We love to champion destinations that show love and respect for the world we live in. From tourism laws that protect wildlife and local communities, to nations that are powered on renewables, our Absolute Gold List this month features gorgeous green getaways that make the planet a better, more beautiful place for us all.
We all saw how our absence during the past months of lockdown were a blessing to nature. Within just a few months of our lighter footprint, we saw the world heal. Wild peacocks emerged in cities, dolphins appeared off the ghats in Kolkata, and the planet breathed. As conscious travelers, we know that there are lessons to be learned here, and better choices to be made as we travel to save the world.
Sustainable travel promotes the cultural understanding of a place, and directs your tourism bucks toward much-required conservation efforts. It might seem like travel and sustainability don’t go hand-in-hand, but the rise of eco-tourism has made it possible to explore in an immersive, engaging way, while also doing good. While nobody has it completely figured out, our pick of these nine destinations are on the responsible journey—committing to a lighter footprint and putting wildlife and local communities at the forefront.
We encourage you to be inspired by the majesty of the world around us, and maybe even take the road less traveled. Go forth, Eco Warriors!
Deep in the ridges of the Eastern Himalaya, an ancient Buddhist kingdom preserves its traditional way of life and primordial landscapes. Bhutan is the last Shangri-La . . . a land where imposing monasteries rise out of rugged clifftops, where snow-capped peaks meet swathes of forest, where glacial rivers and pastoral lands stretch as far as the horizon.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is an extraordinary destination that urges you to be a more sensitive traveller – doing more good than harm at any turn. The kingdom’s glacial valleys and lush forests are even protected in its constitution! One of few carbon-negative countries in the entire world, Bhutan carefully regulates tourism, with limited entries and minimum daily package rates. This ensures that your holiday spending goes toward supporting Bhutanese conservation efforts, while also allowing you to truly immerse yourself in this compassionate community. With a charming old-school way of life and several high-end sustainable hotels to choose from, it’s no surprise why Bhutan’s at the top of our list.
Bhutan is definitely a visual treat, but it is the country’s unique culture that is its main draw. This is the only place in the world that uses Gross National Happiness as an indicator of success, and the Bhutanese choose to embrace modernity delicately. Bhutan places immense importance on sustainability, and visitors will find incredible wildflower-carpeted meadows and Himalayan trekking routes to spots like Paro Valley. Even the cities like Thimphu are magnificent centres of Buddhist heritage, with imposing gilded chortens and whitewashed stupas framing the skyline. The markets burst with colourful hand-embroidered textiles and flavourful cuisine, as we lead you to the very heart of Bhutan.
Forest bathing is an ancient ritual here, where tranquil walks through untouched wilderness allow you to soak in the healing effects of nature, with fluttering prayer flags mounted along the way to encourage happiness and prosperity.
Apart from being one of the best-vaccinated countries in the world, Bhutan also has a solid future plan of action that includes zero waste targets and zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. A pretty compelling reason to travel here, if you ask us!
Picturesque colonial centers, white-sand beaches, quaint Kichwa towns, Amazonian rainforests and the dazzling Andes mountain range – there is much splendor to see in the tiny country of Ecuador.
960km adrift from the Ecuadorian mainland, the thirteen volcanic islands of the Galápagos Islands lay untarnished by human hand right up until the twentieth century, allowing it to grow into a hotspot for biodiversity. The volcanic, otherworldly landscapes here are home to an astonishing array of wildlife, with almost 3000 marine species alone. You can get up close and personal with massive lumbering tortoises, scurrying marine iguanas (the world’s only seagoing lizard), doe-eyed sea lions, prancing blue-footed boobies and a host of other unusual wildlife, both on land and sea.
Pause and take in the majesty of nature on these islands that inspired science – instrumental in Charles Darwin formulating his theory of evolution by natural selection, thereby carrying humanity firmly into the modern era.
