Discover the 10 best eco-tourism destinations of the world

Green is the new black and it’s also the new way to vacay, as eco-adventures become the most sought-after travel style of the century. Though air travel will never be particularly sustainable, there are plenty of ways for you to offset your carbon footprint, with environmental donations contributing to reforestation and carbon capture programs made on booking. Once you arrive, there are even fewer reasons to make a dent in the ozone, thanks to increasingly sustainable practices within the tourism industry and ecotours that require no more energy than a full belly and a will to explore. Nevertheless, there are some places more aligned with the concept of eco-tourism, allowing for green adventures at minimal impact. Discover our top 10 favourite ecotourism destinations below.

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Costa Ballena Costa Rica

Costa Rica | Photo: Dan Moore

1. Costa Rica

A sure-fire favourite among eco tourists is the tropical nation of Costa Rica, already hosting a well-established hospitality sector dedicated to sustainability. As well as hosting hundreds of independent eco-lodges and green wellness retreats among its rainforests and along its ‘Rich Coast’, Costa Rica can also brag about its adventure credentials, offering activities such as volcano trekking, jungle zip-lining and conservation programs working in harmony with the nation’s biodiverse flora and fauna. In fact, Costa Rica even committed to becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021, though COVID-19 has pushed back progress a little.

Relatively small in scale when compared with the bordering nations of Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, Costa Rica is just 51,100 square kilometres in size, of which, as much as 26% is made up of national parks, wildlife reserves and protected lands. Catch sight of all the exotic birds you could wish for, as well as countless mammal, reptile and marine species, among any of these parks, also saving time for the wonders of Manuel Antonio National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, both models for conservation and ecotourism. Plan what to do in Costa Rica with the help of our Costa Rica 7 day itinerary.

Costa Rica Credit Cosmic Timetraveler

Costa Rica | Photo: Cosmic Timetraveler

Photo: Max Ravier

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Experience small-town life in Norway’s traditional fishing villages or take to the powdered pistes of Lyngenfjord in the north or Lyseford and Suldal in the southwest

2. Norway

Also, no stranger to eco-tourists is the Scandinavian nation of Norway, most famous for its pristine fjords and snow-topped mountain vistas. Years of progressive politics have given Norway impressive sustainable policies, heavily regulating grey industries like oil, fishing and hunting, and recently becoming one of four pilot destinations on the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s model list. While getting about and staying warm in Norway can present difficulties for ecotourists, seeking out destinations labelled as sustainable will help ensure you leave as little impact as possible. To stay cosy in the nation’s traditional towns, try spots like Røros, Lærdal and the villages of Setesdal. For urban adventures, Lillehammer offers literature and culture, while the farming community along The Golden Road in Trøndelag can allow you to appreciate a slower way of life.

But it’s in the Geirangerfjord region where you’ll find Norway’s promised land, an area so breath-taking you may even need oxygen (at its highest altitudes). Besides the stunning blue fjords backgrounded by mountains, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed area offers glacial waterfalls, wild flora and even a series of offshore islands at Lofoten, home to eagles, seals and porpoises. Experience small-town life in Norway’s traditional fishing villages or take to the powdered pistes of Lyngenfjord in the north and Lyseford and Suldal in the southwest. To get lost in Norway’s peaceful forests one can travel to Femond Engerdal, while those seeking new food experiences take a day trip to the country’s most southernmost point and dine at Under. Stay busy in the nation with our list of the top things to do in Norway.

Norway | Photo: Tobias Bjørkli

Norway | Photo: Tobias Bjørkli

3. Iceland

Another of the best ecotourism examples in Northern Europe is the frosty nation of Iceland. Underpinning its green credentials, Iceland is the cleanest energy consumer in the world, taking 75% of its usage from renewable sources, and is a global leader in environmental policies. Iceland hasn’t always been this way however, as a Viking nation since the 9th century, the nation has seen mass deforestation and soil erosion suspected to have stripped up to 90% of Iceland’s virgin forests and 40% of its soil. Learning from its history, however, the nation now strictly protects its native ecology, importing bee colonies from neighbouring Sweden to maintain a thriving ecosystem and agriculture industry powered by geothermal water and steam.

All this has advanced rapidly in the new millennium, with tourism growing as much as 40% in 2016 alone. The best thing about this burgeoning industry is that it focuses largely on responsible tourism, allowing visitors to witness the beauty of the aurora borealis, Blue Lagoon and Gulfoss waterfalls, without harming the delicate ecological balance. To do your bit, avoid big hotels and instead opt to camp or stay at an eco-tourism resort. When choosing how to travel, either choose an electric vehicle or go off the map on hiking, biking and horse-riding expeditions. Away from land meanwhile, rafting, snorkelling and diving are all good ways to roam through spectacular landscapes without exploitation. Plan your trip using our ultimate Iceland itinerary to help you.

