When does tourism become a two-edged sword? Ask cities like Venice, Barcelona, and Prague. While these are great destinations every Globetrotter should visit at least once in their lifetime, anyone who’s been in high season can testify to the crowds that swarm in. Such popularity can have a fraying effect, both on local tempers and the cities themselves. It drives up prices, and takes its toll on the local environment, architecture, and culture. This is where sustainable tourism comes in…
It’s a good thing there are so many great destinations ready to share the load! Here are twelve countries that are ready for more visitors. They’re also taking steps to keep tourism sustainable, and eco-friendly.
The presence of Sweden on a “sustainable countries” list really should surprise no-one. The land of ABBA, Volvo, and IKEA is a little out of the way compared to the rest of Europe, making it an extra special treat for those who make the effort. Stockholm combines the medieval charms of Gamla Stan (the old town) with cutting edge design and creativity at the Moderna Museet and Fotografiska. Even the subway system is a work of art. But it’s out in the Stockholm archipelago that the city’s natural assets really come forth, a natural beauty the country is committed to preserving both within its capital and beyond. For budget travellers, it’s also the most affordable option in famously pricey Scandinavia.
Norway and Sweden make a great pairing, but the two represent quite different sides of a Scandinavia vacation. Oslo shares Stockholm’s love of design and modern architecture (don’t miss the Opera House), even if its looks don’t usually receive the same admiration. Norway’s instant “wow” factor comes when you visit its incredible coastline, defined by the famous fjords, and the inviting coastal towns that provide a base for exploring them – if you can tear yourself away. Even getting there from Oslo is a delight, on the famous Flam Railway, a 20 kilometre journey that sees Norway impress on dry land as well.
There’s some debate on how sustainable Iceland will remain. Cheap flights from the US and Canada have launched “The Land of Ice and Fire” into everybody’s “must-do” list, and some claim it’s grown too fast, to the detriment of local infrastructure. That’s a fair concern, though the claims are mostly based on summer crowds, which are unprecedented in Iceland. Pro tip? Iceland is a year-round destination with milder winters than many parts of North America. Going between October and March gives you a chance to see the famous Northern Lights, along with lighter crowds and lower prices. Go soon, before those summer crowds catch on. Just be sure to book early. The country has very few large hotels and the locals are in no hurry for that to change.
Rounding out the list of “wildly expensive, yet breathtakingly awesome” Europe destinations, it’s a wonder Switzerland isn’t more crowded than it is. Blame the prices, or the country’s reputation as a land of bankers, but the result is a mountainous haven for travellers looking to spend their Europe vacation immersed in nature. This means getting out of big cities like Zurich and Geneva. They aren’t the main attraction. Instead, head to a delightful mountain town or a luxurious chalet. Switzerland’s superb infrastructure makes it easy to reach Interlaken, Lucerne, Zermatt (home of the famous Matterhorn), Bern, and other Alpine treasures.
Kenya can be a little intimidating to some travellers, but concerns are usually based on news reports of incidents far from where tourists wander. The country has in fact taken active strides in improving its infrastructure, implementing greater protections for its wildlife, and making itself a friendly, accessible destination for visitors. With regions like Mount Kenya and the Masaai Mara, it’s a prime spot for an African safari. But Kenya’s traditional culture is also more accessible than many others in Africa, and in some regions, it remains unchanged after centuries. Even the frenetic capital, Nairobi, is gaining popularity with adventurous travellers.
Costa Rica has been actively pursuing ecotourism for a long time, leading the pack as early as the 1990s. No real surprise, when you consider its astonishing biodiversity. Over a quarter of the country is protected national park, and just over half of it is forest. With the gentle, warm waters of the Caribbean on one side, and the awesome surf beaches of the Pacific on the other, Costa Rica invites travellers to combine a beach or snowbird vacation with total immersion in nature. It’s also one of the world’s top destinations for adrenaline junkies, with rappelling, zip-lining, hang-gliding, and other sports all widely available.
Botswana is a unique force among African safari options. With such world renowned wildlife regions as Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, it remains the only country in Africa to outlaw game hunting of any kind. To offset the lack of permit income, it is a little more expensive than the neighbouring countries, but few animal lovers will argue the rewards aren’t worth it. Whether it’s a traditional game drive through Chobe or a mokoro canoe trip through the Okavango, Botswana is filled with Africa memories waiting to be made.
Joining the magnificent Andes to the Pacific Coast, Chile is one of the quiet achievers of South America travel. So quiet, in fact, you can hear Perito Moreno Glacier steadily moving. Okay, technically, that one’s in Argentina, but most travellers combine the two countries so they can explore the best of Patagonia unhindered. Chile’s contributions include Torres del Paine National Park, which includes the famous Grey Glacier. At the other end of the country, the surreal colours of the Atacama Desert create a natural getaway unlike any other you’ve experienced. You’ll want to allow some time to go wine tasting too.
Picture-perfect medieval cities in Europe tend to swarm with summer crowds. While Ljubljana is catching up in popularity, the capital of “small is beautiful” Slovenia is still overshadowed by its neighbours. These include some of Europe’s biggest destinations including Venice, Budapest, and Vienna. The rapidly emerging Croatian coast isn’t far away either. If you’re passing between them, there’s really no reason to miss Slovenia. Spend a couple of days roaming Ljubljana, then head out to lovely Lake Bled, perhaps ringing the bell and making a wish in the Assumption of Mary pilgrimage church. You might even want a week just for exploring Slovenia itself.
The “Last Shangri La,” Bhutan is the only country in the world with a “Gross National Happiness” index. It also strictly enforces a “High Value, Low Impact Tourism” policy. Bhutan tourism is growing, but numbers are still fairly miniscule, with good reason. Tours must use a licensed Bhutanese operator, and a daily fee of US $200 to $250 is charged to each traveller. There are also tight restrictions on which regions you can visit and when. Still, Bhutan delivers on its promise for those who persevere. It’s one of the few destinations we can still call “authentic” without cringing, free from the touts, pollution, and opportunism mass tourism attracts.
For Maldives, sustainable tourism is a matter of survival. Tourism is the archipelago country’s largest industry, and most of its islands and atolls sit less than 1.5 metres above sea level. That makes rising sea levels a real concern, so if you’re looking for some real eco-friendly relaxation, Maldives is a great choice. Many of the resorts are proactive in using sustainable materials, cleaning products, and day-to-day practices. Most recycle as much as possible (including water) and it’s easy to find opportunities to come close to nature, from reef snorkeling, to swimming with majestic manta rays and whale sharks.
New Zealand squeezes so many eye-opening natural sights into its small land mass, it seems custom made for eco-friendly travel. Its remoteness also helps keep the crowds down, though you might want to avoid the high seasons of December to February (summer) and ski season unless you have specific reason to visit then. While the North Island offers an equal mix of beautiful destinations and lively Kiwi culture, the South Island is all nature’s show, with few big towns, and plenty of remote natural attractions to get you”out there.” These include the West Coast’s glaciers, the Fjordlands, Abel Tasman National Park, and Stewart Island, the last possible stop before Antarctica.