From Florida to Fiji, the ecotourism industry is rapidly flourishing. At its heart, ecotourism not only preserves natural habitats and indigenous populations, it also experientially educates travelers. Traditional mass tourism has contributed to clear-cutting of rainforests, erosion of rural landscapes, ruin of beautiful coastlines, and destruction of unique wildlife habitats. Where commercial recreation seeks to attract tourists as a business model, ecotourism is traditionally managed by non-profit organizations that generate funds for ecological conservation purposes.
In this day and age, being green and eco-friendly is quickly becoming the norm. While the concept of ecotourism is great, over the years many travel companies have exploited “eco-”anything to attract sales. Because of this, the line between genuine eco-friendliness and greenwashing has blurred.
After extensive research, we’ve compiled our list of the top countries whose ecotourist efforts both respect indigenous environments and exceed travelers’ expectations. By encouraging travelers to experience nature and to discover and respect the local community’s cultural heritage, these countries hope to foster the realization that human beings do have a very real impact on our environment. This engenders, as a result, an individual and communal sense of environmental responsibility.
Adventurers, humanitarians, and tree huggers, you’ll need two things before we embark: an open mind and a curious heart.
Where the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea meet lies what National Geographic calls “one of of the most biologically intense places on Earth.” Costa Rica’s reputation as one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries is the primary driver of millions of travelers to its borders annually. Not only has this invited ecotourism, it has also united the government, the private sector and local communities.
While most other countries leverage industrialization as an engine of economic growth, Costa Rica manages responsible growth by protecting their environment and remarkable biodiversity. The country itself has 584 endangered plant and animal species, including manatees, turtles, primates, sea otters, toucans and jaguars. In order to combat plant and animal endangerment, Costa Rica has 24 national parks covering 21 percent of the entire country to protect these species.
The Corcovado National Park is the country’s crown jewel, with its pristine mountains and mystical “cloud forests” (as seen above). Whether snorkeling through the most the planet’s exotic tropical reefs or hiking beneath the lushest canopies in Central America, Costa Rica embodies every nature lovers’ paradise.
Kenya is one of the most sustainable and energy-efficient countries in the world. The country prides itself on leading Africa’s green revolution by way of its many wildlife-rich tribal lands. Kenya owes its status as an eco-destination to its unique animal life, which include a group of mammals known as the “Big Five”: elephants, rhinoceroses, buffaloes, lions and leopards. Moreover, the country is home to eleven percent of the world’s avian species.
With 54 national parks and reserves, the country has mastered the task of protecting natural resources and providing wildlife protection zones while simultaneously generating tourism income employment opportunities. Most of the rustic lodges available to tourists, such as the Koija community-owned Starbeds Lodge, are eco-friendly, they conserve water, and use sustainable energy sources.
The Ngwesi Group Ranch was built from local materials and is owned by the native Masai people. A large percentage of Ngwesi’s profits are reinvested in other community projects. Popular ecotourist activities include game-viewing safaris, birdwatching, and tagging whale sharks. The East Africa Whale Shark Trust organizes trips with tourists to dive and snorkel with scientists (February-April) in the Indian Ocean to observe the process of shark tagging and to raise awareness about endangered species.
America’s “Last Frontier” is also one of the rest of the world’s prime ecotourist destinations. Commonly referred to as “The Great Land,” Alaska’s snow-capped mountains and cascading rivers are among many factors in its recent ecotourism boom. Native Alaskans comprise 16 percent of the state’s population and make up more than 200 of its villages and communities. Because of this, the Alaskan government has made it a priority to incorporate the indigenous population into their cultural and ecotourist efforts.
The Alaskan State Council on the Arts created the Silver Hand Program, which provides free materials for marketing and business training, and resources to natives who create arts and crafts composed entirely of natural materials. Natives are also hired as guides for hiking and camping excursions in the Kenai Fjords National Park, Kodiak Island, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Galapagos Islands are the “eco-travel equivalent of making a pilgrimage to Mecca,” according to expert travel site ShermansTravel.com. Located 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador, Darwin’s discovery over 200 years ago of this island and its incredible biodiversity inspired his hot-button evolutionary theory.
Environmentalists and eco-conscious travelers have dedicated their lives to preserving the exquisite and cherished ecosystem found on the thirteen major islands. 97 percent of the islands are protected by the Galapagos Naitonal Park Service.
The United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization declares the Galapagos Islands “the most important and significant natural habitats for biological diversity.” Various ecotourist activities include swimming with sea lions and penguins in the vast azure-colored waters of the islands, world class underwater snorkeling experiencing the archipelago’s vast array of marine life, or identifying all thirteen of Darwin’s finches on a bird watching outing.
The soaring Himalayas, meaning “Abode of Snow,” are the world’s highest mountains. They are also the perfect eco-getaway for bold-hearted thrill seekers. The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, located between India and China, boasts the best access to Central Asia’s heavenly peaks. Its panoramas vary drastically, from subtropical valleys with banana trees to alpine forests with grazing yaks.
The most popular ecotourist attraction in this region is the Nepalese mountaineering expedition, which lasts anywhere from four to 25 days. Travelers can choose to hike to Mt. Everest’s base camp in Sagamartha National Park or trek up to the world’s highest Buddhist monastery.
The development of culture and ecotourism in the mountainous regions of central Asia and the Himalayas, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), establishes links and promotes cooperation between local Himalayan communities in order to involve local populations in the employment opportunities and income-generating activities that ecotourism brings.