During the past 20 years, the phrases "ecotravel" and "ethical travel" have entered the globetrotter's lexicon. The first term has been so co-opted and abused that it's practically stripped of meaning; even huge luxury hotels and cruise ships tout money-saving tactics like graywater reuse and energy-saving laundry practices as evidence of their commitment to ecotourism.
Ethical travel combines ecotourism with broader environmental and social issues. It fulfills both individual and social ideals: An ethical traveler experiences environmental beauty and cultural immersion while actually contributing to the ecological preservation and social development of the host country. For a country to be considered a good ethical travel candidate, the government must demonstrate a strong commitment not just to the environment, but to the well-being of its population as well.
Ethical Traveler recently conducted a study to learn where Americans tend to travel in the developing world, and how this compares with the most environmentally and socially progressive places to spend our tourism dollars. Our goal was to formulate a list of the "Best Ethical Travel Destinations," specifically geared to outbound American leisure travelers. The idea was not just to compile a list of countries, but to choose places that Americans actually want to visit.
The most popular developing-country destinations for American tourists are the Bahamas, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Jamaica, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago (listed alphabetically).
After compiling data from the US Department of Commerce, we took a look at the rest of the developing world, including two continents not on the list: Africa and Europe. Europe, the most popular destination for American travelers, is not generally thought of as "developing," but several Eastern European nations do fit that description.
We investigated ecotourism practices, environmental standards, and social development indicators. Our research was conducted at Stanford University, using information from a variety of national and international sources.
Because of its direct link between the local environment and population, ecotourism was the single most important factor we used in determining "ethicalness." Although many organizations have different definitions of ecotourism, key principles remain universal: conservation of the natural environment, low visitor impact, and benefit to the local population.
Since ecotourism is such an attractive policy for governments to profess, it's often difficult to separate spin from reality. Still, credible agencies such as The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) have singled out countries with strong commitments to preservation. Belize (for its Mayan sites), Brazil (national parks), Ecuador (Galapagos Islands and Amazonian rainforest), Kenya (wildlife reserves), Nepal (mountain trekking), Peru (birding), and South Africa (game and nature reserves) all make the grade.
The best-known ecotourism destinations are probably Costa Rica and Bhutan. With a vibrant tourism industry that centers around its cloud forests, turtles, and volcanoes, Costa Rica has served as an inspiration for other Latin American countries. Bhutan, though, is the "poster child" for ecotourism. Its entire tourism industry is based on sustainability, and an effort to attract "low volume, high quality" visitors willing to pay a handsome fee for the privilege of visiting the pristine Himalayan kingdom. But even countries with strong ecotourism values are sometimes careless of broader human rights issues. That's why it's also crucial to examine the environmental and social progress of a country.
Our research evaluated six factors: carbon dioxide emissions, energy efficiency, percentage of protected land, percentage of mammals under threat, the environmental sustainability index, and the number of major international environmental treaties ratified. …