Great Destinations For An Eco-Friendly Vacation
People choose their travel destinations for a variety of reasons ― costs, itinerary options, proximity to loved ones, social media influence and more. But an increasingly popular factor is sustainability.
“I believe that not only is green travel becoming more common, but it’s also becoming the overwhelming preference as people are recognizing and standing up to the environmental challenges that impact our lives and economy,” Jack Coble, vice president of design and environmental stewardship at Urban Villages, told HuffPost.
Wherever in the world you are or want to go these days, you’ll likely be able to find a destination that emphasizes sustainability, whether through hyper-local dining and shopping options, accommodations and transportation with a smaller environmental footprint, or activities that focus on conservation.
“Look for experiences that support environmental literacy and remediation as your activities,” advised Eloisa Lewis, the founder of New Climate Culture.
She offered a list of options, including mushroom foraging, native edible plant identification, farm sanctuaries, beekeeping, pottery classes, having fresh air picnics with sustainable ingredients, touring an animal rescue facility, planting native wildflowers, natural dye workshops and visits to regenerative wineries.
“I would say that green travel really hinges on the idea that you are honoring the locations you are visiting with your presence, taking the responsibility to be an ally to their beauty and health while also exchanging benefits and culture together,” Lewis said.
As you choose a destination, make sure to do your research to weed out vendors with a one-dimensional, buzzword-focused approach to sustainability. “Greenwashing” is a real issue across all industries, including travel.
“Instead, look for hotels that talk about how they’re directly reducing their carbon emissions and how they’re making a positive impact on their surrounding ecosystems and communities,” Coble said. “Given their commitment to their local environments, these companies will often provide a more authentic experience as well.”
Of course, sticking closer to home is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint by cutting out the need for air travel, so it’s best to avoid or limit flying when planning a vacation. Visiting a destination during off-season dates can also help ease the burden on the local environment.
Fortunately, there are excellent options all around the world. Whether you’re interested in exploring natural landscapes, learning about sustainability, or supporting conservation efforts, these green travel destinations offer something for everyone.
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“Costa Rica always has been a leader in eco-tourism,” said Theresa Jackson of Enlightened Journeys Travel.
The Central American country is known for its commitment to sustainability, with countless environmentally-friendly accommodations and activities for visitors to enjoy while minimizing their ecological footprint. More than a quarter of Costa Rica’s land area is protected as national parks, nature reserves and wildlife refuges.
Nature lovers focused on responsible tourism can participate in sustainable activities like hiking or zip-lining through the country’s lush rainforests, kayaking around mangroves and spotting birds and other exotic creatures.
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“Naturally, I’m a little biased towards the city of San Francisco, as I greatly admire the extensive eco-friendly initiatives that the city has introduced over the years,” said Ashley Gochnauer, general manager of 1 Hotel San Francisco. “This starts upon guests’ arrival at SFO, which is the first airport in the world to prohibit the sale of single-use plastic or aseptic paper water bottles.”
She touted the city’s growing number of parks and clean energy and waste management policies. Visitors seeking an eco-friendly getaway can also appreciate San Francisco’s green building practices, biking and public transportation options and emphasis on locally sourced cuisine.
“With its diverse natural ecology and a plethora of national parks, I also see the greater destination of Northern California as one that is bountiful with opportunities for a sustainable stay ― specifically in places like Muir Woods, Wine Country, Big Sur, Lake Tahoe and Mendocino,” Gochnauer added.
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Norway’s pristine natural beauty includes glaciers, fjords, mountains, and forests aplenty. Thus, there are ample opportunities for eco-tourism activities like hiking, biking, kayaking and wildlife watching in unique Arctic destinations like the Lofoten Islands and Svalbard.
The Scandinavian country is also a leader in renewable energy with its hydropower and wind farm resources that generate more than 90% of the nation’s electricity. Sustainable seafood and energy-efficient hotels also draw environmentally conscious tourists to Norway.
“Happily, there are so many eco-friendly destinations to choose from, but I’m excited by the electric-powered small ship cruises offered by Hurtigruten in Norway,” said Tom Hall, vice president of Lonely Planet.
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Another country leading the charge in sustainable travel is New Zealand, which has made significant efforts to preserve the beauty of its natural environment. The glaciers, beaches, forests and mountains make it a nature lover's paradise.
Eco-friendly tourism options range from whale watching and wildlife spotting to hiking and kayaking. In addition, educational tours and exhibits help visitors learn about New Zealand's conservation efforts, like its focus on renewable energy.
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“Sustainable travel is less about where you travel and more about how travel,” said writer and sustainable travel expert Sarah Reid. “That said, some destinations make it easier by offering planet-friendly amenities like clean drinking water, great public transport and alternatives to single-use plastics. As the only entire country that has achieved sustainable destination certification from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, Singapore is an excellent choice!”
In Singapore, you’ll find solar-powered gardens, recycled wastewater systems, and other displays of the country and city-state’s support for green initiatives.
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For decades, the Netherlands has proven its dedication to environmental protection, making major strides in reducing pollution and carbon emissions, among other green initiatives. It’s one of the most bike-friendly destinations in the world, and there are many great opportunities for cycling tours.
