Thinking About an Ethical Travel Destination Off the Beaten Path? Here Are the Top 10 Places to Visit Now

These developing nations don’t just have stunning natural beauty, they are champions of human rights, animal welfare, environmental conservation and renewable energy.

The late travel writer Bruce Chatwin, an inveterate wanderer, described life as “a journey through a wilderness.” With a skyrocketing human population currently consuming the equivalent of 1.6 planets worth of resources and expected to reach a mindboggling 9.6 billion by 2050, that wilderness is rapidly disappearing, especially in the industrialized world.

Canada has been the world's leader in forest loss since 2000, accounting for more than a fifth of global deforestation. In the United States, even the Grand Canyon isn't safe, with an Italian mega-developer seeking to build a mall and resort, and a U.S. District Court judge recently approving a uranium mine at the canyon's edge. Both threaten aquifers that feed the area's flora and fauna, some species of which are found nowhere else in the world.

But there are still many wild places where industry hasn't yet strangled nature, particularly across the developing world. In some of those places, people are stepping up to protect the rights of humans, wildlife and nature. Those places want you to visit. But ethical tourism isn't just about travel destinations that operate ethically, it's also about travelers who make ethical decisions. Increasingly, people are more interested in tourist destinations, products and services that protect the environment and respect local people and cultures. 

"The encouraging thing is that sustainable tourism is becoming more widely accepted," said Alex Blackburne, editor of Blue & Green Tomorrow, a magazine for ethical investment, in 2013. "So much so that UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, now believes it will go from 'alternative’ to ‘mainstream’ within a decade.” According to his company's Sustainable Tourism 2014 report, 43 percent of survey respondents said they would be considering the ethical or environmental footprint of their main holiday.

The ethics of air travel

One thing to consider is the ethical dilemma of air travel itself; for many of us, getting on a plane is likely our most serious ecological offense. “One roundtrip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person,” writes New York Times environment reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal. “The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10.”

Nearly a decade ago, New York Times writer John Tierney put the impact of flying in terms of recycling plastic bottles. “To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger roundtrip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles” in coach (or up to 100,000 for business or first-class seats, adjusting for the additional space pricier seats take up). So if you’ve permitted yourself the significant upsizing of your carbon footprint that air travel will bring, choose coach. Your impact will be less than half that of someone in business or first class.

United launched the Eco-Skies CarbonChoice program, which provides customers the opportunity to reduce their air travel carbon footprint by purchasing carbon offsets. Writing in the Guardian last year, Lucy Siegle says carbon offsetting is a way to “assuage your feeling of guilt”:

Just like recycling’s “Reduce, reuse then recycle”, there’s a hierarchy: “Don’t fly, fly with the most efficient airline (always in economy), then offset.” So check efficiency first, using Atmosfair’s airline ranking (Air France comes top). Then choose your offset scheme — it must be verifiable, traceable and permanent. Only look at schemes that conform to the Verified Carbon Standard or Clean Development Mechanism.

But changes in behavior must also come from within the airline industry, and not just by offering customers the ability to purchase carbon offsets. In November, Nsikan Akpna, a digital science producer for PBS NewsHour, published an article that rounded up “seven simple airplane fixes [that] could cut carbon emission in half at little to no cost,” such as reducing tarmac idling (which resulted in 200 million gallons of excess fuel burn in 2010 alone) or using electric motors instead of jet fuel to drive planes on the ground (which could save nearly 80,000 gallons of fuel per aircraft per year).

Lawmakers can do their part by mandating industry-wide changes. In 2013, climate change regulation in the European Union went into effect, putting a cap on carbon emissions for airplanes arriving or departing from EU airports, so those airlines now trade in pollution permits on a carbon market specifically set up for the aviation industry, which Siegle notes in the Guardian is “an incentive for airlines to invest in eco-friendly fleets.”

Ethical destinations

We can offset the ecological impact of our own air travel, but where to go? Ethical Traveler has you covered. The nonprofit advocacy group, a project of the Berkeley-based Earth Island Institute, recently released its annual list of the 10 Best Ethical Destinations for 2016. By analyzing nations based on several criteria, including performance in the areas of human rights, social welfare, animal welfare and environmental protection, the group has determined the 10 most forward-looking countries across the developing world right now. 

Ethical Traveler says visiting these countries is a way to "reward the good guys — and encourage humane practices worldwide.” So book your (carbon-offsetted, economy-class) tickets and pack your (sustainably sourced, locally made, eco-friendly) bags: Here are the Top 10 Most Ethical Travel Destinations for 2016.

