It’s often argued that flying around the world on giant, carbon-spewing aircraft is in no way green. But, the fact is, responsible ecotourism can improve the economic conditions of rural populations and financially support conservation efforts. It also educates travelers about environmental issues, building environmental and cultural awareness and respect. Here are 15 of the world’s hottest eco travel destinations that provide a balance of breathtaking scenery, incredible biodiversity and a strong commitment to stewardship of the land, wildlife and community.
Daintree Rainforest, Australia
(images via: Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa)
The ecotourism movement is flourishing in Australia, and there are plenty of places to enjoy an ecologically responsible adventure. For those who’d like to kick back and relax a little instead of making a 6-hour trek up a mountain or huddling in a cave with glowing worms, a trip to the Daintree rainforest on Queenland’s north coast is in order. It’s the oldest continually surviving rainforest in the world, with an intricate ecosystem that supports species found nowhere else on the planet. The Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa is the area’s crown jewel of accommodations, with 15 rustic cabins joined by linked walkways on stilts, built to minimize disturbance of rainforest creatures on the forest floor as much as possible.
(image via: Lapa Rios)
This beautiful South American country has a virtual buffet of eco-friendly destinations including 59 hotels that have been awarded the official government certificate for earth-friendly practices. Costa Rica is one of the most sought-after eco-travel destinations, with hundreds of companies specializing in sustainable services. One particularly notable place to say is Lapa Rios Rainforest Ecolodge, which is nestled in the hills and surrounded by tropical rainforest, with a view of the ocean. Lapa Rios seeks to protect and preserve 1000 acres of primary and secondary rainforest in the Lapa Rios private nature reserve, while supporting their community and educating guests about conservation and preservation.
Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia
(image via: Klemtu Tourism)
British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest is a global ecological treasure, and it’s finally being treated as such after a long battle to prevent it from falling prey to industrial logging. Home to rare and exotic species like the white Kermode ‘spirit’ bear and the marbled murrelet, this coastal forest extends 250 miles from Bute Inlet on the south coast to the Alaskan border. It’s known for its stunning 1,000 year old western red cedars and trees as tall as skyscrapers. Ecotourists enjoy the rugged beauty of the area on small-boat and kayak tours, which are among very few ways that the public can gain access.
(image via: Flickr user Jenny Huang)
New Zealand is said to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, and ecotourists are drawn to the isolated island in droves. It was voted the best destination in this year’s Responsible Tourism Awards, chosen for its environmentally and culturally sensitive tourism strategies and practices. New Zealand works with the private sector, communities and local government to ensure that tourism benefits the people and the environment. For a comprehensive directory of ecotourism adventures, organic restaurants, sustainable accommodations and other businesses that cater to eco tourists, see Organic Explorer.
The Galapagos Islands
(image via: Flickr user lowjumpingfrog)
If you don’t know how to travel without leaving a footprint behind, the Galapagos Islands are not for you. When you visit, an accredited park ranger is with you at every moment, ensuring that you leave no trace as you enjoy the natural beauty of the islands and the threatened wildlife that live there. Conservation challenges are great in the Galapagos, where nonnative species introduced by humans have done serious damage to the local ecosystem. But, that doesn’t mean you should stay away. Ecotourism remains the only way to support the Galapagos National Park, and is beneficial as long as visitors act responsibly.
Madidi National Park in Bolivia
(image via: National Geographic)
The diverse landscape of Bolivia offers a variety of different ecosystems to explore, from the Altiplano – a high mountain plateau where Andean civilization first flourished – to dense Amazonian rainforests like the jungles of Madidi National Park. The latter is a reserve that’s one of the world’s top conservation priorities, where an ecotourism business owned and run by local residents generates profits that help preserve the natural beauty and ecology of the land. The Chalalan Ecolodge is a village of bamboo-sided, thatched-roof houses that blend into the environment, where visitors enjoy native dishes and a variety of rainforest adventures. Visiting the Chalalan Ecolodge helps ensure the future of the Madidi National Park for generations to come.
Desert Rhino Camp, Namibia
(image via: Wilderness Safaris)
Namibia may not have been on many people’s radar for eco-travel in the past, but it’s one of the top up-and-coming ecotourism destinations. It’s a stark land of minimalist beauty with seemingly neverending barren deserts and is the second most sparsely populated country in the world. The popular Desert Rhino Camp, situated in the 1-million-acre private Palmwag Reserve, is a joint venture between Wilderness Safaris and “Save the Rhino Trust”, a non-profit organization that has helped rare black rhino in the area flourish in numbers. Guests enjoy rhino tracking on foot or by vehicle, full-day outings with a picnic lunch, night nature drives and simple yet surprisingly sophisticated accommodations.