The Ecuadorian authorities promote conscious community tourism that is locally-run and environmentally aware, alongside investments in renewable energy. There’s even a section in the Ecuadorian constitution named ‘Rights for Nature’! You can choose to volunteer here, or support in other ways during your visit. For example, the Yasuní National Park is a 4,000 sq-mile protected reserve that is the first of five pilot sites to support sustainable development and biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest.
With the best dive sites, marine activities, and a variety of eco-friendly lodges to stay at (including carbon-neutral hotels!), Ecuador makes responsible tourism easy.
A thriving rainforest with giant strangler figs, moss-covered trees, and bright orchids amidst low hanging clouds and misty air, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve is a biodiverse wonderland. This UNESCO-protected mega-ecosystem is home to several endemic species and the air is filled with the calls of rare birds and insects.
The most biodiverse country on the planet, Costa Rica has earned its spot on our Gold List of Eco-friendly Escapes, and how! Costa Rica is home to six percent of all living species, and nurtures this rich diversity through responsible tourism activities.
Close to half of the country is protected by the local government in the form of nature parks and reserves, to safeguard it against exploitative deforestation and unchecked tourism. So, you’re not likely to find the Instagram mass tourists here! Single-use plastics are a strict no-no, and most of the country’s electricity is renewably sourced too. This leaves a spectacular pristine landscape for keen visitors to enjoy.
Costa Rica’s CST (Certification for Sustainable Tourism) framework promotes eco-friendly practices, from the way you dine, the ecolodges you stay at, to the tours and transportation you engage.
Stay at a sustainable ecolodge and walk through this pristine wilderness with a trained naturalist, who will introduce you to the smallest critters and largest megafauna of this unique ecosystem. Explore the virgin rainforests of Costa Rica and support its boost to biodiversity as balance is restored to the land.
Sandwiched between Italy and Croatia, Slovenia is often overlooked, but this hidden gem of a country has many wonderful charms up its sleeve. Grand old cities with stunning architecture, pine-covered countryside, the soaring Julian Alps, the lovely Adriatic coastline, glacial rivers, ancient forests, and emerald lakes. With its 60% green cover, Slovenia is blessed with glorious natural landscapes.
From the lusciously fertile wine region of Vipasa Valley to serene Lake Bled to Venetian architecture along the harbour towns and the lively, art nouveau capital of Ljubljana, Slovenia promises an idyllic European holiday without the crowds. The Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism is a unique endeavor that leads visitors to the greenest camping sites and eco-friends hosts.
But what really puts Slovenia on our Green map is the food! Climate conscious eaters with a mean palette, Slovenians know how to work wonders with seasonal and local ingredients. The Climavore Diet followed here encourages the use of local food suppliers and dishes with low food miles, for the least environmental impact. Not to mention, the fresh grub in this foodie hotspot is absolutely delicious! It’s no wonder Slovenia is home to so many Michelin restaurants.
The country was even named the European Region of Gastronomy for 2021. Emphasis here falls firmly on ecological farming and sustainability – the capital Ljubljana is one of the greenest cities on earth – with locally sourced ingredients harvested from Adriatic salt pans, grown in gardens, and foraged from meadows. Follow Vipasa Valley’s wine road to experience top-notch wines that utilize indigenous grapes, as well as fine cuisine sourced from local farms – with views of medieval castles overlooking pretty little towns.
Slovenia encourages close and personal interactions with nature, explored through a landscape that lends itself to active pursuits like skiing, hiking, and biking, as well as digging into local gastronomy. The country also features a Natura 2000 designated Special Area of Conservation, and Ljubljana was the first EU capital city to participate in the zero-waste program, with large No-car zones in the city center that foster an appreciation for one’s surroundings. One of the most sustainable countries in the world welcomes visitors to experience all its little-known secrets.
