The Best Countries for Ecotourism

In the 1990′s, ecotourism — the environmentally responsible management of tourist areas located in pristine areas — emerged as a hot new trend. Today, it’s a full-fledged industry — and some countries in particular have excelled at drawing in the crowds while keeping human impact levels relatively low. If ecotourism sounds like your kind of travel experience, consider taking a trip to one of these destinations.

According to the BBC, a whopping 36 percent of Belize’s land and 13 percent of its water has been granted protected status. To this end, the tiny Central American nation has succeeded admirably. Since the 80′s, the Belizan government has encouraged Belizan landowners to convert their property into tourist locales — provided, of course, that they are able to preserve the natural resources and wildlife found therein. Today, tourism is one of the main sources of revenue among the nation’s population. Visitors to Belize are urged to research all available accommodations prior to their trip — and, if possible, book lodgings at establishments that utilize eco-friendly practices (such as rainwater recycling or solar power).

In the late 1990′s, Brazil experienced an ‘ecotourism boom’ that arose out of a need to counteract the damage done to the Amazonian rainforest by ranchers, miners and land developers. The idea was simple: tourists paid local inhabitants to guide them through the dense undergrowth. Today, private companies continue to wage war against the rainforest, but the millions of people who live in the Amazonian jungle (and rely on its natural resources for sustenance and financial support) haven’t given up their fight either. Recently, the people of Guaraqueçaba have united to form an ecotourism co-operative that seeks to preserve a wider tract of land; hopefully, this trend will catch on nationwide.

In November 2007, Smithsonian Magazine reported that the Canadian government was spending $10 million on a nationwide ecotourism initiative, primarily aimed at establishing protected land areas near the Great Slave Lake and Ramparts Wetlands. Five years later, our neighbor to the north is continuing to exemplify responsible tourism with the Great Bear Rainforest Ecotourism Experience, which guides visitors through the lush wilderness of coastal British Columbia. In addition to the bears, the ‘Experience’ also gives tourists the opportunity to see whales, wolves and some breathtaking views of what Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. once dubbed, ‘the last stand of the great North American rainforest.’

Costa Rica
Costa Rica is considered one of the birthplaces of ecotourism — which is a good thing, since a quarter of the Central American country is comprised of protected land. Now for the bad news: the ecotourism industry in Costa Rica has done so well — tourists generated $1.5 billion in 2005, alone — that environmentalists have begun to notice a sizable impact. That’s right, ecotourism is actually hurting Costa Rica’s natural resources. Thankfully, there are still plenty of unspoiled areas to visit — and travelers are urged to avoid resorts and eco-destinations that annually serve a large number of tourists if they want to have a positive impact on the country’s biodiversity.

Did you know that Madagascar is home to 70 different species of lemur? Or that 80 percent of the animals and 90 percent of the plants native to the African island nation aren’t found anywhere else on the planet? In any country that can boast stats like these, it’s a given that massive ecotourism efforts are required to sustain the local wildlife.  Madagascar has proven itself up to the challenge; the majority of its national parks are also classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, while a myriad of eco-tours (some of which last as long as two weeks) are offered throughout the country. In addition, non-profit organizations like Earthworks provide ecotourism volunteer opportunities for visitors who wish to learn a little more about the industry.

United Arab Emirates
Ecotourism is a relatively new concept in U.A.E — and efforts so far have sent out some mixed messages. At the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, for instance, visitors can gaze upon herds of wild oryx and thousands of tree, plant, and flower species. The caveat: the reserve also contains the luxurious Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, which some tourists have complained is incompatible with the lush surroundings; despite the perceived tackiness, National Geographic presented the resort with a World Legacy Award in 2004. In recent years, the country — which ‘boasts’ the world’s largest ecological footprint — has begun to explore more ecotourism opportunities. In 2009, the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing launched the ‘Green Tourism Award’, an initiative that recognizes the city’s top ecotourism-friendly accommodations; 19 different hotels received awards at the 2012 ceremony.

By Brad Nehring