Travelers yield tremendous economic power. Total receipts from international tourism amounted to $1.3 trillion in 2012, and international tourist arrivals grew by 5 percent in the first nine months of last year, according to the World Tourism Organization.
Much of this growth is in emerging economies, where governments are quite eager to welcome international travelers but are sometimes rather soft in the areas of environmental protections, human rights, social welfare, or animal welfare. That's why it's helpful that Ethical Traveler, a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit organization founded to "empower travelers to change the world," does some of the heavy lifting when it comes to deciding which emerging tourist destinations to patronize. Each year the group issues a list of the "10 Best Ethical Destinations," based on a detailed survey of developing nations.
Ethical Traveler studies a variety of sources and annual reports, ranging from the Environmental Performance Index, which rates countries based on environmental and public health metrics, to Freedom House, a human-rights watchdog group. Ethical Traveler's executive director Jeff Greenwald, a long-time travel writer and tourism expert, comprises a team of industry experts to conduct the survey and compile the list.
Each nation is judged based on its social welfare programs, its efforts to protect its environment, and its human-rights records. Countries were also based on animal welfare policies for the first time this year.
The list is offered in alphabetical order because they're all equally weighted within the top 10. The counties listed with an asterisk also appeared on the 2013 list.
Kudos: New Marine Protected Areas and major expansion in the Andros National Parks
Concern: A proposed dolphin park (Blackbeard's Cay) would violate animal protection laws, not to mention common sense ethics.
Kudos: Sustainable coastline development, strong civil liberties policies
Kudos: An impressive goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2025 and increasingly strong LGBT rights
Kudos: Its Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve is working to protect threatened species and is attracting locals away from logging and toward tourist-based jobs
Concern: Poor record in indigenous rights. In fact Chile was nearly cut from the list due to the government's suppression of Mapuche protests
Kudos: Forest and native species conservation, and working toward energy independence
Concern: Also needs to better protect indigenous rights
Kudos: It has made strides in gender equality. Also a strong performer in the Environmental Performance Index
Concern: Report calls out Latvia for poor treatment of non-Latvian residents
Kudos: More high marks in the Environmental Performance Index. It has also improved social welfare scores in recent years
Kudos: World Bank has recognized Mauritius for its sustainable tourism development practices
Concern: The island nation runs a wild-caught and captive-bred monkeys program, exported for laboratory uses
Kudos: Palau has the highest percentage of protected marine and terrestrial protections on the list—nearly a third of the island is protected.
Kudos: Strong human rights score and a new goal of 90 percent renewable electricity by 2015
These are just highlights. Read the full report for a complete picture and a list of five additional "destination of interest," some of which will surprise you (like Iran).
Even if you're not the type of stay at fancy resorts or hire guides, every dollar you spend while traveling in an emerging tourist economy is a vote for that economy. Ethical Traveler stresses that its list is issued "to encourage the behaviors we see as creating a safer and more sustainable world."
A country might appear on the list one year may fall off of it the next. Sometimes that's because of a specific policy it has enacted or failed to follow. For example, Ghana was on the 2012 list, but with the caveat that if it did not address its discriminatory policies toward homosexuals, it would be dropped—and it was. Says the 2014 report: "Ghana not only failed to make progress; the situation deteriorated further this year with worsening violence against same sex couples and two women being arrested for “engaging in illegal practice."
Sometimes a country falls off the list merely by being squeezed out by a new emerging hot spot. If you're considering visiting a specific country that isn't on this list, check out last year's list, and more winners dating back to 2006, available on the group's website.