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7 Great Destinations for Sustainable Travel

By Alicia-Rae Light

From tourism laws protecting the natural environment, to support for ethical cultural tourism, these countries are leading the sustainable travel movement.

Fifty years ago, 25 million people fuelled the world’s tourism industry. Today, it’s driven by nearly 1.2 billion travellers. That’s 45 arrivals somewhere in the world every second, according to The World Counts. And it’s estimated that by 2030, that number will climb to 1.8 billion.

While tourism has the potential to contribute positively to many countries' economies, as the number of visitors goes up, so do greenhouse gas emissions, as well as pressure on natural resources, wildlife and local communities.

That's why many destinations are now implementing more responsible practices; ones that put residents and the environment first.

“Sustainable travel, to me, means that local people are part of the economic equation, the environment isn't sacrificed for tourism and wildlife is being protected,” says Shannon Stowell, CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), a member-based organization that incorporates sustainability into its practices. “It’s a style of tourism that has a very light or completely mitigated footprint in the destination, versus highly exploitative or highly destructive, which we see in some of the industries.”

Sustainable travel promotes cultural understanding, puts money back into local communities and funds the conservation of natural habitats. While nobody has it completely figured out yet, these seven nations are on a journey towards sustainability—generating fewer emissions, encouraging a lighter footprint and putting wildlife and local communities at the forefront.

1. Jordan

How they’re leading the way in ethical travel:

Jordan’s mystical landscapes and vibrant culture are what draw tourists in, but the country also has well-developed, ethically-conducted cultural tourism initiatives and authentic experiences that connect travellers to the place and its people.

Malia Asfour, director at the Jordan Tourism Board, says her definition of sustainable travel in Jordan is: “To help alleviate poverty, build cultural understanding between people, and empower and educate women to contribute more to the economy.”

In partnership with Tourism Cares, Asfour helped create The Meaningful Travel Map—a stepping stone toward sustainability for Jordan and a prototype to be used as a guide for other nations. (Already, Colombia has followed suit with its own map.)

“We realized we could spread tourism dollars throughout the country and not have it bottlenecked into only the iconic places,” says Asfour. “Most of the social enterprises [on the Meaningful Travel Map] are run by women. By bringing income to them, we're helping women reach more women—that snowball effect is changing our society.”

How to experience it:

To experience sites on the Meaningful Travel Map, book a tour with Experience Jordan Adventures, a team of local hiking experts who helped create the Jordan Trail. You'll visit remote Bedouin camps, share traditional Zarb dinners around a campfire, meander through ancient olive groves, take in the red deserts of Wadi Rum and navigate through Petra’s Nabatean ruins.

Also on the map is the solar-powered Feynan Ecolodge, which only employs locals. In heart of the Dana Biosphere Reserve you'll experience Bedouin hospitality, join shepherds on hikes or take part in a traditional coffee ceremony.

“Feynan Ecolodge fuels the economy of the village," says Asfour. "It’s very local and somewhere you can see that tourism dollars are a force for good.” 

2. Colombia

How they’re leading the way in ethical travel:

Colombia is one of the world's most biodiverse countries with a vested interest in protecting its natural environment. It's a founding signatory of the Future of Tourism Coalition and in 2021, Colombia introduced a sustainable tourism policy. The bill includes incentives for people who invest in conservation projects associated with tourism, giving them a 25 per cent income tax discount.

“The policy ensures that tourism guarantees the preservation and responsible use of the natural capital of Columbia,” says Julián Guerrero-Orozco, Colombia’s vice minister of tourism, who presented the bill to congress to prohibit the exploitation of protected areas.

“There has to be a political will for sustainable tourism. If the policies and politicians aren’t supportive, you can’t change the dial,” says Paloma Zapata, CEO of Sustainable Travel International. 

How to experience it:

Ethical travel is, in part, about exploring the culture of another country in an authentic way. In Colombia, known as "the land of a thousand rhythms," culture is music. Tour operator Impulse Travel believes tourism can be a powerful ally for communities to grow and transform the lives of their people for the better. On their Sounds of Colombia tour, travellers meet more than 50 musicians while exploring the Caribbean Coast. 

