10 top ecotourism destinations for 2018
By Josh Lew, Mother Nature Network, 4 January 2018.
By Josh Lew, Mother Nature Network, 4 January 2018.
Destinations like Costa Rica, Dominica and Botswana thrive on nature travel and ecotourism. Other countries have tried, with varying degrees of success, to capitalize on travelers’ desires to move beyond the usual tourist scene in a sustainable way.
As a result, ecotourism has become more accessible over the past couple of decades. Unfortunately, that means that the kind of packaged experience that many people try to avoid has made its way into the ecotourism niche, too.
Still, there are plenty of places without hordes of tourists, places that have a lot to offer those who define themselves as "explorers" and who want to keep authenticity in their travel experiences.
Here are some of the best ecotourism destinations to consider in 2018...
1. East Timor
Photo: Kok Leng Yeo/Wikimedia Commons
East Timor became a country in 2002 after separating from Indonesia. It has an impoverished image and a lack of infrastructure compared to the other popular destinations in the region. Unlike Bali or Phuket, however, Timor is not overrun by tourists. At the same time, it has the amazing diving opportunities, secluded beaches and tropical mountain vistas that first made its now-crowded peers so attractive to visitors.
Some of Timor’s best dive spots are only a short distance from the capital city of Dili. Atauro Island, for example, is an hour boat ride away. In addition to undeveloped interiors, the island boasts some of the most biodiverse waters in the region. Another popular (by East Timorese standards) destination is Jaco Island, a nature-dominated island with one drawback: a large population of saltwater crocodiles. It’s a bit early in the tourism development timeline to talk about sustainability, but with limitless cycling, diving and trekking opportunities, it's certainly possible to have a nature-themed journey in East Timor.
Photo: Vladimir V. Burov/Flickr
Uzbekistan has a diverse geography. The Central Asian nation features the vast Eurasian steppe along with mountains, deserts, lakes, river deltas and forests. Authorities have focused on ecotourism development, and recent government reforms have, at least on the surface, given the country a more-welcoming, less-authoritarian image. Aside from its obvious natural attributes, Uzbekistan is developing and promoting its historic and cultural sites.
Long a target for mountaineers, kayakers, rafters and other adventure travel types, the country has started offering accessible cultural excursions, homestays and guided hiking, biking and horseback treks. Actually, the entire region seems poised for more ecotourism traffic. Uzbekistan’s neighbor, Kazakhstan, has an array of national parks and nature sites that are starting to grow.
Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons
A civil war made Mozambique a no-go zone for tourists from the 1970s until the '90s. Despite occasional flare-ups, the peaceful period since the conflict has given the country a chance to rebuild. The huge range of habitats - from forests and plains to beaches and reef-ringed islands - makes Mozambique a prime place for ecotourism development. Conservationists have repopulated Gorongosa National Park, on the southernmost end of the Great Rift Valley, with species that were decimated by poaching during the war.
Ecotourism is also possible along the coast, where luxury lodges work alongside the local population. Some of these venues provide infrastructure, employment and education so that the islanders, mostly subsistence farmers and fishermen, can enjoy economic benefits of tourism. Because it remains less popular than neighboring South Africa and Botswana, Mozambique still has an off-the-beaten-path allure and plenty of opportunities for those who want to support sustainable tourism efforts.
Photo: Jon Gretarsson/Wikimedia Commons
Iceland is not new to ecotourism. It has been recognized in the past as one of the best ecotourism destinations in the world. The sparsely populated island nation that flirts with the Arctic Circle is dominated by volcanoes, geothermal springs and rivers, all of which visitors can explore easily. What has changed in the past few years is that Iceland-based budget airlines have made it easier and cheaper to get from the U.S. to the island. Arrivals have been increasing as a result, but the tourist totals are still modest compared to places in Europe.
Not only is it now easier to get to Iceland, but it is simple to travel sustainably once you arrive. Most of the country’s energy comes from geothermal and hydroelectric plants, the tourism authorities promote environmentally friendly hotels and guides focus on non-motorized excursions. While its ecotourism industry is not new, cheap and readily available airfares make the country more accessible than ever for people who want to experience it.
