Ecotourism started modestly about a decade ago, but it has gained global momentum and popularity over the past few years. It supports opportunities that protect flora, fauna, historical sites and the locals’ way of life, like building non-invasive paths, limiting the number of visitors, restricting motor vehicle access, and harnessing renewable energy.
As more destinations around the world act to transition to sustainable tourism, travelers are taking notice and increasingly seeking ways to reduce their footprint while they travel, whether that’s staying in an eco-friendly resort or joining tours led by locals instead of international corporations. If that sounds like you, read on for a few of our favorite top ecotourism destinations in 2020.
These islands weren’t always a model of sustainable tourism. It was just over a decade ago that the Galapagos were at risk of overpopulation and mismanaged tourism. UNESCO put the islands on its “in danger” list in 2007, which sparked changed.
Now, this archipelago has transformed into one of the most environmentally conscious places to vacation. There are limits to the number of travelers who can visit protected areas, and even a visitation fee is imposed to aid in preservation efforts.
The Galapagos Islands’ endemic fauna and flora aren’t found anywhere else in the world, making it a true once-in-a-lifetime ecotourism destination. In the protected waters surrounding the islands, you’ll get to swim with sharks, sea turtles, sea lions and more, while knowing that your park fees are going back into the islands to preserve their beauty and fund research.
You can see how much a country values ecotourism when it dedicates a quarter of its land to parks, reserves, and conservation areas. When you think about it, it would be like if the whole East Coast of America was a National Park!
Most of these lands were designated in the 1970s, setting the stage for businesses to thrive in an environment that supports and embraces preservation, while helping visitors travel in a sustainable way. Experience the beauty of Costa Rica’s thriving rainforest during a canopy walk. You’ll spot exotic flora and fauna without bothering any of the living creatures that surround you.
Locals live by the idea of malama aina or caring for the land so that it nurtures you. As a top ecotourism destination, in Hawaii, you can join a farm tour to see how locals work the land and cultivate important crops like coffee and taro. There are also tours that allow visitors to plant trees to give back to the land and restore native flora.
There are many eco-friendly lodging options, some of which run on solar power and pump water from a local well. Oahu is home to Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, which facilitates an on-site rehabilitation program for sea turtles in partnership with Sea Life Park.
Without sustainable travel, Colombia’s Lost City wouldn’t have survived since it was built around 800 AD. There isn’t an airport nearby. There aren’t any roads leading there. No train tracks to shuttle visitors. The only way to access these jungle-buried ruins is through a five-day hike.
Aside from the Lost City, Colombia is well-known for its ecotourism attractions, like nature reserves, beautiful beaches, and the Amazon region. Bogota even built an internationally applauded bike path system throughout the city and closes roads to cars every Sunday.
There are also plenty of eco-friendly trekking and camping tours, as well as eco-accommodations that utilize sustainable resources, making this one of the best ecotourism destinations to visit in 2020.
Panama is too often overlooked by US travelers in favor of its alluring neighbor to the north, Costa Rica. However, since 2015, the country has been making strides to change that with a focus on becoming a sustainable ecotourism destination through the Green Tourism Initiative. This program has an emphasis on adventure-focused travelers, providing information about protected wildlife areas and trails. Whether you choose to hike or glide over the rainforest canopy on a zipline, the views across Panama are amazing.
When choosing accommodations, look for options that run off solar power and rely completely on local products and services. In some cases, these accommodations also help support one of the seven indigenous tribes, which is a way for you to contribute directly to locals and help them maintain their homeland.
In Micronesia, this 500-island archipelago requires its visitors to sign a pledge upon arrival—in their passport. This stamped pledge declares, in part: “Children of Palau, I take this pledge, as your guest, to preserve and protect your beautiful and unique island home.”
By having visitors sign this pledge, it empowers them to be good environmental stewards during their time there.
Hundreds of miles of coral reef around the islands are deemed to be a no-fishing zone to help protect the rich biodiversity of the archipelago’s surrounding waters. There’s even a designated shark sanctuary, the first of its kind, that protects its waters from shark fishing.
Having a government interested in supporting eco-friendly visitors is an important step to building a vibrant ecotourism industry. One of the best examples of this in action is in the small Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. Tucked between India and China, high in the Himalayan Mountains, the country largely isolated itself for centuries, preferring to have closed borders and not even allow tourists to visit.
This all changed in 1974 when the government of Bhutan opened its borders to visitors. That first year, only 287 people visited. But in 2018, that number skyrocketed to nearly 275,000. Even so, the country has been firmly fixed on keeping the number of tourists at a sustainable level, and visitors are restricted to traveling on a prepaid, guided tour. This ensures that nearly all the profits go back to this serene and beautiful mountain kingdom.
With an emphasis on history and nature, visitors get an opportunity to see sacred Buddhist sites and wildlife parks that are filled with unique species, like the Himalayan black bear, takin, red panda and Tibetan wolf.
Note that you will need to first fly into a major hub city in Asia, such as Bangkok, and then transfer to a flight on either Drukair or Bhutan Airlines to fly into the country.
Morocco is well-known for its maze-like medinas and Marrakech’s bustling night market, Jemaa el-Fnaa. Yet, a few hours eastward are the tranquil Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert. Here, you can experience one of the best ecotourism destinations, with its low light pollution and increased opportunities to interact with locals who still hold onto traditions from centuries ago.
Most of the local tour guides are Berbers, an indigenous, nomadic ethnic group from North and West Africa. By joining these local tours, where you can go on a camel trek or camp overnight in the desert, you ensure that money goes back to the native communities. Besides, who doesn’t want a picture on a camel in the Sahara?
If you choose to camp, most of the facilities enforce strict policies for the protection of the environment, so you can enjoy your time under the stars knowing that all you’ll take home are photos, while leaving no footprints behind!
Can’t wait to land in these eight stunning ecotourism destinations? Start your flight search here. 👇