Tourism is the biggest single industry on the planet, with more than 1 billion people making trips abroad each year. Not only that, with the global population projected to grow from 7 billion to 9.6 billion people by 2050, and the continued economic development of previously poor countries, this number will only rise. As a result, the question of how to make tourism more sustainable and environmentally friendly is a growing topic in the travel industry.
Everything we do these days seems to have a visible environmental impact. Our oceans have an ever growing problem with plastic, many cities such as Paris or Beijing sometimes become choked in smog which has led to cars being banned. Temperatures are reaching all-time highs as we’ve noticed across the western world this summer, but what gives you and me the lovely sunny weather is potentially deadly for people living in vulnerable geographic zones such as many Island nations or countries closer to the equator. There’s nothing more exciting than taking a holiday to an exotic destination, but they can have a negative impact on ecosystems, the natural habitat of animals and indigenous communities. No single individual can reverse the damage that has been done, but we can all take steps to reduce our carbon footprint and that includes participating in sustainable tourism.
What is eco-tourism?
‘Eco’ or sustainable -tourism, are holidays that are designed to leave the bare minimum of pollution or as little a carbon footprint as possible in their wake. Communities from the destination countries of these ‘eco-tourists‘ benefit directly from these visitors by taking a leading in role in designing how best these tourists can interact with their local environment and give them a way to safeguard their local culture. This makes sustainable tourism perfect for people looking for a unique cultural and immersive experience.
With this in mind. I’ve gone ahead and compiled a list of countries that are taking the lead in this trend.
Cambodia is now one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, which means the resulting investment in infrastructure is sure to see more tourists land here over the coming years. However, this very same underdevelopment is what makes Cambodia one of the best countries to make a sustainable holiday in the world, and is certainly a hidden gem compared to other nearby countries. The landscape in this country is lush and stunning and the traditional and simple lifestyles of the people are definitely something to behold!
The best places for sustainable tourism in Cambodia
Kirirom National Park: Housing the traditional village community of Chambok, complete with small lakes and waterfalls as well as a Buddhist Pagoda, or temple. This is the place to go to get an authentic visit, as guests can stay in delightful Rural Khmer houses, famous for being raised on stilts to avoid any flood waters. There you receive cooking classes to learn about the local cuisine, such as Bamboo Sticky Rice and depending on how much you want to get involved and the time of the year, you may also help the villagers in planting rice.
Tonle Sap Lake: This lake is without a doubt, a stunning natural wonder of the world. Located in the northeast of the country it is the largest lake in South East Asia, however, its size increases drastically as its banks flood during the rainy season, leading to a dynamic way of life for the people who depend on the lake, with entire villages moving along with it. It is, therefore, best for an eco-tourist to visit during the dry season (Jan to May) when you can see the birds of the Prek Toal sanctuary.
Mondulkiri: I think this might just be my favorite of the three because of the amazing Elephant Valley Project. This unique wildlife reserve provides an avenue for tourists to interact with the elephants, and the proceeds then benefit the local communities who care for the elephants. Its worth mentioning that there are some projects in the area where the elephant’s well-being isn’t at the forefront, so in order to promote responsible tourism its best to only go to sanctuaries with trustworthy reviews.
Next up on our list is the wonderful South American nation of Chile. Snaking along the western side of the Andes mountains, this uniquely-shaped country gives so many different climates and landscapes to explore. From deserts in the north to tundras in the south, there is so much for an eco-tourist to check out, but this guide will try to do it some justice. Here you will definitely find one of the rarest biodiversities in the world and a place where sustainable tourism is thriving.
The best places for ecotourism in Chile
Los Flamencos National Reserve: This stunning reserve is a part of the northern desert region of Chile, one of the dryest regions in the world. Visitors can visit the moonlike “Valle de la Luna”, a vicious, rough, beautiful barren landscape that offers one of the most breathtaking sunrises you’ll ever see in your life. Guided tours will ensure your safety because this is not a region even the hardiest explorers want to get lost in. Otherwise, you have the otherworldly Lagunas Altiplanicas, where a typical tour would have you visit a local flamingo habitat and mountain lagoons, 4000m above sea level. The local villages survive primarily by selling lunch and food to tourists like you, hats off to them for surviving in this region.
Villarrica National Park: Moving now towards the far south of Chile, this park on the edge of the Andes is complete with 63,000 hectares of forest, skiing in several locations and oh, did I mention the massive Villarrica Volcano? If you could take the ideal Instagram picture, it would be of you standing by the lake with the volcano in the background. This is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, yet large numbers of people come here to camp in its shadow every year. This region is gorgeous, wild and everything that ecotourism should be about!
Torres del Paine National Park: A Unesco protected reserve, filled with flowing rivers, glaciers and mountains…words can’t describe it. I’d compare it to Lord of the Rings but that would do this spectacle an injustice. You’ll find herds of Guanacos here depending on the area and some the most gorgeous, savage, yet real places in the whole world . I think this is a place where anyone could go and find some sliver of peace of mind. It is an increasingly popular tourist destination, but its extreme location leaves mostly unspoiled.