Expedition Colombia offers rafting tours operating on the Río Samaná. Previously considered one of the most dangerous places in Colombia (it's where the guerilla group FARC handed over their weapons, effectively ending the civil war in 2016), it's now a thriving spot for adventure tourism.

“They are doing it sustainably with respect for the environment, but it has also helped build peace as many of the people that are working on the project are former combatants or family members of the guerrilla groups,” says Guerrero-Orozco.

3) Uganda

How they’re leading the way in ethical travel:

Uganda has innovative, community-based tourism programs, raising the standard for women’s education and encouraging them to work in tourism and conservation. At the same time, the country is pioneering efforts in gorilla and chimpanzee conservation.

Tourism is one of Uganda’s largest earners, contributing 7 per cent of the GDP, employing over 500,000 Ugandans. Around 60 per cent of tourism revenue comes from visitors to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park—home to around half of the world’s roughly 1,000 remaining mountain gorillas who live deep within the dense forest, once predicted to become extinct by the year 2000.

Over the past decade, their population has almost doubled in size. This is thanks in part to Uganda’s revenue-sharing scheme, which ensures that a percentage of the national park’s revenue goes to local communities, creating an incentive to support conservation.

“The communities benefit when tourists visit, but we went a step further in Bwindi with a portion of the trekking fee going directly to the community,” says Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Uganda’s first wildlife veterinarian officer.

How to experience it:

There’s nothing quite like coming face-to-face with a mountain gorilla to make you appreciate the conservation efforts that have pulled this incredible species back from the brink of extinction. Of the $700 permit for gorilla trekking in Uganda, 15 per cent goes to the government, 10 per cent to the local communities and 75 per cent to gorilla conservation.

Tour operator Wildplaces Africa also contributes a portion of guest fees to support education and Indigenous communities surrounding their three lodges.

“Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge belongs to the community," says Oscar Planes, general group manager. "The community gets $100 per room, per night to strengthen the community, build schools, pay for school fees, and to support the Batwa pygmy tribe.” He notes that the collaboration is being used as a case study by the UN Development Program for replication in other African countries.

4) Scotland

How they’re leading the way in ethical travel:

In 2020, Visit Scotland announced that it was joining Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency—the first national tourism board to do so. Its commitment to creating a climate action plan is not surprising, as the Scottish government has already set ambitious environmental targets, including meeting net-zero emissions by 2045.

There is also a growing movement to make Scotland the first rewilding nation, aimed at reintroducing native species, restoring degraded land and diversity of species, and connecting more people with nature. The Scottish Rewilding Alliance has called on politicians to commit to rewilding 30 per cent of its land and sea by 2030. Already, several rewilding projects have popped up throughout the country.

“Scotland is a great example—very similar to Africa—of moving to a conservation model and how it can be done,” says Amanda Ho of Regenerative Travel.

How to experience it:

You can see rewilding in action at Alladale Wilderness Reserve, an ecolodge in the Scottish Highlands. It stopped stocking wildlife for commercial hunting and is working toward reintroducing key native species including Scottish wildcats and wolves.

Meanwhile, Wilderness Scotland—an adventure tour company and founding signatory of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency—focuses on slow, human-powered travel which, by nature, has low carbon emissions. All of their trips carry a label indicating how many kilograms of carbon are generated per traveller.

“Despite [the pandemic] being a tough time to make such a declaration financially, we thought, as we build back, why not build back with sustainability at centre stage?” says Paul Easto, co-founder of Wilderness Scotland. In addition to zero-waste kayaking trips, every itinerary contributes to the company's conservation fund, which supports initiatives like Scotland’s first "seabin"; an innovative trash skimmer that sucks rubbish and pollutants out of the water in marinas and ports.

5) Palau

How they’re leading the way in ethical travel:

The Republic of Palau—a small archipelago of some 340 islands in the western Pacific Ocean—relies on tourism as the primary driver of its economy, making up nearly 46 per cent of the nation’s GPD. But this comes with complications. It typically sees eight times more tourists than its 22,000 residents, resulting in threats to its fragile coral reefs and wildlife population.