“Rotterdam, Netherlands, is ranked No. 1 in the world for top cities for sustainably-minded travelers thanks to how accessible it is by bike, trains and ferries, and the availability of eco-friendly hotels to name a few,” said Per Christiansen, senior vice president for EMEA and APAC marketing at Kayak.
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Portugal is home to a number of sustainable travel experiences. One popular option is the Azores, a group of nine Atlantic islands with stunning natural landscapes and a strong commitment to conservation and renewable energy.
The mainland boasts eco-friendly tourism opportunities as well.
“The village of Comporta in Portugal oﬀers a laid-back lifestyle, with surfers, fresh ﬁsh shacks, and bohemian boutiques,” said Paula Espinoza, creative director at Naya Traveler, who recommended the Quinta da Comporta wellness resort.
“This property integrates eco-friendliness into every aspect of the experience, from sustainable decor to locally sourced ingredients, creating a rare and empowering experience of the destination,” she added.
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Ecuador’s famed Galapagos Islands contain a vast and diverse array of wildlife, so conservation is a priority. With strict rules in place to minimize the impact of visitors on the environment, sustainable tourism practices are crucial for protecting the biodiversity of the Galapagos, including vulnerable creatures like giant tortoises and the many delicate marine ecosystems.
Outside the Galapagos, Espinoza is a fan of Ecuador's rainforests, particularly at the luxury hotel and research station, Mashpi Lodge.
"Situated in a 3,000-acre private reserve with 70% primary forest, it provides an ideal environment for travelers interested in family, wellness, and scientific research," Espinoza said. "Mashpi Lodge oﬀers invaluable learning opportunities to explore the cloud forest and prehistoric volcanoes along the Andes range."
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Nestled in the Himalayas, the Kingdom of Bhutan is a small country with strict rules for tourists aimed at preserving its natural and cultural heritage. Bhutan is so committed to sustainability that it has actually achieved "carbon negativity."
The country also prioritizes the well-being of its citizens and measures success in terms of Gross National Happiness, which factors in environmental conservation. Those who have the opportunity to visit Bhutan can explore its many beautiful Buddhist sites, trek through the mountains and otherwise take in the stunning landscapes.
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Canada’s vast wilderness and commitment to sustainability put it on many ecologically-minded travelers’ lists. Banff National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s most popular destinations for exploring glaciers, lakes and mountains while learning about the park’s conservation efforts.
For those looking for a more urban experience, Vancouver is a leader in sustainability for the North American continent with excellent transportation options, outdoor spaces, local gastronomy and other green initiatives. Another destinations in British Columbia with a strong environmental reputation is the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, which features eco-lodges, responsible whale watching tours, a thriving indigenous culture and striking natural landscapes.
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Iceland has made significant strides in reducing its carbon footprint with its geothermal energy, support for sustainable fishing, efforts against pollution and focus on eco-friendly travel.
Visitors to the Nordic island nation will find unique landscapes with hot springs, geysers, volcanos, waterfalls and glaciers perfect for hiking, relaxing or simply admiring. However, with its small population and great natural beauty, travelers must follow local rules and make every effort to minimize their impact on Iceland's environment during their stay.
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Eco-tourism is a big part of Belize's travel economy, which is evident in the country's efforts to phase out single-use plastics, ban offshore drilling and otherwise preserve the incredible biodiversity of the area.
"Belize has specific programs in place to protect the country’s rich jungle, inform visitors about local culture and look after its remarkable marine flora and fauna," Hall said. "The good practices many would-be visitors have at home on everything from minimizing waste, sensible water usage and recycling are among the most important things you can pack when you travel. Take good habits with you."
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With its incredible national parks and other spaces for outdoor recreation, Colorado is a popular choice for travelers looking to spend lots of time outside exploring the natural environment and participating in volunteer conservation projects.
The Centennial State is home to multiple cities completely powered by renewable energy and plans for the country's supposed first "carbon-positive" hotel. Visitors will also find a variety of eco-friendly breweries, accommodations, eateries and activities.
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“Understand the key issues in a destination and how tourist behavior can be a positive or negative factor,” Hall advised. “Copenhagen, Denmark, strives to be a world-leading sustainable city so encourages exploration by bike, eating local produce and helping to keep the waters of the city’s harbor clean.”
Indeed, Denmark is another Scandinavian destination at the forefront of sustainable living and environmental conservation, as evidenced by its green accommodations, natural attractions and eco-friendly urban planning.
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Thrust into the global spotlight thanks to a hit animated movie franchise, Madagascar is known for its unique wildlife and biodiversity. It's also one of the countries most affected by climate change, having faced significant famines and droughts.
That's why the island nation is taking steps to to protect its land and inhabitants by bringing awareness to these issues. One way is through tourism initiatives with volunteerism trips that raise revenue while attracting travelers who will directly work in conservation and other efforts.
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“I might be biased but I do think Europe is leading the charge to decarbonize trips,” said Charlie Cotton, founder of the carbon consultancy ecollective. “Scotland is taking their targets seriously and has some amazing rewilding initiatives in place. More destinations are starting to realize that a good tourism strategy is based on how much benefit tourism can bring."
Scotland's natural wonders are indeed worth preserving. Visitors can explore ancient forests, peaceful lochs, rugged mountains and other protected habitats where an incredible variety of wildlife not only survive but thrive. From farm-to-table cuisine to conservation volunteer opportunities, there are many features that make a Scottish vacation a more sustainable choice.