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What makes the Bahamas a more ethical vacation choice than Costa Rica?

That’s the crux of a recent survey about ethical travel, a movement that encourages travellers to be mindful about the impact of bringing tourism dollars to one country over another. To encourage responsible globetrotting, a California nonprofit Ethical Traveler has been regularly compiling a list of its top 10 ethical destinations since 2006. The surprise: 2014’s list, which came out in late 2013, has three new contenders: the Bahamas, Chile and Dominica. So what are they doing right that Costa Rica, Ghana and Samoa (which fell off the list from 2013) didn’t do enough of?

The answer lies in the way Ethical Traveler evaluates countries for its top 10 list.

In addition to more standard criteria like unspoiled natural beauty and authentic cultural experiences, researchers judged destinations on 35 metrics in four categories: environment protection, social welfare, human rights, and for the first time, animal welfare. In other words, judges considered quality of drinking water in the category of environmental protection, women’s rights in the category of human rights, and so on.

The Bahamas won its way onto the list by making efforts to reduce human trafficking and expand national parks and protected areas, such as the Andros West Side National Park, which grew from 882,000 acres to nearly 1.3 million acres. Chile improved its gender equality scores and launched a few ambitious environmental initiatives – including a program to move logging workers into various tourism roles. And a plan to become carbon negative – that is, minimize and offset carbon emissions – by 2020 helped Dominica make the cut.

The complete list for 2014 (in alphabetical order) includes the Bahamas, Barbados, Cape Verde, Chile, Dominica, Latvia, Lithuania, Mauritius, Palau and Uruguay. Ethical Traveler does not rank the countries within the top 10.

Travellers can “vote with their wings”, said Jeff Greenwald, Ethical Traveler’s founder and executive director. “We feel that we can make a difference in those countries because they really want to try to do the right thing. If we can send more travellers there because of their good policies, we think they’ll really stand up and take notice.”

Three countries that fell off the list from 2013 – Costa Rica, Ghana and Samoa – slid backward on key metrics such as environmental protection and human rights violations, said Michael McColl, Ethical Traveler’s co-founder and director of communications.

Costa Rica, for example, is a major hub for human trafficking and its government allows persecution of activists working against illegal shark finning and sea turtle trades, McColl said. Ghana dropped from last year’s list due to discrimination against same-sex couples (same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Ghana, and there is no legal recognition of same-sex couples. Ghanaian law also does not protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation.) And Samoa fell from the top 10 due to unsustainable logging, failure to guarantee LGBT rights and poor women’s rights. Nonetheless, these countries still received high marks overall, and are still among the more ethical countries a traveller can visit.

“You want to put your money where your beliefs are,” Greenwald says. “Everyone loves the thought of travelling to Thailand or Cambodia or Burma, [but these places] don’t really have great human rights records. Why not use your travel dollars to show your support and solidarity for countries that are struggling to have good government and attract travellers? Why not reward them? It could create a groundswell of economic incentive for countries to do the right thing.”

For ethical properties and tours within a country, the site Green Travel Reviews evaluates environmentally and socially conscious properties like Rosalie Bay, the only Green Globe-certified resort in Dominica which has won accolades for its wind- and solar-powered energy, including more than 200 solar panels; locally- and organically-sourced food; and protected black sand beach where endangered sea turtles nest. In Costa Rica, Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge is one of the few eco-resorts to earn a five-Leaf rating from Costa Rica’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism for its pristine 170-acre nature preserve as well as a number of eco-initiatives including a solar electric system, hydroelectric turbine and a hybrid solar convection system for heating water.

"I believe that we, as a tourism entity, have a responsibility to the travelling public and the beautiful destination we represent to use natural resources in a way that protects the local environment and improves the well-being of its residents,” said Rosalie Bay owner Beverly Deikel.

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