Ethical Traveler

Ten Best Ethical Destinations

A few decades from now, 2011 may seem like a turning point in social history. This was the year when people power became a global phenomenon. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements in North America, citizens around the world spoke up for their belief in freedom of expression and social justice. In China, thousands of citizens tweeted their solidarity with activist artist Ai Weiwei. In Moscow, people marched, while in Havana they blogged. Social networks are critical. And so is travel, one of our oldest and most powerful communication tools.

photo of a city skyline, river in backgroundphoto Flickr user RolandRigaLatvia’s capital, has been called the Paris of the North.

Every journey we take makes a statement about our priorities and commitment to change. Even the choice to fly must be weighed carefully, as jet aircraft release an astonishing amount of carbon dioxide. Ethical Traveler believes that mindful travel is a net positive for the planet. By choosing our destinations well and remembering our role as citizen-diplomats, we can help change the world for the better.

Every year Ethical Traveler reviews the policies and practices of all the nations in the developing world. We then select the ten that are doing the best job of promoting human rights, preserving their environments, and creating sustainable, community-based tourism industries. By visiting these destinations, we can use our travel dollars to support these countries. We urge you to explore these destinations and enjoy the wonderful sights, cultures, and activities they offer.

Our best efforts go into creating this list, but remember: No country is perfect. All have their shortcomings. These ten, however, have made a determined effort to “do the right thing” in the areas we take into consideration.

We begin by focusing on three categories: Environmental Protection, Social Welfare, and Human Rights. 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 countries that are actively improving the condition of their people and environment.

We consider country scores from a variety of databases and use information from sources like Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the World Bank. After identifying the top performers, we turn to detailed case research, focusing on actions governments have taken over the year to improve (or in some cases, weaken) circumstances in the countries.

Environmental Protection

In evaluating each country’s level of environmental protection, we looked at indicators of environmental health, preservation of resources, and cultivation of sustainable practices. Our main resource is the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center’s Environmental Performance Index, a joint initiative between the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network.

Latin American countries continue to be top scorers in environmental protection. Costa Rica is the only developing country – and indeed one of only three countries in the world – to make it into the top 100-85 scorer category. Chile also scored high, particularly in sustainable fishery and forestry. Dominica is working on an impressive renewable energy policy, with plans to be carbon-negative by 2020. Uruguay excels in water and forest protection.

Another notable environmental success is Serbia, which signed a historic declaration to establish a trans-boundary UNESCO Biosphere Reserve to protect nature and wildlife along the Mura, Drava, and Danube rivers, and signed the Protocol on Sustainable Forest Management to protect Europe’s largest areas of old growth forests outside Russia.

In September, the World Health Organization reported that Mauritius has the second best air quality in the world. Also in 2011, the Bahamas made the important step of banning shark fishing to protect one of the most diverse shark populations in the world. Palau exhibits such enthusiasm for conservation efforts that it was chosen as a pilot for The Nature Conservancy’s Transforming Coral Reef Conservation program.

The Republic of Namibia is often cited as the most environmentally progressive of all African countries. However, the continued annual slaughter of fur seals is unacceptable, and prevents us from including Namibia on the list.

10 Best Ethical Destinations
  • Argentina
  • The Bahamas
  • Chile
  • Costa Rica
  • Dominica
  • Latvia
  • Mauritius
  • Palau
  • Serbia
  • Uruguay

It’s worth noting that island states are again a strong presence in this year’s Top 10 list. These include the Bahamas, Dominica, Mauritius, and Palau. These states understand that islands will be very severely impacted by climate change, and are therefore taking the lead in progressive environmental policies.

Social Welfare

Another critical point we consider is the social welfare of a country’s citizens and visitors. This is not easy. To gain the clearest picture of the situation, we combine well-respected resources with our own country research.

UNICEF scores on child mortality rates are one indicator of social welfare. In this category, Serbia and Latvia scored particularly high. To gauge issues such as access to safe drinking water, sustainable water management, responsible sanitation practices, and agricultural management, we considered the 2011 Human Development Report, compiled by the UN Development Program. The Bahamas were the highest ranked Ethical Destination country on the index this year, followed by Chile. Mauritius received its highest score to date – placing it far above the regional average and significantly above the world average. Argentina received the rating of “very high human development” and continues to rise. In Palau, education is free through grade twelve, with support services available for those who do not graduate. Uruguay has made strides in the areas of infant mortality, malnutrition, and vaccination, and also announced it will invest US$150 million to re-settle thousands of people living in Montevideo’s hazardous shanty towns.

Human Rights

To evaluate countries’ human rights record we consult with sources like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House. Every country has human rights issues, but it was important for us to see efforts made toward the improving the basic human rights of all.

The Bahamas, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Palau, and Uruguay received the highest possible scores from Freedom House in the categories of Political Rights and Civil Liberties and received the highest Press Freedom score of all Ethical Destinations countries. Freedom House also notes high levels of academic freedom and freedom of assembly in Latvia. Serbia arrested two notorious war criminals this year – Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic – a laudable development.

Costa Rica recently adopted a groundbreaking gender-equality policy, allowing women more social protection, economic autonomy, and political participation. Dominica signed an important UN statement defending LGBTQ rights – the only Eastern Caribbean country to do so. We were thrilled by the news of Argentina’s senate passing a law legalizing same-sex marriage, the first in Latin America.

There is more to making our list than excelling in these categories. Each of the selected countries also offers the opportunity to experience unspoiled natural beauty and to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.

The foundation of ethical travel is mindful travel. We offer these recommendations in the hope that your journeys are both enlightening and inspiring – for yourself and for the people you visit.

To learn more about these countries, visit:

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.