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Our Top 6 Sustainable Tourism Destinations You Should Visit

As the world returns to ‘normal’ post-pandemic life, travel will remain tricky, but this isn’t stopping a surge of people wanting to get out. The World Travel & Tourism Council, in fact, projects 28.4% growth in the travel sector, reaching nearly $2 trillion, exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 6.2%.

This travel, however, features a number of unintended environmental and cultural consequences — the burning of fossil fuel and the destruction of natural flora and fauna among them. How then, can would-be travelers get out and see the world without destroying it? Well, from rewilding the Scottish highlands to contributing community service for free trips to Oahu, this guide will round up six to eight ways to travel sustainably around the world.

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Costa Rica

Costa Rican sunset over the Caribbean Sea.

Costa Rica is the place for sustainable travel. Not only does the Central American country boast an incredible 26 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas, 11 forest reserves, and 8 biological reserves, Costa Rica was named the second most sustainable country in the world by the World Energy Council.

The tiny nation is a parable of environmental responsibility with 99 of its energy deriving from renewable sources. Costa Rica is also well on its way to being carbon neutral, a goal set in 2006, and over 25% of the country’s 19,730 square miles is protected from future development, which gives tourists plenty of ground to explore.

With so many different things to do, it can be difficult to narrow them down. There are several governmental and private organizations like Sustainable Nosara, which you can lend a hand in its sustainable projects as well as role model programs and communities promoting and enforcing environmentally friendly tourism in small Costa Rican villas.

If it’s a more far-flung adventure you’re after, be sure to check out the Punta Mona Center For Regenerative Design and Botanical Studies on the Caribbean coast. Visitors here can spend time in permaculture workshops, medicinal plant courses, and volunteer programs in an off-the-grid alliance that’s demonstrating how to better care for our planet.

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The Scottish Highlands

Scotland's Old Man of Storr seen in the morning.
Moyan Brenn/Flickr

Ready to get truly wild? Check out dozens of tours with Wilderness Scotland. Tours include biking, hiking, and boating far-flung Scottish high country and islands. In concert with 438 additional organizations on Tourism Takes an Emergency, Wilderness Scotland is committed to true 22nd-century travel: Providing access to eco-friendly accommodation providers who are working together to conserve and to rewild tens of thousands of acres of the Scottish Highlands while fueling tourism critical to economic sustainability in the region.

Become a part of the positive change and traverse mile after mile of the stunning, untouched green, mountainous terrain that encompasses northwest Scotland. Find warmth at fire-warmed Victorian lodges featuring hearty dinners and Scotch whiskey. Look out from mountaintops to lochs, pass herds of the classic Highland Cow on the hunt for the enigmatic Scottish Wildcat on the ground and the majestic Golden Eagle in the air. Sail amidst sparsely populated Scottish isles, searching for basking sharks, whales, and dolphins as you traverse medieval and even Neolithic ruins on land.

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Baobab trees in Madagascar.
Steve Evans/Flickr

Madagascar is very much a tale with two sides. On one, lush rainforests teeming with colorful birds, playful ring-tailed lemurs, ambling chameleons, and other wildlife. On the other: Desolate stretches where decades of uncontrolled logging led to a loss of nearly 50% of Madagascar’s rainforest between 1950 and 2000. This deforestation led to a decrease in biodiversity, leaving several lemur and other native flora and fauna endangered or extinct.

How can you help? In Madagascar, ecotourism can be a boon for tourists, Malagasy people, and Madagascar’s wildlife. Simply swing over to the Indian Ocean and pull into the world’s second-largest island country. Over the last two decades, the Malagasy government established a network of national parks, where hunting, logging, and even visiting are strictly controlled (most tourists are only allowed to visit with a guide).

Madagascar is one of the world’s financially poorest countries. By boosting the country’s economy, ecotourism can help Malagasy people thrive in coexistence with nature, support conservation efforts, and provide financial benefits to local communities.

Wander over to Wild Planet Adventures, for options to check out indri, safaka, and ring-tailed lemurs, assorted chameleons, giant moths, and even more giant humpback whales. The ocean surrounds this teeming island after all.

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Oahu, Hawai’i

Kaneohe Bay with Kualoa Ridge in background.
Anthony Quintano/Wikimedia Commons

Looking for a different way to travel sustainably? How about shaking a lei while lending a hand to Hawaiian nonprofits? Why not give a bit of your time to Oahu and possibly get airfare along the way?

Funded by a conglomerate of local businesses and organizations, Movers and Shakas in Oahu is offering to pay the airfare of anyone willing to volunteer work with a local Oahu nonprofit. Fifty fellows are selected to participate in a month-long program centered on cultural education and community contributions through group volunteer projects. Additional participant perks for participants include discounted hotel stays and networking opportunities.

Cohort Two just finished up in February and if you want to be part of the third group, you’d better keep an eye out on the Movers and Shakas newsletter because the program is very much in demand. The first recipients of the flight funds were selected after 90,000 applications for 50 spots.

Of course, you can always just sign up for any number of municipal, agricultural, and natural conservation efforts across the island.

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A Bhutan monastery set in the mountains.
Han Minh Chu/Wikimedia Commons.

“Happiness is a place,” is the slogan of one of the Earth’s last remaining Buddhist kingdoms.  One of the 23 founding signatories of the Future of Tourism, a guiding set of principles to keep tourism thriving while remaining sustainable.

As the world’s largest employer, travel helps to redistribute wealth, reduce poverty, and provide social mobility while protecting natural and cultural heritage. Bhutan fits this light-touch, high-value tourism to a tee.

The world’s only carbon-negative country carefully regulates visitors to preserve its forests, sprawling glacial valleys, and ancient Eastern culture. Bhutan takes a targeted approach to visitors, keeping entrants low while requiring a high contribution in its minimum daily package rate. Once entering, however, foreign guests are welcomed into its inclusivity with compassion and few barriers to connection with the Bhutanese way of living. Amid emerald-green forests spread below the towering Himalayas, visitors are thrown back into another epoch with relaxing in sustainable high-end hotels like Gangtey Lodge, Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary, and Six Senses. And for the nation’s premier bespoke experiences, make sure to check out MyBhutan.

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Columbia River Gorge

A Columbia River Gorge lookout point.
Hjawale/Wikimedia Commons

From a far-flung magical mountain valley to a much more accessible North American gorge, get ready for wind and wine in the Columbia River Gorge.

The last 309 miles of North America’s longest river to the Pacific Ocean defines the Oregon-Washington state border, constituting the largest national scenic area in the United States. Comprising 293,000 acres of public and private lands, the Columbia River Gorge attracts more than two million annual visitors. They come for some of the world’s finest pinot noir, kite-surfing, and sightseeing with waterfalls galore and towering Mt. Hood standing along the route.

To help reduce the impact of tourism on the local environment and endemic living, the Columbia Gorge Tourism Alliance has molded a model for best practices in sustainable tourism along these mighty waters. This includes the visitor education program Ready, Set, Gorge, the East Gorge Food Trail, a network of farms, historic hotels, wineries, and other homegrown experiences that all benefit and feed into keeping the gorge healthy and flourishing.

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