Nat Geo’s sustainable travel expert, Costas Christ, highlights nine destinations around the world that are doing tourism right.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my life traveling the globe and spreading the gospel of sustainable tourism and its commitment to protecting natural and cultural heritage while improving the lives of local people.
From cities and islands to jungles and deserts, here are nine special places that present opportunities to celebrate travel at its eco-friendliest and finest.
A visit to rising ecotourism star Sri Lanka is kind of like having the best of Africa and Asia all rolled into a single easy-to-get-around island (it’s slightly larger than West Virginia).
Herds of Asian elephants specific to Sri Lanka roam, leopards frequent the southern forests, and rare gray slender lorises—among the smallest primates on Earth—present bucket-list-worthy wildlife-viewing opportunities.
Cultural heritage also reigns supreme here, from ancient Buddhist kingdoms that left behind vast archeological treasures to vibrantly vital Hindu festivals like Kataragama that draw thousands of spiritual devotees each year.
Jetwing Hotels, a family-owned enterprise deeply committed to environmental best practices, will help you tap into Sri Lanka’s wonders. Search for leopards in Yala National Park while staying at the company’s solar-powered camp, then head to newly open Jetwing Kaduruketha high in the mountains to explore villages nestled among emerald rice fields with a local as your guide.
Costa Rica embraced sustainable development before it was cool. And while some vestiges of mass-crass tourism have crept in, threatening to spoil the eco-party, the Central American nation still earns its keep as a global green-travel icon.
You will find this fact on full display at two exceptional jungle abodes, both of which are members of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World network. Powered by renewable energy, Pacuare Lodge, which sits deep within the 25,000-acre Talamanca rain forest, treats guests to immersive adventures in conservation—including reaching the lodge by white-water raft.
Farther afield, on the pristine Osa Peninsula, Lapa Rios—the granddaddy of Costa Rica’s ecolodge movement—is a paean to all things local and sustainable set on 980 acres of wildlife-rich nature reserve with top surf breaks nearby.
Though it was recently recognized as a leading sustainable-tourism destination by National Geographic’s World Legacy Awards, in a previous life Røros was one of the most important copper mining hubs in Norway.
That was then. These days, the industrial economy has given way to a community that earns its keep by preserving and celebrating its past.
Each season in Røros—a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980—delivers a unique wealth of cultural experiences for the intrepid traveler, from horse-drawn sleigh rides past the town’s historic wooden buildings in winter to local food foraging tours in the summer.
But perhaps the most memorable attraction is the Rørosmartnan market, an eagerly awaited February event since 1854. This grand annual gathering brings together traditional artisans, dance troupes, musicians, and culinary artists who happily share their talents with locals and visitors alike.
The renowned wine wonderland of the Barossa Valley is enough to put South Australia on your “go there now” list. Add in the fact that the Australian state is home to more nature reserves and parks than any of its peers and sets the pace for renewable energy across the continent, and you’ve got a surefire eco-traveler’s dream destination on your hands.
Not to mention capital city Adelaide, with its vibrant nightlife, creative arts scene, and bustling back-to-the-land market packed with Aussie goodies like handcrafted local cheeses to go with those topflight wines.
Trek the wild and stunning landscape of Flinders Chase National Park, get up close and personal with koalas at Cleland Wildlife Park, and spend a day exploring Adelaide Botanic Gardens, which doubles as the perfect Instagram-ready backdrop, to learn about some of Australia’s rare and endemic flora.
Praslin Island, Seychelles
You could come to this remote Indian Ocean archipelago simply to savor its mother lode of white-powder shores (which have probably racked up more “Best Beach in the World” awards than that of any other country), but it offers oh so much more.
Here are two of the country’s biggest draws: The Seychelles boasts many species found nowhere else and a conservation-minded government committed to protecting them.
Once upon a time, Earth was covered in primordial old-growth palm forests whose fossils are still being discovered. On Praslin Island you can see a living remnant of these ancient trees in the Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, home to the coco de mer (sea coconut)—a palm that can grow more than a hundred feet tall and yields the world’s largest nut.
According to Dr. Christopher Kaiser-Bunbury of Darmstadt Technical University, the reserve habitat represents one of the last island palm forest ecosystems in the world.
Kumano Kodō, Japan
The Kumano Kodō—a series of ancient pilgrimage routes based upon the Shinto tradition of nature worship—winds through the Kii Mountains to three of Japan’s most sacred shrines, known collectively as Kumano Sanzan.
Traditional villages along the way have welcomed nature-loving visitors—including Japanese spiritual seekers who regarded the mountains as holy—for more than a thousand years.
Today, they welcome them still—with the help of a handful of eco-minded tourism operators offering guided walks through the towering cedar forests and romantically rugged hillsides that typify the region.
After a sunset soak in one of the many bubbling hot springs you’ll encounter on your route, tuck into a traditional ryokan for seasonally inspired delicacies served in traditional kaiseki style—multiple courses that tantalize all the senses.
With an omnivore’s focus on all things local, top-rated public transit, and LEED-certified buildings aplenty, Portland ranks among the coolest and greenest urban outposts on the planet.
From the chic Pearl District to the quirky Alberta Arts area, the city’s artisan ethos and passionate dedication to supporting its maker economy has garnered praise and even parody (think Portlandia).
But behind the media hoopla is the real deal: great farmers markets, uncommon bookstores, more than 200 miles of bike paths, eccentric galleries and art spaces, and some of the most innovative sustainable-dining restaurants in the U.S.
Oregon’s largest city also provides easy access to the Columbia River Gorge in the east and the celebrated wine estates of the Willamette Valley to the south.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
There’s a reason National Geographic singled out Botswana as a model for preserving rare and endangered wildlife in Africa. And it can be summed up in the 21,380 squares miles of parks, reserves, and conservancies commonly known as the Okavango Delta.
This water-rich wilderness of rivers, islands, plains, and forests at the edge of the Kalahari Desert is essentially a giant green oasis teeming with big game, including lions, black rhinos, and the largest population of savanna elephants on the continent.
Luckily for wildlife lovers the world over, Botswana’s visionary approach to conservation through responsible tourism is on track to keep it that way.
Mount Rinjani, Indonesia
If you were to compare sleepy Lombok Island to its high-octane neighbor Bali in Aesopian terms, Lombok would be the tortoise to Bali’s hare.
As Bali morphed from a quiet tropical outpost to spring-break-party-haven complete with international designer stores, slow-and-steady Lombok focused on creating an ecotourism master plan inspired by the early success of a community-based trekking project on Mount Rinjani.
With local villagers as guides, the three-day expedition to Rinjani’s 12,000-foot-plus summit—Indonesia’s second highest peak—takes visitors through thick tropical forests rich in flora, bird life, and butterflies.
High above, campsites and lookout points on the volcanic crater’s rim offer sweeping vistas of mountains and sea—clear across to Bali