As ecotourism garners interest among a growing number of travelers, eco resorts have popped up everywhere, from Florida to Fiji. In fact, the ecotourism industry is growing so quickly that it would be nearly impossible to map which countries have become the greatest eco-destinations, especially when the terms "eco" and "green" are thrown around so readily that it can be hard to tell what is genuine and what is simply a marketing ploy. Ecotourism at its heart not only preserves natural habitats and indigenous cultures and species, but actually works in favor of conservation by bringing additional resources that the local economy would otherwise not have, so the applications of the term can be quite different, which makes ranking such locations even more difficult—if not impossible.
Instead of ranking these destinations, NuWire decided to recognize five countries whose efforts in particular realms of ecotourism have gone above and beyond the norm.
Costa Rica: Preserving biodiversity
Perhaps no other country has embraced ecotourism the way that Costa Rica has. While many nearby countries are hoping that industrialization will spur their economies, Costa Rica is managing responsible growth by protecting its environment and its remarkable biodiversity.
Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on earth.
"Costa Rica is the most biodiverse country on Earth," said Glenn Jampol, who owns two hotels in Costa Rica and serves as president of the Costa Rican chapter of the National Association of Ecotourism (CANAECO) and on the board of "directors for the International Ecotourism Society (TIES). “[It has] more than 6 percent of all species known to exist within its borders."
The country has 527 endangered plant species and 57 animal species that are critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable to becoming endangered, including turtles, manatees, toucans, jaguars, primates and sea otters. Fortunately, Costa Rica has established 24 national parks, which span over 21 percent of the country’s land, to protect these species from possible extinction. Visitors can get up close and personal with many of these species while exploring the country’s national parks, rain forests, beaches and volcanoes.
Costa Rica’s reputation as one of the most biologically diverse countries has not only spurred ecotourism, but has also united the country’s government, native communities and private sectors. The popularity of Costa Rica’s natural habitats led to the expansion of protected areas, where logging, poaching and some agricultural activities are now prohibited.
Kenya: Creating alternative fuels
Kenya’s efforts to promote clean energy and sustainability have surpassed those of much larger, wealthier countries. Its ecotourism industry is composed mostly of smaller camps and lodges, many of which have turned to wind and solar power as an alternative to wood-burning stoves. Droughts have placed a great demand on firewood, which approximately 80 percent of all Africans use to cook their meals. Not only is the excessive use of firewood turning savannas and grasslands into barren deserts, but, according to the Household Energy Network (HEDON), the abundant smoke produced by the wood is the fourth leading cause of death and disease in the world’s poorest countries.
Efforts to curb wood-burning in Kenya preserve the environment and save lives
For these reasons many lodges have created wetlands where their recycled wastewater can be turned into fuel that can be used for warmth or cooking. Environmental organizations like Urban Harvest have also come up with a way to reduce the country’s reliance on firewood while stimulating its local economy. The organization teaches local Kenyan women how to make briquettes, which perform the same types of function as firewood and can be made by compressing recyclable materials like saw dust, paper, rice husks, leaves and grass.
To protect natural wildlife, a main source of pride and tourism for Kenya, societies like Ecotourism Kenya encourage visitors to only book safaris with tour groups that keep their vehicles on designated paths. They also encourage tourists to take advantage of the walking safaris that are frequently offered by indigenous people, such as the Masai.
Belize: Appreciating marine life
Though Belize has many natural wonders, one of its biggest ecotourism draws is its vast bodies of water and exotic marine life. "Its coastal areas are a huge draw due to their remarkably beautiful water and coral reefs," Jampol said. Visitors to Belize can observe three species of sea turtles, three types of dolphins, river otters and one of the largest manatee populations in the world. These animals can be spotted on sailing, snorkeling and kayaking excursions, all of which allow tourists to enter the animal’s native habitats with little to no disturbance to the wildlife and pollution to the water.
In fact, many organizations encourage visitors to explore Belize through its series of lagoons, caves, waterfalls, rivers, wetlands, channels and reefs. Eco-friendly tourists can explore Belize’s large reptile and bird populations by traveling down the Burdon Canal, which leads them into the Burdon Canal Nature Reserve. They can experience the 150-mile Belize barrier reef system and Hol Chan Marine Reserve, which allows visitors to enter many of its waters. The Aguas Turbias Reserve consists of 7,000 acres of immense flora and fauna that come from Belize, as well as nearby Mexico and Guatemala. A viewing station in Mountain Pine Ridge allows for ample views of Hidden Valley Falls, where waterfalls disappear into the jungles below. Clarissa Falls and Blue Hole also offer opportunities for swimming and guided tubing tours.
Alaska: Supporting indigenous communities
There are more than 200 native communities in Alaska.
According to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, there are more than 200 villages and communities throughout the state that are home to native Alaskans. Being that they comprise 16 percent of the state’s total population, Alaska’s government and tribal councils have done their best to incorporate the indigenous population and their culture into ecotourism efforts. The Alaska State Council on the Arts created the Silver Hand Program, which provides free materials and marketing and business training and resources to natives who create arts and crafts that are composed primarily or entirely of natural materials.
Natives from various tribes are hired as guides for hiking and camping excursions that are held in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of America’s largest nature preserves. The Alutiiq—who are native to Kodiak Island—are hired as consultants to assist the Kodiak Native Tourism Association with tourism and marketing opportunities. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the Mekoryuk tribe on Nunivak Island in an effort to allow the tribe to co-manage the island’s musk ox, one of the nation’s largest federally managed herds. Natives are also employed by private tourism agencies as boat captains, wilderness guides, pilots and lodging managers.
Thailand: Righting past wrongs
Thailand didn’t begin as an extremely eco-friendly destination when it first became a tourism hotspot. Over the years, however, the country that was once famous for logging, ecological encroachment and the unnecessary killing of animals for profit has turned over a new leaf.
“Thailand...really lost much of its draw as an eco-destination due to the uncontrolled development in the most attractive areas and its growing problems with conservation,” said Jampol.
Today, however, the country boasts numerous eco resorts that are not only constructed out of natural materials, such as bamboo, straw and palm, but are situated alongside Thailand’s pristine forests, beaches, plantations and rivers, which allows tourists to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of these untouched lands with.
Organizations like Wildlife Fund Thailand have also mobilized local communities to spread the word that killing exotic animals—especially to utilize just one part—is unacceptable. The fund emphasizes that tourists should boycott any goods made from turtle shells, ivory, or tiger’s or leopard’s teeth. They also urge tourists to boycott any restaurants that specialize in “jungle cuisine,” such as shark’s fin soup, bird’s nest soup, and anything made from the meat of the endangered Malaysian sun bears and Asiatic black bears. The fund has even launched a project called “Ivory Belongs on Elephants,” in which schoolchildren inspect local tourist shops for souvenirs made of ivory. If they don’t find any they provide the owner with a sticker that says "'Ivory Belongs on Elephants. No Ivory Sold Here," which alerts tourists that the shop does not buy products made from elephants.