Ethical Travel: Voting With Our Wings
The World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations
Cuban man playing guitar in Cuba.
“Do not tell me how educated you are. Tell me how much you have traveled.”
These words, spoken by Muhammad, seem as apt today as they must have 14 centuries ago. As we explore our home planet with greater ease, but at an ever-greater remove—on our laptops, tablets and smartphones—let’s not forget the transformative potential of actual, physical travel. There’s still nothing like arriving in a strange land, and embarking on a personal voyage of discovery
Travel has become the world’s largest industry, with a trillion-dollar annual economy. This means that travelers have real power. Where we choose to put our footprints has measurable economic and political significance. By “voting with our wings”—choosing our destinations well, and remembering our roles as citizen diplomats—we can create international goodwill, and help change the world for the better.
Every year, Ethical Traveler (an all-volunteer, non-profit project of the Earth Island Institute) reviews the policies and practices of scores of nations in the developing world. We then select the ten that are doing the most impressive job in three categories—promoting human rights, preserving the environment and supporting social welfare—all while sustaining a lively, community-based tourism industry. By visiting these winning countries, we use our economic leverage as travelers to support best practices.
The countries on the list for The World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations are (in alphabetical order, not by merit):
- Cabo Verde
- Costa Rica
During the past 25 years, phrases like “ecotravel” have entered the globetrotter’s lexicon. This is a good thing; it shows that travelers are becoming more aware of the choices they make.
But our list isn’t primarily about ecotourism. Ethical travel is a more recent concept, and a more demanding one. It fulfills both individual and collective ideals. A traveler can experience environmental beauty and cultural immersion while actually contributing to the well-being of the host country.
Such travel combines environmental, social and human rights issues. It can even be used as an economic carrot, to support and reward countries pursuing high standards in these areas. It’s also more demanding of service providers; hotels and carriers can’t simply tweak their laundry policy and award themselves a gold star. For a country to be considered a good ethical travel candidate, the government must demonstrate a strong commitment not only to the environment, but to the human population as well.
How We Come Up with 10 Best Ethical Destinations
The metrics and research behind our list are complex. To begin, Ethical Traveler conducts a survey of developing nations— from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—to eliminate obvious offenders, and identify the world’s best travel and tourism destinations.
We begin our research by focusing on three general categories: Environmental Protection, Social Welfare, and Human Rights. For each of these categories we look at information past and present so that we understand not only the current state of a country, but also how it has changed over time. This helps us select nations that are actively improving the state of their people, government, and environment.
In this first phase of our process, we consider country scores from many databases, using information from sources like Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Reporters Without Borders, UNICEF, GLBT resources, and the World Bank. After identifying about two dozen “short list” performers, we turn to detailed case research, focusing on actions these governments have taken over the year to improve (or in some cases, weaken) practices and circumstances in the countries. In 2014, responding to requests from our members, we added animal welfare to our list.
There is more to making our list, of course, than excelling in these categories. Each country selected as a Best Ethical Destination also offers the opportunity to experience unspoiled natural beauty, and to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.
No Place is Perfect
One of our greatest challenges every year is coming to the terms that no country is perfect. Every single country that we selected as a winner faces serious challenges, and often-daunting ones — from Mauritius’ role in the animal research trade to Dominica’s policy of gay rights; from Latvia’s ethnic biases to resort development on the Bahamas.
But given the fact that many, many travelers elect to go to places with far more grievous abuses—like Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt, and Nepal—we find much to admire about our selected countries, as well. All of our selected countries score very high marks in human rights, and work hard to see that the revenue from travel and tourism helps benefit their citizens.
The Bahamas, Barbados, Chile, Dominica, Cape Verde, Lithuania, Palau, and Uruguay received the highest possible scores from Freedom House in the categories of Political Rights and Civil Liberties as well as high Press Freedom ratings in 2013—even ranking better than those of some developed countries. Mauritius only just fell short of achieving the highest possible marks, which is rare among African nations.
Industry is a powerful force everywhere—logging, mining, oil and hydropower will not simply disappear any time soon—but our chosen countries have strong environmental movements working hard to protect their natural and cultural resources, and to reach workable compromises with indigenous people. Are they always successful? No, they are not. But in a world like ours, it’s a good idea to encourage the forces positive change, even where they’re facing challenges.
Human trafficking is another issue we monitor closely, and a failure to make real progress on this issue can be a deal-breaker. The rights of people with non-traditional sexual orientation is also critical—and though such sweeping changes do not occur overnight, we watch for progress and openness. Cape Verde, for example, is a model for political and civil rights in Africa, introducing laws prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and organizing a Gay Pride Week—the second ever to take place in an African nation.
Destinations of Interest
Every year, along with the ten countries selected for their commitment to social justice and sustainable environmental practices, we suggest five additional “Destinations of Interest for 2015.”
Though these countries aren’t wholly ethical destinations, open-minded travelers can learn much by visiting them. We believe it’s sometimes essential to step behind the “media curtain” and inform oneself about controversial places through direct contact with local people. Nothing compares to witnessing firsthand the dynamic processes of social and political change.
One such country is Cuba. More than 50 years after the Revolution, the Socialist experiment launched by Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Ché” Guevara is being reimagined—thanks in large part to President Raúl Castro. As Cuba evolves internally and in relation to its neighbors, we encourage travelers (especially U.S. citizens) to deepen their understanding of this much-maligned country. (* Ethical Traveler leads legal, art-focused delegations to Cuba every year. For more information, see our website.)
We regret that we still cannot include Namibia on our main list. Though we laud the country’s strides toward sustainable tourism, the annual seal slaughter—that the government refuses to end—makes our full endorsement impossible.
Again, the foundation of ethical travel is mindful travel. We offer these recommendations in the hope that your journeys are enlightening, inspiring and of real value— for yourself, and for the people you visit.
Please be aware that no money or donations of any kind are solicited or accepted from any nations, governments, travel bureaus or individuals who wish to influence our annual list. But we do rely on volunteer researchers and donations to keep us afloat, and to help fund our research—as well as our News stories, campaigns and photo galleries. Please get in touch if you think you might have skills (or funds!) to offer.