1. Cabo Verde*

Aldeia Manga is located on the volcanic island of Santo Antão, nestled in the middle of the Paúl-valley, Cabo Verde. (Julien Lagarde/Flickr CC)

Cabo Verde is on a roll, having been selected for Ethical Traveler’s Top 10 list last year. Spanning an archipelago of 10 volcanic islands in the central Atlantic Ocean about 350 miles off the coast of Western Africa, Cabo Verde is one of the most developed and democratic countries in Africa. A former Portuguese colony, the republic retains close ties to Europe: In 2014, the European Commission announced €55 million ($61 million) in support through the European Development Fund to help the nation’s efforts to combat poverty and develop sustainable, inclusive growth and responsible governance. By 2020, the government aims to draw 50 percent of all the country's energy from renewable sources.

Cabo Verde is also a leader in human rights. In its yearly report on civil and political rights, Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, granted a perfect score to the nation, which celebrated its third annual gay pride week last year. It also continues to move ahead in terms of gender equality, with an increasing number of women holding leadership positions. In addition, it boasts the second best educational system in Africa, after South Africa, with primary school education mandatory and free for children between the ages of 6 and 14 years. A famous surfing destination, Cabo Verde is also known for wave sailing and kiteboarding.

2. Dominica*

Marigot is the largest settlement of Saint Andrew, one of Dominica’s 10 administrative parishes. (image: Ken Bosma/Flickr CC)

Birders have long had a good reason to visit Dominica: The endangered Sisserou parrot, which is found only on this 290-square-mile island nation in the Caribbean. But these days, animal lovers — and ethical travelers — have many other reasons to go. Ethical Traveler points out that Dominica is “one of the few Caribbean nations to consistently stand against the whaling industry [and] has upped its efforts to protect those magnificent creatures by creating a nationwide, compulsory primary school curriculum aimed at teaching students to respect and care for whales, along with other marine life living in their coastal waters.”

In addition, the "Nature Isle of the Caribbean," as it is known, has been a regional leader in the development of geothermal electricity, with a goal to source its electricity fully from renewable energy. The island’s progress on this front has been so impressive it expects to become a net exporter of clean energy, eventually supplying its Caribbean neighbors. Education is also key in Dominica, which has a literacy rates of 94 percent, well above the global average of 84 percent.

Travelers to Dominica can rest assured that any health emergencies will be well managed, as the nation launched a hospital partnership with its neighbors to increase the quality of emergency care. “Access to healthcare is always an issue in countries with few resources,” notes Ethical Traveler, but Dominica offers “widespread, well-organized and free healthcare across the island.” Last year, the island was certified free of measles, mumps and rubella. 

Make sure you bring your dancing shoes: Dominica is known for its rich history of music, a fusion of Haitian, African, Afro-Cuban and European traditions.

3. Grenada

St. George’s, the scenic capital of Grenada, is surrounded by a hillside of an old volcano crater and is on a horseshoe-shaped harbor. (image: Katchooo/Flickr CC)

Grenada made this year’s list in part due to its strong action on climate change and its efforts to protect and restore its coral reefs by constructing coral nurseries. Ethical Traveler says that while the Caribbean island nation didn’t make the 2015 list “due to its failure to respect or guarantee LGBT rights, it has made cautious progress on this front,” securing the second-highest score on Freedom House's annual report on civil and political rights. The issue of LGBT discrimination is being considered as part of the ongoing constitutional reform process, but Ethical Traveler notes that “the general view, however, is that the Constitution should not be amended to give protection to LGBT persons,” adding that its 2017 list “will take into account whether or not Grenada has made positive headway.”

Known for its many idyllic beaches—Grand Anse Beach on St. George's is considered to be one of world’s best beaches—Grenada has a growing ecotourism industry that recognizes the connection between economic development and environmental sustainability. The Grenada Chocolate Company is a pioneer in organic cocoa cultivation. In addition to using solar energy to power its “tree-to-bar” factory, the company uses carbon-neutral, wind-powered Fair Transport to get its product to store shelves around the world and has made a commitment to empower cocoa farmers and their families to earn a living wage.

4. Micronesia (Federated States)

Islanders performing a welcome ceremony on Ulithi atoll (image: Nelson Hinds/Wikipedia)

This is the first year that the Federated States of Micronesia have made Ethical Traveler’s list. An independent sovereign island nation, FS Micronesia is a United States associated state consisting of four states—Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae—spread across the Western Pacific Ocean.

For those looking for the road less traveled, FS Micronesia could be the spot, as it is quite remote: about 1,800 miles north of Australia and nearly 2,500 southwest of Hawaii. That remoteness, along with a lack of adequate infrastructure and facilities, has hindered the development of tourism, but the potential is there. Micronesia could use the economic boost tourism brings, helping it realize its goal of increasing the share of renewable energy to at least 30 percent by 2020.