I think this is an interesting one on the list because, on the one hand, we see a good example of when ‘over tourism’ can upset the balance of local people, such as how unbearably crowded the capital of Reykjavik becomes during peak season. However, this country offers so many lesser-known and remote areas to explore. This destination can be enjoyed without damaging the local eco-system or livelihoods of local people.
The best places for ecotourism in Iceland
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve: Lying in the northernmost tip of the Island, it lies within the West Fjords, providing stunning views of glacial landscape as well as cliffs weathered by the millennia-long battering of the Atlantic Ocean. There are various bird colonies native to the region, such as Arctic Terns and Puffins. This nature reserve has no roads but it is possible, and even encouraged, to bring camping equipment and hike your way through it. Camping areas are provided for visitors.
Vatnajökull National Park: Due to the combining rivers and volcanic activity, there’s a wonderful variety to the landscape in Iceland’s biggest national park. The huge glacier of Vatnajökull covers 9% of the entire country and is the biggest of its kind in Europe. Due to the volcano of Öræfajökull, there are thermal baths to be found in the region, many are even free and offer a great alternative to the popular Blue Lagoon. Those who want a challenge may climb to the top of Hvannadalshnúkur, a peak of the volcano and the highest point in all of Iceland.
Borgarfjörður Eystri: This eastern coastal region is known for being a hiker’s paradise. Here the landscape is more green and lush than the glaciers to the south, you could mistake yourself for being in the highlands of Scotland with its beautiful, craggy, hills. A popular place to go here is Álfaborg, “the city of the hidden people”, a rock formation which resembles a natural fortress, and is great for taking in the surrounding valleys.
This is certainly the most underdeveloped and isolated destination on the list. This island lying off the southeastern coast of Africa is famous for its selection of rare animals and plant life. It is a destination that hasn’t felt the effects of mass tourism and could well be the authentically wild and beautiful place in which to practice sustainable tourism.
Amber Mountain National Park: Laying in the Diana region in the north, this region is known for its very diverse eco-system as well as for containing numerous waterfalls and lakes. There are also sections of rainforest home to various species of animals such as Lemurs and Mongoose. This park is well-developed with walking trails that give you a safe route to follow without disturbing the animals too much.
Isalo National Park: Known to some travellers as the “Grand Canyon of Madagascar”, this rocky area of the Island is so much more than just that despite the ‘badlands’ appearance. Guides are required to enter this park, due to the fact that indigenous people drive herds of cattle through these lands and it’s important that they remain free to do so without being slowed down by tourists off the beaten path. Even so, this does not diminish the experience of visiting here. There are natural swimming pools that are formed from the end of mountain streams and they are perfect for a refreshing dip. Many colourful species of frog can be seen in this region along with chameleons.
Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve: Known for its wonderful karst limestone landscape, this reserve has the status of the most protected in all of Madagascar. Set in the eastern side of the Island, you’ll find rope bridges extending across the more perilous formations, enabling you to view the many crevices below. Also in the region is the picturesque ‘Avenue of the Baobabs’, a group of trees on a stunning backdrop that produces a sensational view of the sunrise.
You may be surprised to learn this, but the UK is one of the leading countries for ecotourism in the entire world, and the primary tourist, is you. Every day when you leave your house to walk in the woods, or visit one of the many national parks, or go camping in nature, is an example of sustainable tourism. Therefore I’ve also selected some absolutely must-see places in the UK, which may get you started on the path of seeking holidays fuelled by the power of nature!
New Forest National Park: *Once a royal forest where King William II was murdered whilst out hunting, today this is a gorgeous sanctuary of nature located near Southhampton. With the large swath of woodland, this is quite a lovely place to visit. Adders, deer and even wild ponies can be found roaming in this park. The relaxing streams of the Beaulieu River really provide an overwhelming calm to those who visit. You can’t help but feel at peace as you go on your hike.
Waterway Recovery Group: Before the advent of railways, the canals that crisscross the UK were the primary means of transporting the large stockpiles of coal, steel, and other produce from factory to port. Since then the majority of former industrial canals have fallen into disrepair. This group seeks to reverse that by organising group working holidays, where like-minded people work as a collective to restore abandoned canals across the UK, and make them a place for recreation, boating, swimming and also reintroduce nature that once thrived on these aqua-motorways.
Trees for Life: This award-winning charity based in Scotland, has planted over 1 million trees across the highlands, in an effort to battle overgrazing and to transform the landscape to allow native animals such as Wolf, Lynx, and Beaver, to once more inhabit the area. Dundreggan Conservation Estate is where much of the work happens, not only will the trees planted be visually appealing, they will have a completely practical effect in reducing the chance of flooding in wet seasons. In the age of melting polar ice-caps expect to see projects like this led by local people across the world, become the norm.
Get inspired by ecotourism!
Have I piqued your interest? Be sure to check out some of the fantastic travel bloggers and influencers that I interviewed for my second season of the Gurucast podcast – they’ve shared some very interesting insights and advice relating to sustainable tourism! :)