Pack Your Bags: Ethical Traveler Shares 10 Best Destinations for 2013

Dec 13, 2012 by

The annual list looks at how developing countries stack up in terms of environmental protection, human rights and social welfare.
December 12, 2012  |

Photo Credit: © LarissaD/

This article was published in partnership with

Ready for a vacation — or just ready to start dreaming of one? Ethical Traveler, a nonprofit organization that is a project of Earth Island Institute, just released its annual list of the top places to hit if you want to pack your conscience on your holiday. “Where we go—where we spend our travel dollars—has real economic and political significance,” the organization says. “Ethical Traveler believes that mindful travel can bring many benefits, both personal and global. By choosing our destinations well and remembering our roles as citizen diplomats, we can create international goodwill and help change the world for the better.”

Ethical Traveler’s annual list looks at developing countries and how they stack up in terms of environmental protection, human rights and social welfare. Of course, the organization says, no country is perfect and even among its best picks there is room for improvement. (Read about its methodology here.)

Six of the countries on the list this year were also on last year’s list. Three of the countries that were dropped this year lost their spots because of declining in the environmental protection arena — Chile, Serbia and Argentina (Chile and Argentina also failed this year on human rights concerns). The Bahamas was also cut. The report’s authors said, “We applauded the country’s social welfare and human rights record while spurring it to pay more attention to environmental issues. A year later, however, we conclude that the Bahamas lacks genuine environmental will; as one of the highest GDP generating countries in the Caribbean, the Bahamas has the power and capacity to implement innovative environmental awareness policies, but it failed to do so in 2012.”

When it comes to human rights, Ethical Traveler says that some countries were excluded because of legislation that is homophobic (although it doesn’t list which countries those were). There are some on the list that “do have anti-gay statutes on the books,” but the laws are “laxly enforced” (more on this below).

While the countries on this list have been selected in part because of their commitment to environmental protection, it’s worth mentioning that travelers considering any far-flung destination should consider the environmental impact of even making the journey. There is so much to consider about one’s economic, social and environmental impact when visiting another country, it’s nice that Ethical Traveler has done a lot of research for you and lists not jut the highs of each country, but also the lows (or needs improvement). Like any compilation, it’s a great starting point for each person’s individual research before traveling.

Without further ado, here are the winners Ethical Traveler has selected this year, listed alphabetically. (View the full report on their Web site.)

1. Barbados

The popular Caribbean vacation spot gets high marks for putting together a green economy study in collaboration with the United Nations Environmental Program. The report also points to its strong rates of literacy and education and its eco-conscious scuba programs, and it was ranked second in the Americas “in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.”

However, the negatives listed for Barbados seem troubling: “Areas it could work to improve are human trafficking, including more women in the government, and progressing LGBTQ rights.“ And the report mentions that, “Homosexuality criminalized, possibility of life imprisonment.” As a gay traveler, I wouldn’t care how lax the enforcement, I wouldn’t take my chances.

2. Cape Verde

An island off the coast of West Africa, Cape Verde has the region’s highest standard of living and is a relative newcomer as a tourist destination, which can make a visit much more pleasant. Ethical Traveler reports that the country is headed toward 100 percent renewable energy and creating a zero-emissions plan for tourism. It received, “the second-highest ranking for governance performance in the 2011 Ibrahim Index of African Governance,” the report says.

3. Costa Rica

Loaded with national parks and biological preserves, this Central American hotspot also made the list last year. Of note is that Costa Rica hit the top of the list for happiest countries (according the Happy Planet Index), it has banned shark finning and sport hunting (though not hunting for subsistence), and it has plummeting crime rates.

On the flip side, the Human Rights Council there decided not to guarantee economic equality for LGBT people, the morning-after pill is still not legal, and coffee production has lead to deleterious environmental effects.

4. Ghana

A beautiful country known for its wildlife and eco-tourism, Ghana got high points in the report for being politically stable with civil rights “mostly respected.” This apparently doesn’t extend to gay rights. The report authors say, in “Ghana, however—a country with an otherwise impressive social and environmental record—active discrimination does take place. We include Ghana on this year’s list hoping that this spotlight, along with our vote of confidence, will inspire reform.”

Let’s hope that’s not just wishful thinking. The country also scores well on press freedoms and land conservation.

5. Latvia

Earning a spot on the list for a consecutive year makes Latvian Americans like myself proud. Ethical Traveler praises the Baltic nation for press freedom, flourishing democracy, pollution-free waters, and “most improved country on the Environmental Protection Index.” The report authors write that “Virtually half of Latvia is unspoiled nature — a safe haven to countless protected species. Very strong culture of ecotourism (including preservation of habitat and culture).“

They get a demerit, however, for being tough on non-citizens.

6. Lithuania

Neighboring Lithuania is also a repeat on the list and scores high for environmental and historical preservation. And the report says, “Kaunas, Lithuania entered as candidate for European Green Capital 2015 on the basis of 12 indicators covering climate change and energy performance, sustainable local transport, air quality and noise levels, green urban areas and sustainable land use, nature and biodiversity promotion, waste management, water consumption and waste water treatment, eco-innovation and sustainable employment, and the environmental management practice of the local authority.“

7. Mauritius

Mauritius, also included on last year’s list, scores high for literacy, human rights, life expectancy, as well as per capita income in Africa. It’s also shifted to a focus on sustainable development and energy efficiency. However, the country lacks in gender equality, with domestic violence a “prominent issue.” Ethical Traveler also reports high rates of HIV and diabetes.

8. Palau

If you’re looking for a beach vacation, you can rest easy on the shores of Palau which is “a vanguard in its conservation efforts through the Green Energy Micronesia Initiative,” according to Ethical Traveler. Palau made the 2012 list as well and scores high for human development, human rights and conservation.

But look out for environmental impacts from oil drilling, overfishing, poor waste disposal, and the dredging of coral reefs.

9. Samoa

If you can’t make it Palau you can still hit the beach in breathtaking Samoa. “Samoa’s constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status,” writes Ethical Travler. And “the government has proactively sought protection of the environment through the designation of national parks and improved management of the coast, both done in consultation with local communities. The government has been very vocal in its support of finding solutions to climate change impacts.”

The downsides to this paradise are gender discrimination, legal spousal rape and domestic violence, not to mention that “same-sex sexual acts are illegal,” although Ethical Traveler says there are “few incidents of LGBT discrimination.“

10. Uruguay

Last but not least, Uruguay is no stranger to Ethical Traveler’s top 10 list. The report ranks it among the highest in the region for women’s and LGBT rights. It has also has environmentally sustainable agricultural policies, is pursuing renewable energy, supports  worker’s rights and has invested in education (including laptops for all students in primary and secondary schools).

The downsides include getting caught in the web of drug trafficking.

Check out Ethical Traveler’s full report here.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the new book Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.

We welcome your comments!