Iceland | Photo: Ty Van Haren

4. Galapagos Islands

Our next mention has a long history of helping build humanity’s environmental understanding, serving as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the research destination of many preeminent scientists. It is of course the Galapagos Islands, a remote archipelago found way out in the Pacific off the west coast of Ecuador. Home to some of the most unique and fearless wildlife on the planet, the Galapagos Islands became a Natural World Heritage Site in 1978 which has helped to preserve its fragile ecology. Though tourism once threatened the islands, happily they are no longer listed as ‘in danger’ thanks to stronger management and continued stewardship from the government, NGOs and the local community who work to build the most sustainable tourism sector that ever existed. Regardless, all visitors should be aware of the possible by-products of irresponsible tourism, such as contamination from boat oil, the introduction of non-native species, and overconsumption of the freshwater supply, and take measures to ensure they don’t unwittingly harm the land. Research your tour to the Galapagos with sustainability in mind, asking questions about hotel and cruise policies if in doubt.

Galapagos Islands | Photo: Simon Berger

Photo: Derek Owens

5. Kenya

One of the finest examples of eco-tourism in Africa comes out of the nation of Kenya, a destination also known for its grassland safaris offering close encounters with giraffes, lions, rhinos and beyond. Besides the great Masai Mara plains, Kenya’s natural landscapes also feature mountains, beaches and offshore coral reefs, each of which hold their own diverse ecology. To help protect these abundant lands, the Kenyan government and international NGOs have launched a number of public and private initiatives to put an end to illegal poaching and boost sustainable tourism. All in all, the nation has 54 national parks and reserves with an additional number of private ranches and sanctuaries, such as the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an organisation which founded the Nairobi Elephant Sanctuary. Other key organisations pushing forward Kenya’s conservation sector are the Ol Pejeta Conservancy (with its chimpanzee and rhino sanctuaries), the Jane Goodall Institute and the Crater Lake Game Sanctuary.

Drawing as many as 500,000 visitors each year to their gates, Kenya’s prize national parks incentivise to local community to minimize damaging practices in surrounding areas. To help do so, the government has banned single-use plastics and all plastic bags, while also supporting the development of eco-lodges and hotels. While on safari, choose to stay at a camp with a conservancy, such as the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, for a quieter and more community-minded way to take part in wildlife watching. Along the coast meanwhile, consider getting involved with the East African Whale Shark Trust to join shark tagging missions and research dives in the Indian Ocean. See our full Kenya 10 day itinerary for more things to do in and outside of Nairobi.

Kenya | Photo: Fearscare

6. Amazon Rainforest

When thinking of eco-tourism in Brazil your mind may immediately land in the humid, leafy realms of the Amazon Rainforest. Considered as the lungs of the planet, and one of the last places on earth home to uncontacted indigenous tribes, the Amazon Rainforest now relies on ecotourism to help protect it from extensive deforestation and climate change. According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), ecotourism can help not only educate internationals about the global importance of the world’s largest tropical rainforest but also help to fund essential conservation projects. One such project is the Rio Blanco Project in neighbouring Ecuador, which guides eco-tourists on rainforest treks to experience indigenous ways of life. Aldeia dos Lagos meanwhile acts as an alternative means of income for locals once reliant on non-sustainable fishing practices. Outside of these operations, the eco-tourism industry remains in its early stages, meaning that tours differ in their level of commitment to conservation. Ask questions and do your research before booking to ensure that your trip aligns with your values.

Photo: Alexander Wendt

Amazon Rainforest | Photo: Conscious Design

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Located on a 600-kilometre strip along southwest India’s Malabar Coast, Kerala is India’s prettiest state, with exotic beaches for days lined by palm trees and backgrounded by hills replete with banana, tea and pandan plantations

7. Kerala, India

Located on a 600-kilometre strip along southwest India’s Malabar Coast, Kerala is India’s prettiest state, with exotic beaches for days lined by palm trees and backgrounded by hills replete with banana, tea and pandan plantations. Known as India’s honeymoon capital, Kerala is also at the heart of the country’s ecotourism movement, embracing sustainable policies and educating visitors on local lifestyles in villages such as Thenmala and Kumbalangi. One of the most famous eco-lodges in the state is Banasura Resort, a so-called ‘earth’ hotel built from pressed mud. Weave through Kerala’s backwaters on a boat tour to lose yourself amongst dense jungle, or climb up high among the Western Ghats to discover colonial-era hill stations now serving as trade hubs for the regional community.