Fjords of Norway
(image via: VisitNorway.com)
Norway has been extremely careful to protect and preserve its unique coastline and towering fjords. The country is a leader in environmental policy, and they’ve carefully crafted a brand of ecotourism that ensures that the pristine beauty of the area will remain unspoiled. Take a scenic boat ride, hike, ride a bicycle over the rugged terrain or visit the small fishing villages that dot the countryside. If you visit between November and February you may be able to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, also known as aurora borealis– shimmering sheets of light chasing across the night sky – a phenomena only visible in the sky from the Northern Hemisphere.
(image via: Trek Earth)
Kerala, India, known as ‘God’s Own Country’, is one of the most sought-after destinations in Asia, and boasts some of the richest biodiversity in the world. Ecotourism is thriving in Kerala, which is home to nearly a quarter of the nation’s 10,000 plant species. Once threatened by excessive desforestation, Kerala is now protected and relies on responsible tourism to preserve its remarkable variety of wildlife and the traditional lifestyle of the tribe residing in the region. Within the Lake Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, animals like elephants, bison and wild boar roam freely. Get more information from India’s first planned ecotourism development, Thenmala.
Luang Prabang, Laos
(image via: Uncornered Market)
The main attraction in the subtropical Laos region of Luang Prabang is the UNESCO World Heritage Town, known for its Buddhist temples and French colonial architecture. Luang Prabang began developing its ecotourism industry in 2003 in the hopes of drawing enough tourists to the area to help support and maintain it. Green accommodations like the Kamu Eco Lodge offer visitors a chance to try out local activities like fishing, rice planting and harvesting, archery and gold panning. Notable natural sites include the Kuang Si falls and the Pak Ou Caves.
Loango National Park, Gabon
(image via: National Geographic)
The West African country of Gabon is another mostly unspoiled area of Africa, with 80% tree cover and 11,000 square miles of national parks. Among them is Loango National Park, where large mammals like elephants, gorillas, hippopotamus and forest buffalo roam freely through the lagoons. In fact, it’s not unusual to see hippos venture out into the Atlantic Ocean for a swim, and humpback whales are also plentiful. Locals are trained as eco-guides for the park, gathering scientific data and supporting research teams as well as leading tourists. Park officials hope that publicity from the 2008 season of reality television series Survivor, which was set in Gabon, will help bring tourists to the region so the park will continue to be protected from logging.
(image via: Al Maha Resort)
Dubai isn’t exactly known for restraint, and its ecotourism industry is no different. Visitors to its top eco resorts call the accommodations ‘ridiculously luxurious’, stocked with Bulgari soaps and crystal decanters full of free sherry. But, the ecotourism industry in Dubai is helping to protect the desert habitat and the species that live in it, which include a herd of exotic Arabian oryx, a large white antelope that was once near extinction. Hardy hikers can take the guided trek into the rugged Wadi Bih canyon and the peaks of Hajjars, or go on overnight hikes through the mountains.
Madre de Dios, Peru
(image via: Flickr user Dom Cram)
Though Peru’s biggest tourist attraction is the awe-inspiring ruins of Machu Picchu, it’s tourism in the the Madre de Dios region that may have the potential to save the country’s rainforests. By promoting ecotourism to the area, rainforest conservation groups hope to create an economy that depends upon the rainforest being healthy and intact. Ecotourism operations abound, with more than 70 eco-lodges that cater to tourists who want to step lightly while experiencing the natural beauty up close. The biggest tourism operator in the region, Rainforest Expeditions, is owned by the community of Infierno, which is mostly made up of indigenous peoples.
(image via: Flickr user alight)
Despite a war, political crises and flare-ups of violence, Lebanon’s fledgling ecotourism business lives on. Areas formerly ravaged by hunters are now protected, harboring birds, wildcats, river otters and other wildlife. Mediterranean beaches, mountains, forests, Roman ruins and gorges are all within a few hours’ drive or walk, and the Lebanon Mountain Trail project connects 75 villages. Classified among the 25 top countries in terms of biodiversity, Lebanon is home to 40 varieties of wild orchids, among other exotic treasures.
(image via: Wikimedia Commons)
Kenya may be best known for its lion and elephant-watching safaris, but savannas aren’t all this country has to offer. Home to some 50 national parks, Kenya is also full of virgin rainforests, mountains, lakes and pristine white sand beaches. Kenya has a carefully managed tourism organization called Ecotourism Kenya that promotes sustainable tourism practices, working to ensure the preservation of the environment and the welfare of local populations. Ecotourism Kenya gives ‘eco-ratings’ to businesses in the industry, encouraging facilities to be as environmentally and socially conscious as possible.