Photo: Rod Waddington/Wikimedia Commons
Now one of the more stable places in an unstable region, Ethiopia has long been a destination for adventurous people who are fascinated by history and culture. As one of Africa’s most popular destinations, Egypt, struggles with security and instability, Ethiopia has been popping up on more travelers’ radar. Because of economic struggles, conflict and famine, Ethiopia has not yet lived up to its tourism potential. It is, after all, the second most populous country on the continent, after Nigeria, and it has a huge array of cultures, wildlife, landscapes and ancient churches, temples and palaces.
Like Iceland, Ethiopia has recently benefited from expanded air links, with Ethiopian Airlines adding international flights. What about sustainability? Some tours (but not all), are starting to focus on creating a sustainable model that will allow the remote villages to retain their culture in the face of growing tourism interest.
Photo: Roberto Strauss/Wikimedia Commons
Lonely Planet calls Georgia “one of the most beautiful countries on earth.” Georgia’s geographic attributes are indisputable. Regions of this country have been isolated by the Caucasus Mountains for centuries. Svaneti, for example, is a remote place with 1,000-year-old villages, while the landscapes of Tusheti National Park have been experienced only by sheep herders and the most intrepid trekkers. The country also has one of the world’s oldest and most overlooked wine-making scenes.
Georgia has experienced tourism growth in recent years. Earlier in the current decade, it enjoyed a 300 percent increase in foreign arrivals. The goal over the next 10 years is to make certain that this growth is turned into a sustainable tourism industry with a focus on “culture and natural heritage.”
7. Solomon Islands
Photo: Xplore Dive/Flickr
The Solomon Islands, a Micronesian nation to the east of Papua New Guinea, has been off the beaten tourist path for decades. Remnants from one of World War II’s most important battles, on Guadalcanal, have made this a destination for history buffs. WWII relics abound, but so too do nature attractions. The Solomons boast untouched reefs, tropical mountains, abundant bird life, dense jungles and villages where traditional life is still thriving.
This issue with the Solomons, like neighboring Papua New Guinea, is that infrastructure is basic in some areas and non-existent in others. Flights from Brisbane, Sydney, New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu serve Honiara, the capital, but service is not daily. Steady growth has made travel somewhat easier, but the islands still retain an adventure-tourism feel.
Photo: Anne Dirkse/Flickr
Southeast Asia has experienced a tourism boom over the past two decades. This trend has been a windfall for countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. However, one country, Laos, came late to the party. A slow pace of life still dominates, even in the capital city, Vientiane. Despite a recent dip in arrival numbers, tourists have been coming in greater numbers in recent years. Most are drawn by the temples and UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the ancient city of Luang Prabang and the beautiful waterfalls and backpacker hotspots in the countryside.
More air connections have helped Lao tourism grow in recent years. This has been most evident in major destinations like Luang Prabang. Activities like trekking, climbing, biking and boating on the country’s river and lake system are now more accessible, but still not overcrowded. A tourism push in 2018 could increase the number of visitors as people look for an alternative to the crowds of neighboring Thailand.
Photo: John Cooke/Flickr
Like East Timor and Mozambique, Rwanda’s recent history is filled with conflict. One of the worst genocides in recent memory took place in Rwanda in 1994. A relatively stable government, international aid and focused economic development have all helped the country experience a dramatic recovery. Ecotourism is part of this success story. Rwanda’s nature and wildlife have been treated like national treasures. Mountain gorillas are now a major tourism draw, as are treks in the mountains, agritourism and cultural experiences.
There is more to this tiny central African country than “Gorillas in the Mist” experiences. Mountain forests are ideal for trekking and mountain biking. Lake Kivu touches western Rwanda. It offers aquatic attractions and some of the continent's most attractive inland beaches. Nearby Nyungwe Forest National Park features hundreds of species of mammals, birds and reptiles and has become a model for conservation in Africa.
Photo: Christopher Michel/Flickr
Nature is surprisingly accessible in Chile, even in remote areas. This long, thin country has diverse landscapes, from the Atacama Desert in the north to Patagonia in the south. Long, rugged coastline and lush valleys are isolated from the rest of the country by high mountain peaks. In addition to Patagonia, Chile is probably best known for its vineyards (and there is a lively wine tourism scene).
But grapes are not the main draw here. Alpinists gravitate to the high Andes and trekkers spend time walking and camping in several well-kept national parks. Kayaking, biking, wildlife viewing and other common ecotourism activities are all on the agenda for Chile visitors. And then there is one of South America’s most well-known destinations: Easter Island.
Top image: Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Credit: F Mira/Flickr.
[Source: Mother Nature Network. Some images added.]