With so much unchartered wilderness, Kerala is of course a great place for wildlife. Get up close to rare animals on a trip to the state’s best wildlife sanctuaries and parks, safe havens for the nation’s huge count of native species. Of these, there is the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and The Green Haven alongside countless other natural sights such as the Thommankuthu Waterfalls and the Nilgiri hills. Whilst eco-tourism is still a relatively new concept in India, Kerala leads the way with its “Responsible Tourism Mission”, pushed forward by a large community of activists and scientists who help to teach conservation while empowering women and eradicating poverty through various social and environmental projects. From Kerala to Mumbai, check out our full list of the dreamiest places to visit in India.

India | Photo: Christian Kunz

Kerala, India | Photo: Kunal Kalra

8. New Zealand

As far out in the Southern Hemisphere as to give you summer solstice on Christmas, New Zealand still harmonises with the rest of the world on the issue of sustainability. Even its national marketing campaign, ‘100% Pure New Zealand’, aims to show how committed the nation is to its natural environment, with 20% of its land labelled as national park, forest area or reserve to protect the awesome landscapes of glaciers, fjords, plains and mountains within. Its population of less than 5 million is split between the North and South islands, and more than 700 smaller islands, altogether spanning a total of 268 square kilometres. Though the majority of citizens live on the North Island, nature still wins out wherever you go; whether that’s to the North’s verdant hills or the South’s snow-capped peaks. Glowworm Caves are also found across New Zealand, best experienced with an expert guide who’ll ensure you don’t accidentally harm the worms on your visit.

Besides having a sheep-to-person ratio of about seven to one, New Zealand boasts much in the way of wildlife and wonders. Spot kiwis on Kapiti Island, tour Fjordland’s Milford Sound, kayak in Abel Tasman National Park and whale watch in Kaikoura on the South Island, before moving North for sunbathing with seals at Cape Palliser or hiking Mount Doom (at Tongariro National Park), ending on an epic showdown from Mother Nature herself at Wai-o-Tapu geothermal area. With such vast open spaces entrusted to visitors, it’s vital that you travel responsibly in New Zealand, leaving the beaches, alpine tussocks, kauri forests and volcanic plateaus exactly as you found them. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, however, because New Zealand is also an adventure sports capital, offering biking, skiing, kayaking, camping and boating facilities throughout its 14 national parks. Those lucky enough to be spending a fortnight in New Zealand can plan around Mr Hudson’s ultimate New Zealand itinerary.

New Zealand | Photo: Julius Silver

9. Palau

A part of Micronesia, way out in the western Pacific, Palau is an island nation lapped by biodiverse waters never more in need of protection. Crystal clear and ever-rising, the waters surrounding Palau are home to vast reef systems and hundreds of species of fish, preserved within no-fishing zones yet still particularly vulnerable to climate change, pollution and unsustainable development. To better protect its waters, Palau has revolutionised its environmental regulations since 2005, committing to conserve 30% of its coastal waters and 30% of forest land by 2020 and boost ecotourism in the meantime. Most come to Palau for the amazing diving opportunities along its barrier reef walls and wreck diving to WWII battleships. Other than diving, however, Palau also hosts incredible bird watching within its forests and a 600,000 square kilometre shark sanctuary serving as a research and conservation site for university students and documentary makers as part of the Blue Planet United.

Palau | Photo: Kurt Cotoaga

Palau | Photo: Rene Paulesich

10. Antarctica

For those who don’t mind getting a little bit chapped in the cheeks, Antarctica is surely a bucket-list worthy destination standing as one of the least travelled destinations on the planet. Though this South Pole continent may be too cold for most, including much plant life, Antarctica is a glacial wonder with endless white landscapes and icy peaks. The landmass here is accessible only in summer (between November to March), largely by boat from Argentina and Chile, luring thousands each year to its berg-like shores to view cracking glaciers, penguin colonies and several species of whale.

One and a half times bigger than the United States, Antarctica leaves a lot to be discovered. Of the most popular attractions is Elephant Island where Shackleton and his crew became stranded for 135 days during a famed 1915 expedition. A dormant volcanic island, today the spot is favoured for both its thermal hot springs and its 50,000 strong population of chinstrap penguins. To achieve sustainability, keep to guidelines throughout your stay, not eating, smoking or even peeing while ashore, sticking to five metres between you and the wildlife at all times. All chartered tours should also be vetted by the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators). Discover all the chilly joys of the continent with our list of top things to do in Antarctica.

Antarctica | Photo: Derek Oyen

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