The Top Ten Ethical Travel Destinations

By Abi King | Responsible Travel

Feb 06
Ethical Travel Destinations - Ethical Tourism Highlights

Ethical Travel Destinations - Ethical Tourism Highlights

Ethical Tourism and the Top Ten Ethical Travel Destinations

UPDATED 2019

We all want to feel as though we're visiting ethical travel destinations. But it can be a complex subject to pick apart. Here, we visit the idea of ethical tourism and introduce the top ten ethical travel destinations in the world.

Imagine This 

What's one of the most satisfying things you've ever done? It was probably something where someone else benefited along the way. Despite the gloomy headlines, that's just how we humans are wired. Sure, we need to look out for ourselves. But we also need to look out for other people in order to survive. It's part of who we are. And most of us want to do the right thing and make the right choice, particularly when it comes to travel. 

We want to visit ethical travel destinations. We want to support ethical tourism.

But, simply put, there are never enough hours in the day!

What is ethical tourism?

Ethical tourism is similar to responsible travel, green travel and sustainable tourism but not exactly the same. Ethical tourism refers mainly to a type of travel that is designed to benefit the people and environment of a host destination. 

The Problem 

The problem is that nowhere's perfect. No-one's perfect. Trying to make a list of ethical travel destinations is as slippery and complicated as trying to herd toddlers uphill on skis.

It can be done. But it's time consuming. 

Which is why having robust organisations to do it on our behalf is such a beautiful thing. 

So, here's a quick guide to the top ten list. If you want more detail, it's there below. If you don't, well, that's cool. Go, travel, enjoy!

The Ethical Travel Destination Top Ten List

  • Benin
  • Costa Rica*
  • Ecuador
  • Fiji
  • Mongolia*
  • Nepal
  • Palau*
  • The Gambia
  • Uruguay*

Why are there only nine?! Because Chile blotted its copy book at the last minute and got bumped off the list. 

*What do the asterisks mean? They mean that these countries also appeared on last year's list. Since the award refers primarily to the most improvement made over the last year, that's a really big deal. Those places are doing really, really well.

How Ethical Traveler Curates the List

"In the late summer of each year, Ethical Traveler surveys the world’s developing nations—from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. We begin our research by focusing on three general categories: environmental protection, social welfare, and human rights. In 2013, responding to requests from our members, we added animal welfare to our investigations."


They use material gathered from Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Reporters Without Borders, UNICEF, the World Bank, and LGBTI resources, to draw up the short list.


They then drill down on the details. 

Who Are Ethical Traveler?

I first heard of Ethical Traveler in 2011 and they have been publishing lists every single year since then. They're one of the best lists around but (and they would happily admit this) they have limitations. 

They purposefully only look at "developing" countries. 

They reward on the basis of progress over the last year, not ranking in the world. 

In fact, this is what I wrote when I first heard from them in 2011: 

The Pros and Cons of Ethical Travel Lists

When it comes to "Top Ten" lists, I find them fun but I never take them seriously. They obviously weren't designed to be. 

So when an email landed in my ludicrously overpopulated inbox with the subject "The Top Ten Ethical Destinations," my cynical old heart sank a little. Why? Because this was something that I really wanted to believe someone had put some thought into, that this might actually be something that "meant" something.

But a lifetime's digital flotsam and jetsam prepared me for the worst.

In spite of myself, I opened it.

It started with a pleasant surprise (addressed by name! spelled correctly!) and then quickly moved on:

"Ethical Traveler conducts an annual study of developing nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe to identify the best ethical tourism destinations. The group focuses on three general categories: environmental protection, social welfare, and human rights."

Sounds good. What's your evidence base?

It was around this point that my cynicism began to weaken: UNICEF, Amnesty International, The World Bank - and the list certainly didn't end there. Even the quote had a sense of perspective and reality:

"Clearly, the idea of naming the 10 'best' developing countries has its perils. No country in the world is perfect. All the places on our list have both strengths and weaknesses. Still these are the best of the best."

Are you dodging the hard questions?

"Suriname was removed from our list after the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Suriname to ensure legal acknowledgment of the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples. We remove Suriname with regret, as the country had conquered a place in last year’s Top 10 due to its unspoiled rainforest biodiversity and sincere efforts towards ecotourism and environmental preservation."

So, everything's perfect in The Top Ten?

"None of the countries on this year’s Ethical Destinations list is perfect, and four countries must include special caveats. In Barbados and Dominica, homosexuality remains criminalized. Normally this is a deal-breaker for us, but the laws do not appear to be zealously enforced. We sincerely hope that our vote of confidence will persuade these country’s leaders to repeal these backward laws. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland should do more to prevent discrimination against ethnic and sexual minorities while Costa Rica, Argentina, and Barbados have to step up their efforts even further to halt sex trafficking."

Uhh...This sounds really useful then

The even better news was learning that this annual reports comes from a non-profit organisation called Ethical Traveler, a set-up that calls travellers to "vote with their wings." Travel and tourism is the world's largest industry and Ethical Traveler urges people "to use their economic power to address our planet’s urgent environmental and humanitarian problems."

I couldn't agree more.

Ethical Traveler aren't perfect but they're pretty good and have been around for years. Find out more about them here.

What about other ethical tourism lists?

Well, in conjunction with my plan to make 2019 more about sustainable tourism, I'll be curating more lists here. 

Why? Because the more thorough reports there are, the more accurate the results. Also, the more businesses and governments see that this is a real concern for travellers, the more likely they are to act ethically. 

The Telegraph, for example, published this list of eco-friendly destinations based on research published by the EPI (Environmental Performance Index.)

It includes Switzerland, Denmark, Slovenia and more European countries so already has a very different slant to the one from Ethical Traveler. 

Ethical Tourism in Summary

There's nowhere perfect on earth. But that shouldn't stop us all striving to be. The work by Ethical Traveler and others in producing a list of the world's best ethical travel destinations each year helps to keep moving that progress in the right direction. And it gives us a framework on which to get started. 

Ethical Traveler have announced their top 10 ethical travel destinations on the basis of research from Amnesty International, the World Bank, animal rights groups and more. It\'s a fascinating list and an interesting approach to sustainable tourism. #ethical #travel #sustainabletravel
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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Interesting, I wish I had the time to look into it more deeply, re human rights, child labour, protection of the environment etc in each country.

  • Andrea says:

    Glad to see four of the places we will travel to on the list!

  • My cynical heart would’ve had a similar reaction when reading that email. But I’ll buy it… I’m just glad that there’s somebody out there doing this thing and I guess the least we can do is show that there is a demand for such an oversight.

    Glad to see that Argentina and Chile made it up there. We’re heading there this summer!

  • I have been 8 destinations out of 10 that you mentioned. So really happy to see that my choice is good. now looking forward to explore remaining two.

    • Abi King says:

      Fantastic news! I was doing pretty well in previous years but only have visited 2-3 on this year’s list (the vagueness is because I was in one for such a short period of time, I’m not sure if it really “counts.”) I’m definitely now looking forward to exploring the rest.

  • J says:

    I hate to be deliberately negative, but the entire concept is inherently incorrect. “Ethical” refers to societal norms. Most of what is being argued is individual-based opinion and very much on the fringe. It is not innately ‘good.’ You could argue “value-based” or even “moral-based” travel, which is determined by you, but not ethics-based as you can’t determine that on your own…

    • Abi King says:

      Hey J – glad to have you hear and hear your thoughts. This isn’t my personal list, though. It’s one put together by an organisation pooling and combing through international data and the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. I wouldn’t say that’s fringe – but perhaps I’ve misunderstood what you’re trying to say?

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