Despite these challenges—or rather, because of them—Palau has adopted a high-value, low-impact model of tourism in the last few years. In 2017, the Palau Pledge was launched, making it the world's only destination with a government-mandated requirement that tourists sign an eco-pledge which is stamped into their passports. And in January 2020, Palau established its National Marine Sanctuary, covering 80 per cent of the nation's waters and preventing fishing and mining in what is now one of the world's largest marine protected zones.

How to experience it:

What's worth protecting in Palau is also what's worth celebrating. The crystal clear waters of Palau make it one of the most enticing diving and snorkelling destinations in the world. Here, you can submerge into the world’s first shark sanctuary and be fascinated by shipwrecks, underwater caves, dizzying reef walls, and diverse marine life.

If diving isn’t your thing, you can swim in Jellyfish Lake—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only one of five such lakes in the archipelago where swimming with millions of jellyfish is permitted. They don’t sting because over time they’ve evolved without their stingers. Why? They feed off algae, which means they don’t require stingers to catch their prey. 

6) Namibia

How they’re leading the way in ethical travel:

Namibia, on the west coast of Africa, is one of the most sparsely populated countries on the planet, with delicate ecosystems, important cultural traditions and tribes, and many species of endangered wildlife, including the black rhino.

It was also the first country in Africa to write environmental protection into its constitution when it gained independence from South Africa in 1990. Article 95 of Namibia’s Constitution mandates the “maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity of Namibia and utilization of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of the Namibians, both present and future.”

Nearly 50 per cent of Namibians live in rural communities, often close to wildlife, and a growing number of communities have formed communal conservancies, recognized by Namibia's Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), to protect and manage their communal lands. At present, more than 80 communal conservancies are registered with the MET, covering nearly 20 per cent of the country. Many locals are employed as conservation guards to deter poachers and to assist the MET with wildlife monitoring and game counts. The conservancies also establish revenue-sharing and employment-creation partnerships with private businesses to build lodges and camps, provide game drives and managed hunting, bush walks and cultural encounters, all aimed at ensuring tourism revenues directly benefit the communities.

How to experience it:

While wildlife abounds in parts of Namibia (Etosha National Parks is home to the Big Five and then some), the main draw is the desolate, otherworldly landscapes, endless stretches of sand and dunes. Namibia is home to the world’s largest remaining population of wild cheetah and a wonderful conservation experience can be had with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, where visitors can see can first-hand what it takes to save a species.

7) Costa Rica

How they’re leading the way in ethical travel:

From the use of renewable energy, to the protection of biodiversity through national parks and reforestation efforts, the World Bank named Costa Rica­ a global leader for its environmental policies. In 2018, the government developed a National Decarbonization Plan, with the goal of making Costa Rica one of the world’s first decarbonized countries with net-zero emissions by 2050. Today, 20 per cent of Costa Rica is protected as either a national park, wildlife refuge or reserve. Nearly all of the country's energy output comes from renewable sources.

“If you look at where Costa Rica was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was a logging destination. If you saw a map back then they were rapidly losing their forest cover,” says Zapata, of Sustainable Travel International. “Then there was a policy change that came from the top and they decided to become this ecotourism and sustainable destination even before those words existed—they were the pioneers.”

Ecotourism investors went to Costa Rica, bought land and committed to conserving it, and to working with the locals to improve education, healthcare and access to clean water.

“Now, they have educated folks, a good health system, and they’ve conserved their nation and created that space for themselves," says Zapata, "and to this day they are considered a leading ecotourism destination.”

How to experience it:

Booking a holiday at a foreign-owned all-inclusive resort can mean missing out on Costa Rica's ecotourism initiatives says Hans Pfister, owner of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality.

“If you go to a walled-in resort, you’re not going to Costa Rica, you’re not helping the country, your tourism dollar goes straight back to whoever owns that resort and you’re not getting the full experience.” Pfister's collection of small, sustainable luxury hotels and lodges in Central America are individually owned and employ 100 per cent, local staff.

“We want to make a difference in people’s lives because that makes a difference in the community,” he says.

Ultimately, Pfister’s point is the most important. Choosing to travel sustainably isn’t just about choosing your destination—it’s also about considering the policies and practices of the operators and hotels you book with. By doing so, you’re helping to take travel in the right direction.

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