of meaning; even huge luxury hotels and cruise ships tout money-saving tactics like graywater reuse and energy-saving laundry practices as evidence of their commitment to ecotourism.

Ethical travel combines ecotourism with broader environmental and social issues. It fulfills both individual and social ideals: An ethical traveler experiences environmental beauty and cultural immersion while actually contributing to the ecological preservation and social development of the host country. For a country to be considered a good ethical travel candidate, the government must demonstrate a strong commitment not just to the environment, but to the well-being of its population as well.

grassland and herd photoMichael McCollWater buffalo herd in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Ethical Traveler recently conducted a study to learn where Americans tend to travel in the developing world, and how this compares with the most environmentally and socially progressive places to spend our tourism dollars. Our goal was to formulate a list of the “Best Ethical Travel Destinations,” specifically geared to outbound American leisure travelers. The idea was not just to compile a list of countries, but to choose places that Americans actually want to visit.

The most popular developing-country destinations for American tourists are the Bahamas, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Jamaica, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago (listed alphabetically).

After compiling data from the US Department of Commerce, we took a look at the rest of the developing world, including two continents not on the list: Africa and Europe. Europe, the most popular destination for American travelers, is not generally thought of as “developing,” but several Eastern European nations do fit that description.

We investigated ecotourism practices, environmental standards, and social development indicators. Our research was conducted at Stanford University, using information from a variety of national and international sources.

Ecotourism practices

Because of its direct link between the local environment and population, ecotourism was the single most important factor we used in determining “ethicalness.” Although many organizations have different definitions of ecotourism, key principles remain universal: conservation of the natural environment, low visitor impact, and benefit to the local population.

Since ecotourism is such an attractive policy for governments to profess, it’s often difficult to separate spin from reality. Still, credible agencies such as The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) have singled out countries with strong commitments to preservation. Belize (for its Mayan sites), Brazil (national parks), Ecuador (Galapagos Islands and Amazonian rainforest), Kenya (wildlife reserves), Nepal (mountain trekking), Peru (birding), and South Africa (game and nature reserves) all make the grade.

The best-known ecotourism destinations are probably Costa Rica and Bhutan. With a vibrant tourism industry that centers around its cloud forests, turtles, and volcanoes, Costa Rica has served as an inspiration for other Latin American countries. Bhutan, though, is the “poster child” for ecotourism. Its entire tourism industry is based on sustainability, and an effort to attract “low volume, high quality” visitors willing to pay a handsome fee for the privilege of visiting the pristine Himalayan kingdom. But even countries with strong ecotourism values are sometimes careless of broader human rights issues. That’s why it’s also crucial to examine the environmental and social progress of a country.

Environmental standards

Our research evaluated six factors: carbon dioxide emissions, energy efficiency, percentage of protected land, percentage of mammals under threat, the environmental sustainability index, and the number of major international environmental treaties ratified.

Seven countries earned very high environmental ratings: Argentina, Bhutan, Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru, Sri Lanka, and Uruguay. All boast low CO2 emissions, steady progress in energy efficiency, and a policy of signing treaties designed to protect the ecosphere. Tourist favorites that came out on the negative side included Kenya, with extremely poor energy efficiency, as well as Trinidad and Tobago. Ironically, the five countries with the highest percentage of wildlife species threatened (above 20 percent) also rank among the most popular US travel destinations: the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, India, the Philippines, and South Korea.

Social development

This was the broadest of our three categories, with seven factors to consider. We put income distribution, health, and education under the microscope, using reports from the UN and the WHO, among others. But we also took into account crime, government corruption, and the status of women. Finally, as a marker of ongoing progress, we determined the number of international human rights and international labor rights treaties each country had ratified. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Croatia, and Slovenia were all found to have relatively low levels of inequality, while South Africa, Panama, and El Salvador have high disparities.

The Bahamas, Costa Rica, Barbados, Sri Lanka, and Uruguay took highest public health rankings (though both India and China have made big improvements in this area). Kenya was again a disappointment; its mortality rate for children under five actually increased between 1990 and 2003. In education, Barbados, South Korea, Slovenia, and Uruguay excel, as does Argentina. Women’s status is strong in Jamaica, Mexico, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Uruguay. It’s poorest in Egypt, India, and Nepal.

By “voting with our
wings,” tourists give our
economic support to
ethical societies.

The worst commitment to human and labor rights was measured in Thailand (which also has the highest government corruption index) – and Bhutan, which has failed to ratify five human rights treaties, and has not approved a single international labor rights convention.

High social development standards were crowning achievements for Argentina, Barbados, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, and Uruguay.

The best ethical travel destinations, in alphabetical order:

Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Brazil, Costa Rica, Croatia, Ecuador, Kenya, Peru, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Uruguay.

This list should serve as a practical guide for tourists looking for vacations that are both self-rewarding and supportive of the people and environments we visit.

Latin America has emerged as the leader in ethical travel. While some of our recommended destinations are already popular (Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru), other top countries (Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Ecuador, and Uruguay) also have much to offer. Argentina has a vast array of natural wonders. from glaciers in the Andes to pre-Columbian villages in the North. Belize hosts Mayan ruins, as well as a lush rainforest. Uruguay, not as well known, contains spectacular beaches as well as trekking in the interior.

Croatia’s beautiful beaches make it a viable alternative to Italy, France, or Greece. Slovenia is also a great destination, with impressive underground caves, thermal springs, alpine skiing, and nature trails.

Sri Lanka, now recovering from the Indian Ocean tsunami, outdoes India in both environmental and social development standards. And though South Africa and Kenya lag in both environmental and certain social measures, good ecotourism values are their redemption. We include these countries as a nod to their valiant strides in ecotourism, and in the hope that travelers will help support a region habitually neglected by the international community.

Ethical travel to developing countries offers a positive, symbiotic exchange between travelers and their destination. By “voting with our wings,” tourists give our economic support to such societies, raise the standard of living for the population, and reinforce programs that protect the environment. The reward we receive is also worthwhile: a memorable vacation, and the realization that, although the world is getting smaller, some parts of it are actually getting better.
Kiran Auerbach and Jeff Greenwald

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