More and more countries are choosing ecotourism as part of their overall economic strategy to tap into the expanding market of a new breed of travelers. These tourists look to eschew the ethical issues related to mainstream travel. They want the environment preserved and local communities to benefit.
While countries such as Costa Rica have successfully marketed themselves as eco-friendly destinations, others are barely noticed. To make it onto our list of the top five up-and-coming ecotourism locations, not only did a destination have to have the natural goods, but it also needed to be relatively unknown. The list is geographically diverse, with topographies ranging from some of the highest untouched mountains in the world to unspoiled desert wonderlands.
The West African country of Gabon, the 2008 set of the CBS TV show Survivor, gained its independence from France almost 50 years ago, and has since then only been ruled by two presidents. Bordered by Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and the Republic of Congo, the country enjoys a pristine 550-mile Atlantic coastline. The country, roughly the size of Colorado, has only about 1.5 million inhabitants.
Gabon is home to big game, including elephants and gorillas, as well as 680 bird species
With an average population density of four people per square kilometer, the African country of Gabon has 80 percent tree cover and an unspoiled environment that is hard to come by on the continent, according to Ecotourism Gabon. Those looking for big game will not be disappointed. Elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees and humpback whales abound. Bird watchers can spend their time trying to spot some of the 680 types of birds that call the country their home. Orchid lovers can revel in discovering the estimated 320 kinds that grow in the nation.
Worried about the depletion of its oil wealth, President Omar Bongo decided in 2002 to convert roughly 11,000 square miles of the country--around 10 percent of the country--into a dozen national parks in an effort to diversify the nation's economy. With the current season of Survivor well underway, the nation's tourism officials hope it will bring much deserved attention to the relatively unknown Gabon, according to MSNBC.
The landlocked country of Laos is squeezed between Burma, Cambodia, China, Thailand and Vietnam. It has officially adopted ecotourism as one of its economic strategies and is eager to grow and become recognized as a destination. The national tourism administration aims to make Laos "a world renowned destination specializing in forms of sustainable tourism," according to the Ecotourism Laos website. However, overshadowed by regional travel blockbusters such as Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is often dubbed the "forgotten" Asia and remains untouched by mass-tourism.
That said, it has a lot to offer to hardy travelers who won't be discouraged by its underdeveloped infrastructure. Tourists can visit World Heritage sites, trek to villages in protected areas, climb limestone karsts and kayak and raft on one of the country's waterways or simply take a break from reality and relax on the banks of the Mekong River.
The ruddy Namib dunes meet the blue waters of the Atlantic in Namibia: a land of stark juxtapositions
Diamond-producing Namibia's stark beauty is not for everyone. It is a land of barren deserts, wide open spaces and eternal blue skies. After Mongolia, it is the second most sparsely populated country in the world. Some of its attractions include Fish River Canyon Park, the out-of-this-world reddish and orange sand dunes of Sossusvlei, Etosha National Park and the ghostly Skeleton Coast. Languages spoken in the country include click languages that were made famous by the 1980 movie The Gods Must Be Crazy
Located on the Atlantic cost of Southern Africa, Namibia is bordered by Angola, Botswana, South Africa and Zambia. It is only a two-hour flight away from Cape Town, South Africa. For all its famously desolate deserts, the country supports a surprisingly large variety of wildlife, including big game such as lions, elephants, zebras and giraffes.
Poland is located in Central Europe and is bordered by Belarus, Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine and the Baltic Sea. For those looking to getaway from it all, be out of their element, and experience a new culture without having to go to a jungle in a far -lung country, Poland may just be the perfect destination.
Its charming countryside is relatively unspoiled. Travelers can hike, canoe, ride horses and cycle their way through rural Poland. Tourists can stay on organic farms and enjoy honest-to-goodness, home-cooked country meals. All this, while a full-on 21st century awaits around the corner in Poland's major cities of Warsaw and Krakow.
Everyone has heard of Tibet, but most people are unfamiliar with the other Himalayan Buddhist nation of Bhutan. Squeezed between China and India, the kingdom of Bhutan boasts a 72 percent forest cover and measures its progress in Gross National Happiness. Here, visitors looking to retreat from life's day to day stress can find numerous colorful festivals, a variety of treks in a pristine, well preserved environment, abundant wildlife, ancient Buddhist monasteries, snow capped peaks and peaceful locals.
The Bhutanese government, keen on preserving the cultural heritage of its people and the environment, encourages ecotourism. As a result, it has put 26 percent of the country's land under protection, according Tour de Bhutan, a government registered tour operator. Among its wildlife attractions are more than 150 types of mammals, such as snow leopards, tigers, blue sheep, musk deer, red pandas and the golden langur, an endemic primate, as well as 770 known species of birds, such as the rufous-necked hornbill, black-necked crane and Pallas' fish-eagle. It has a rich plant life, too, with more than 5,500 types recognized, 750 of which are endemic to the Eastern Himalayas.