Part of the West Indies, this tiny coral island in the Atlantic Ocean is doing sustainable tourism right with a targeted transition to renewables. Setting an admirable and futuristic benchmark, Barbados advocates the advantages of switching to greener energy sources, while dealing with regular hurricanes and being at the forefront of the climate crisis. Being sensitive to the mercies of the climate, Barbados has introduced several stringent targets for itself to beat with respect to climate change activities.
Tourism is the main stay of this Caribbean Island and the preservation of culture and heritage are taken seriously here. Travelers are well taken care of and shown the utmost hospitality by the locals who act as custodians of the regional culture. Community based tourism is also largely encouraged, and visitors are pointed in the direction of hotels and guesthouses that are independently-owned and operated by locals. This ensures that business decisions keep in mind the indigenous interests, over purely monetary profits for those not invested in the land.
CAST – the Caribbean Alliance for Sustainable Tourism supports the country’s efforts towards more nature-positive and community-enriching experiences. Choose from a variety of new-age stay and dining options in Barbados – from lodges that encourage you to reconnect with nature, to a reclaimed sugar plantation that serves up its generous bounty of indigenous produce in its café. Several such restaurants in Barbados are working to wean themselves off a dependence on imported fruits and vegetables; looking to local, organic, and wild food sources instead.
Germany earns its spot on our list for being a country that knows how to spa sustainably. Its lush green cover is the perfect backdrop for the hundreds of wellness resorts that call Germany home, and there’s no place like Südharz to make the most of the experience. The eco-sensitive spa goer is presented with a vast variety of ‘green’ options to choose from here, be it carbon-neutral nature resorts or moonlit outdoor saunas carefully set amidst the pristine landscape.
The German tourism board is Green Globe certified and leads travelers to over 1000 eco-friendly wellness escapes, from upscale hotels to luxury camping.
For the eager vegetarian explorer, Germany is just the place for you – with the largest percentage of veggies in all of Europe. This ensures an ample selection of local cuisine to help keep your foodprint in check. Germany’s sustainable dining options even extend to its rail cuisine, with sumptuous organic fare offered aboard the trains that crisscross the country. Germany sees this dedication to eco-friendly practices all the way through, and all its long-distance trains run on green electricity. The famous H-bahn in Germany is present in 3 locations, and is a fascinating green experience, to say the least.
Germany was once home to a vast industrial zone comprising of mining and steel production units. Today, the region welcomes art and nature by repurposing former industrial sites and discarded slag heaps into open-air parks and cultural spaces–thereby increasing the country’s system of green corridors. This is notable in Ruhr Valley’s UNESCO World Heritage Site of ZecheZollverein that sees walking trails set in surrounding greenery, an ice rink, and even an outdoor swimming pool.
Jordan is best known for its rich cultural heritage and magical dune landscapes, but the country is also to be explored for its thought through, ethically-conducted cultural tourism programs. These are designed as culturally sensitive adventures that allow travelers to experience the essence of the place and its people.
Dana Biosphere Reserve is Jordan’s largest nature reserve, covering about 320 sq-km of stunning Wadis and mountains across the Great Rift Valley. This region is a biodiversity hotspot with over 190 bird species, 36 reptile species, and 700 plant species. Overlooking the Wadi Dana, the village area has a history that dates back to 4000 BC. The ecotourism initiatives in the area have helped foster the local community, keeping them from moving away from lack of local opportunities.
The solar-powered Feynan Ecolodge fuels the economy of the village by only employing locals and offering up the best of Bedouin hospitality experiences – from partaking in a traditional coffee ceremony to joining shepherds on hikes though the heart of Dana Biosphere Reserve. Take in the red deserts of Wadi Rum, navigate through Petra’s Nabatean ruins, share traditional Zarb campfire dinners, and wander through ancient olive groves. In Jordan, you are assured that your tourism spends are used for the betterment of the local landscape.
The Meaningful Travel Map in Jordan is a first of its kind sustainable model that aims to spread tourism dollars throughout the country, instead of keeping it concentrated in only the popular tourist spots. This redistribution of wealth helps alleviate poverty, and also empowers women – most social enterprises within this framework are run by women.
