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Tourism has the power to bring jobs and economic development to popular destinations, but how should travellers decide where to spend their money? Are some countries more deserving of visitors’ dollars than others?

That’s the idea behind the 10-destination list put together by San Francisco-based non-profit Ethical Traveler, which, since 2006, has published an annual guide to the World’s Best Ethical Destinations in the developing world.

“Instead of punishing countries for doing bad things,” said Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Traveler, “we’re trying to offer a carrot, rewarding countries in the developing world that are really trying to do the right thing.”

And travellers, who Greenwald describes as “a vast and pretty much un-united political action group”, can also reward ethical countries – or at least those improving and moving in the right direction – by spending their time and money there.

So which countries are the most ethical? For 2013, the winners are Barbados, Cape Verde, Costa Rica, Ghana, Latvia, Lithuania, Mauritius, Palau, Samoa and Uruguay. Those 10 countries scored highest in three main areas: social welfare (measured by indicators such as child mortality rates, economic freedom and crime rates); environmental protection (measured by an academic index and share of protected areas); and human rights (which includes press and political freedoms, as well as gay rights).

Greenwald explained that countries must have a good tourism infrastructure to make the list, but the non-profit also uses the list to promote some under-visited places that can be a role model for other countries in their region. For example, Latvia earned high marks for improving its environmental efforts and strong human rights record, and the country’s parks and nature reserves make for a great off-the-beaten-path ecotourism trip. Gauja National Park, with hiking, biking and canoeing, and the architecture-rich capital, Riga, are a few of the Baltic country’s highlights.

In addition to just visiting these countries, travellers should aim to spend their money in locally-owned businesses, Greenwald said, to ensure their financial support stays in the country they’re visiting. However, that requires a well-managed tourism infrastructure – something that countries with poor track records in areas like child mortality and sanitation might not have. While one could argue those places need the money even more, tourism can put a strain on countries that face such challenges.

“They need help from other sources, and when tourism is strong and can be an asset as opposed to a liability, then travellers can visit,” Greenwald explained.

Erica Avrami, research and education director at the World Monuments Fund (WMF) agreed that countries need to be properly equipped so the influx of travellers does not overwhelm local communities or heritage sites. WMF works to preserve cultural heritage sites that run the risk of being damaged by poorly managed tourism.

But while Avrami said that a list of ethical destinations is “a wonderful idea”, the idea of being ethical goes both ways. “There’s also a certain responsibility on the part of the traveller to make sure their own footprint is as minimal as possible,” she said.

Lori Robertson writes the ethical traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to bbcethicaltravel@gmail.com.

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