Reducing fossil fuel use will also help maintain and conserve the nation’s pristine natural beauty, something Micronesia has been keen on protecting. In 2014, the island of Kosrae announced the first conservation easement outside of the Americas. A legal tool that removes all development rights, the easement can easily be modeled by other island nations and will permanently protect a portion of a rare freshwater swamp forest in the Yela Valley that contains the world's largest stand of ka trees, a highly valued endemic tree used for timber, medicine and edible nuts.

5. Mongolia

Bactrian camels by the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els, Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, Ömnögovi Province, Mongolia (image: Doron/Wikipedia)

Along with Uruguay and Cabo Verde, Mongolia has made the most progress in the Environmental Performance Index ranking over the last year. Maintained by NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center and hosted by Columbia University, the EPI uses indicators that focus on protecting ecosystems and human health. One key indicator is the use and availability of solar energy. According to Ethical Traveler, “Currently 500,000 people, including 70 percent of Mongolia’s herders, have modern electricity generated through solar power.”

Spanning over 600,000 square miles, the landlocked East Asian state, known as the "Land of the Eternal Blue Sky," is the 19th largest country in the world. The nation has set aside and protected almost 15 percent of its land — about 90,000 square miles —  including Mongol Daguur, a steppe and wetland region listed as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar Site of International Importance, and Khustain Nuruu National Park, home to several endangered and vulnerable species, including the Tarragon marmot and the great bustard.

But the mining industry, which accounts for more than a fifth of the country’s GDP, continues to threaten these sensitive ecological hotspots, as the protection laws are not properly enforced. “Fortunately, there is growing awareness in Mongolia about mining’s negative impact on the environment,” notes Ethical Traveler. “Mongolia’s mining activities and their impact will be monitored this year, and will play an important role in determining if Mongolia will keep its spot in 2017."

Of all the nations on the list, says Ethical Traveler, Mongolia faces “perhaps the most difficult animal welfare struggle,” as a softening of trade with China has led to an increased demand in animal parts that fuel traditional Chinese medicine. “Fortunately, both the UK government and the Zoological Society of London are helping to fund partnership projects in Mongolia aimed at enforcing the law and stemming the wildlife trade.”

6. Panama

A three-toed sloth, the slowest mammal on Earth, enjoys the peace of the relatively undisturbed rainforest adjacent to the town of Gamboa in Panama, which has the most wildlife diversity in Central America. (image: Martha de Jong-Lantink/Flickr CC)

This is the first year Panama has made the list, securing the second-highest environmental protection score among the Top 10 ethical nations after Tonga. Along with Mongolia, Panama has the lowest unemployment rate of the nations on the list. Both countries have reported less than 5 percent of the workforce unemployed. Importantly, the Central American nation has ratified all six key international conventions concerning child labor.

Of the nations on the list, Panama also boasts the highest life expectancy at birth, with Panamanians having an average life expectancy of 79 years, about as long as Americans and Europeans. Panama also ranks No. 7 on the Happy Planet Index, which measures “perceived well-being, life expectancy and ecological footprint.”

While almost 40 percent of Panama is still covered in woodland, deforestation remains a continuing threat. The nation has responded with intensive reforestation projects that incentivize local farmers to make sure the tropical ecosystems under their management are sustainable. 

Panama has made impressive strides in animal rights. A new national animal welfare law bans dogfighting, greyhound racing, hare coursing and bullfighting, and regulates the use of performing animals in circuses.

7. Samoa*

Sopo'aga Falls, Samoa (image: NeilsPhotography/Flickr CC)

A sovereign state in Polynesia encompassing the western part of the Samoan Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, Samoa also made the 2015 list. The nation continues to push for strong action on climate change. Last year, Samoa launched new solar plants to achieve its goal of being 100 percent powered by sustainable energy by 2017.

Samoa is home to a number of endangered species, such as the critically endangered Samoan woodhen, an endemic flightless rail that may actually be extinct due to predation by introduced species such as rats and feral cats, as well as logging. Also endemic to Samoa is the endangered mao, a passerine bird known for its loud whistling and mewing calls. As of 2010, protected areas in the country cover 5 percent of the land, and the government has a goal to increase that number to 15 percent.

Samoa has been one of the worst offenders on the list in terms of domestic violence, but Ethical Traveler notes that the nation has “taken a step forward with a landmark ‘State of Human Rights’ report that aims at counteracting the widespread acceptance of domestic violence as a fact of life and increasing protections for women, people with disabilities and prisoners.” The report is the first of its kind in the country and also highlights the need for better safeguards for children.