Norway demonstrates the best of slow tourism with its serene lakes, mountains, quaint cottages, red-striped lighthouses, and miles of ocean that reflect the mystical northern lights in the skies above. This great raw, unsullied place could well be a painter’s muse. Carved on all sides by glaciers, and filled in with deep foliage, the archipelago of Norway ventures out into the Norwegian Sea, where boat routes outnumber the car routes on land. This is a place that welcomes solitude, but also offers up a sublime outdoor experience from hiking the magnetic Sunnmøre Alps to kayaking into fjords past icy waterfalls. This is the land of friluftsliv, or respect for outdoor living, that instills in visitors a strong connection with the great outdoors.
Inspired by the ethos of geotourism, Norway aims to preserve the integrity of its natural habitat with active involvement of the community, thereby allowing visitors to really get a sense of the place and get under its skin. This could take the form of a food safari to an organic farm, where you pick fresh berries and herbs with your hosts who would then prepare you a hearty local meal with the seasonal produce. Fostering this kind of tourism is a slow process, but helps avoid conflict between society, profit, and nature.
Oslo actually reduced pedestrian deaths to zero in 2019, closing off much of the city to cars so people can conveniently walk, cycle or take the tram to most places. Norway ranks among the top 10 countries to follow the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which are a roadmap to a better and greener future for the world at large. Norway’s power network runs almost entirely on the renewable energy of hydro-electricity, and about 50% of new cars in Norway are electric.
Norway’s energy-positive ethos can also be found at the Six Senses Svart – the world’s first carbon positive resort, with 360° views of Svartisen glacier. Slated to open its doors to visitors in 2024, this off-grid hotel is located just inside the Arctic Circle and is perched on poles above the crystal-clear waters of the fjord to minimize its on-site impact.
As adventure travel rises, hotels such as Svart are an opportunity to protect the nature you travel to experience. They expand the possibilities of slow, regenerative travel and inspire with their commitment to uphold their fragile glacial surroundings. From zero-waste dining to hiking, ice-climbing, night-fishing, the Aurora Borealis in winter and yoga in the midnight sun in summer, you are sure to leave with deeper awareness and a profound sense of tranquility.
Innovative young minds are bringing a new take on sustainable living to the North Eastern state of Nagaland in India. Here, dense jungles intermingle with manicured fields and bright blue skies, with smartingly fresh air all around. The tiny but picturesque naga hamlets are perched high above the valleys, along primordial stone pathways that lead up the hillsides.
These hills are home to ancient tribal clans rooted in a shared history, and yet embrace modernity with panache. Beyond its rustic and traditional backdrop, Nagaland has emerged a forward-thinking state of global significance. The Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary was set up here in the late 90’s after hunting was banned by the village elders. With such early roots to conservation efforts, pride of land has deep hold on the Naga people. While the earlier millennial generation left the largely agricultural state in pursuit of education and opportunity elsewhere, today many are returning with a new verve and entrepreneurial spirit to transform their home state.
Visitors are often astonished to find a lively city in Nagaland, with avant garde jewelry stores, boutiques to rival those in Paris, community organizations, and cafes serving up experimental cuisine from pork to galho – all elevating a traditional Naga flavor for a global scenario.
The mark of successful sustainability in Nagaland is the innovative ways in which the parallel worlds of tradition and modernity are straddled here without compromising either, in fact, heightening what is best in each. While being the world’s most Baptist state (75% Christian), Nagaland also follows the age-old pagan beliefs of its ancestors.
Nagaland disproves all the tired clichés around India’s Northeast, as it goes through its own cultural moment that is unlike anywhere else in the world. Move over, Brooklyn, the wildly stylish Naga urbanites are here to slay with their chic fashion and contemporary worldview! This, with the unique added bonus of them having deep alliance with their ancient local tribe, clan, and surrounding hills. Contradictions coexist here with grace, and make Nagaland well worth the visit.