8. Tonga*

A humpback whale swims off the coast of Pangai, Ha'apai, Tonga. Marine mammals like whales and dolphins as well as thousands of fish species call the waters surrounding Tonga home. (credit: Glen Edney/Flickr CC)

Renowned for its golden sand beaches and sculpted granite outcrops, Tonga scored highest in environmental protection among the nations on the list. In 2014, the nation designated Fafa Marine Reserve, which bans all fishing activities within the reef on Fafa Island, just north of the capital Nuku’alofa, “as a result of growing concerns of overfishing and destructive fishing practices.” That's good news for the 1,200 marine species who live in and around Tonga’s reefs.

The Polynesian archipelago has also committed to an ambitious goal of generating 50 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2020. Solar arrays are currently being constructed on nine of the nation’s outlying islands. Freedom House gave the state the second highest score in its annual civil and political rights report. Education is also a priority, with a literacy rate an impressive 99 percent.

But Tonga isn’t fully living up to its nickname, the Friendly Islands. As Ethical Traveler notes, it almost didn’t make the list this year due to the dubious distinction of being only one of seven countries in the world that has not ratified the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. “This stance underscores troubling cultural beliefs regarding the status of women in society,” says Ethical Traveler, “and we ask them to make significant improvements in the coming year.” A welcome sign that the nation is progressing in the right direction came last year when Tonga hosted its first Pacific Human Rights on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identification Conference.

9. Tuvalu

A wharf and beach at Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu. (image: mrlins/Wikipedia)

Comprised of three reef islands and six true atolls spread across 500,000 square miles west of the International Date Line in the South Pacific Ocean, Tuvalu has almost become synonymous with the rising sea level caused by climate change. The nation’s islands are so low-lying it is feared they will one day become submerged as the oceans rise. Just to be safe, plan to visit Tuvalu soon.

In 2012, the nation developed a National Water Resources Policy to improve access to safe drinking water and sanitation. In addition, the government has partnered with the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission to implement composting toilets and to improve the treatment of sewage sludge from septic tanks. To help combat overfishing due to a rising population, the government created the Funafuti Conservation Area to maintain sustainable fish stocks in the Funafuti lagoon.

On human rights, the nation has made excellent strides. In 2014, Tuvalu’s parliament unanimously passed the Family Protection and Domestic Violence Bill that criminalized all forms of domestic violence. Freedom House gave it the second highest score on its annual report on civil and political rights. The nation is also working to extend Internet access, which will have a powerful effect on education.

10. Uruguay*

Maldonado Bay, Uruguay (image: ciiiiro/Wikipedia)

Along with Cabo Verde and Mongolia, Uruguay has made the most progress in the EPI ranking over the last year. Of all the nations on the list, Uruguay is the top green energy performer. The South American country, home to 3.3 million people, supplied 90 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2015, with a goal of powering all public transport with electric energy. Also in the works is the world’s first fully sustainable airport.

Among all the top 10 ethical destinations, Uruguay also scored highest on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, an indicator of social welfare that measures life expectancy, average time spent in school and standard of living based on the average gross national income.

And the superlatives don’t stop there. In Latin America, Uruguay is ranked first in democracy, peace, lack of corruption, quality of living and e-government, and first in South America in press freedom, size of the middle class and prosperity. So it should come as little surprise that the nation contributes more troops to UN peacekeeping missions than any other country. The UN lists Uruguay as a “high-income” country — the only one in Latin America. Uruguay was also one of the first countries to sign the new Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons.

Education is also a key area. According to Ethical Traveler, “Uruguay’s new administration is still focused on education, with plans to increase college scholarships, improve high-school dropout rates and continue the campaign to provide laptop computers to teachers and students—a plan that could propel Uruguay to the continent’s leadership position on education.”

Uruguay maintains a leadership position on marijuana legalization, having become, in 2013, the first country in the world to legalize pot. “Private citizens are allowed to cultivate up to six plants in their houses and can form private grow clubs that produce significantly more,” writes Tom McKay for Mic.com. Former Uruguayan president José Mujica is credited not only as being the law’s architect, but with advancing the debate over drug legalization across Latin America.

“The idea is to take away the market from drug traffickers,” said Mujica in 2012, shortly after submitting a bill to congress that was called “the boldest marijuana legalization proposal anywhere in the world.” The law treats cannabis use much like alcohol consumption, regulating the nation’s $40-million-a-year marijuana industry, decriminalizing use and giving treatment options to the most serious abusers. Uruguay today has one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America. 

Ethical travel: changing hearts and minds

Bruce Chatwin also said that “travel doesn’t merely broaden the mind — it makes the mind.” As Ethical Traveler puts it, “The foundation of ethical travel is mindful travel.” Could visiting locales around the world that place a high value on ethics, human rights, animal welfare and sustainability help travelers change their own minds about such things back home? There’s only way to find out. Bon voyage.

* Also appeared on Ethical Traveler’s 2015 list.