Travel is a double-edged sword for the eco-minded among us. On the one hand, we long to visit the world's diverse and awe-inspiring destinations. On the other, we all know that the most eco-friendly trips are the ones that begin outside own back doors and don't involve long-haul flights to exotic lands. The boom in ecotourism makes the choice to travel a little less guilt-inducing, allowing us to explore while limiting our harm to the environment and improving the well-being of local people. So, if your backyard just isn't quite adventurous enough, here are 7 of the best ecotourism destinations for 2016.
You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Palau, an isolated archipelago about 1,000 miles east of the Philippines. After all, it it home to only 20,000 people and it’s not quite as big as New York City. Palau’s marine reserve, however, is bigger than Texas and Alaska combined, and gives protection to one of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems.
Being a tropical island destination, snorkelling and scuba diving are the highlights of any trip to Palau. However, lounging on a pristine, deserted beach gazing out on the crystal clear water is also a perfectly acceptable way to pass the day.
Best time to go: May to October
2. Haida Gwaii, Canada
Another isolated archipelago, the lonely and haunting Haida Gwaii sits just off the west coast of Canada. Named one of National Geographic’s 20 Best Trips in 2015, the islands provide plenty of interest for nature-seekers and cultural travellers alike.
Haida Gwaii is a kayaker’s paradise, with whales, porpoises and sea lions to accompany your morning’s paddle. Hiker’s and cyclists might spot a black bear foraging in the woods while bird-watchers won’t have to look hard to see eagles soaring overhead.
The Haida Gwaii archipelago has been inhabited by the Haida people for more than 12,000 years. At the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve & Haida Heritage Site, a UNESCO World Heritage destination, visitors can explore the remains of traditional Haida longhouses and view century-old carved cedar monumental poles.
Best time to go: May 15 to September 15
The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan could be one of the most eco-friendly destinations in the world. The remote location discourages all but the most committed travellers, and the daily minimum spend of $250 per person, keeps tourist numbers to a minimum while providing ample cash for conservation.
Those who can afford the trip get to dip into the land of Gross National Happiness and savour the rich chili-laden Bhutanese cuisine. For the more adventurous, a multi-day trek through the towering Himalaya will reveal hidden mountain monasteries, mysterious temples and majestic snow-capped peaks while a trip to Eastern Bhutan promises humble homestays in the company of friendly locals.
Best time to go: Spring (March to May) and fall (September to November)
Both Lonely Planet and National Geographic have chosen Greenland as must-do for 2016. Greenland’s status as 2016’s trendiest ecotourism destination is well deserved. The natural beauties include towering mountains draped in kilometers-thick glaciers which give way to dramatic fjords and a clear azure sea.
Exploring the wintry landscape by dogsled or snowmobile, travellers might happen upon polar bears or reindeer. Or go by kayak for the chance to share icy waters with seals and whales. By day, visitors can experience the power of calving icebergs at Ilulissat Ice-fjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while at night, the Northern Lights share their mysterious secrets with the world below.
Best time to go: Summer for whale watching, November to March for Northern Lights and dogsled tours
Should the restrictions for US tourists to Cuba be lifted, the IMF reports that there would be a “seismic shift” in the Caribbean’s tourism industry. With luck and good planning, this shift won’t come at the expense of Cuba’s 253 protected areas, seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, seven natural biosphere reserves and 13 fauna refuges.
Cuba is home to some of the world’s most pristine waters, so sailing and SCUBA diving should be on any tourist’s itinerary. However, Cuba is far more than classic cars and azure seas. The diverse nature ranges from lush tropical forests to dry mountainous areas and everglades populated by mangrove.
Visitors can explore Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, which UNESCO calls “one of the most biologically diverse tropical island sites on earth” or scramble through the largest cave system in Cuba, the Gran Caverna de Santo Tomás, which contains 30 miles of galleries on eight levels.
Best time to go: year round, skip September and October if hurricanes worry you
6. Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia
While Cambodia is far from exemplary when it comes to protecting its environment, Cambodia’s eco-tourism industry is on the rise with new eco-lodges and environmental projects sprouting up all the time.
In the Cardamom Mountains, Southeast Asia’s largest area of contiguous rainforest, a small eco-village run by Wildlife Alliance provides an ideal destination for adventurous ecotourists. Until recently, the villagers of Chi Phat had been almost wholly dependent upon illegal logging and wildlife poaching to earn a living.
Now, most of the town’s population works in the ecotourism industry, leading treks, mountain bike tours and boat trips for tourists who manage to make the hours-long trip from Cambodia’s more popular destinations. Many of the houses in Chi Phat have been turned into homestays, where visitors are offered a window into village life.
Best time to go: November to May
If the name Mongolia elicits thoughts of wide-open spaces and wild horses, you’re on the right track. Mongolia has the lowest population density of all independent countries in the world, allowing travelers to experience true solitude in close contact with nature.
The vast open steppe offers plenty of opportunity for horseback riding, but you can also hike across towering mountains sliced by craggy gorges, camp beside idyllic lakes, or ride camels across the barren Gobi desert. For the truly adventurous, a visit to the Tsaatan reindeer people in a far corner of Northern Mongolia will be the highlight of your trip, if not your entire life.
Best time to go: May to October
Palau image via Palau Visitors Authority, Haida Gwaii image via Island Conservation, Bhutan image via Thomas Wanhoff, Greenland image via Greenland Travel, Cuba image via Kirua, Cambodia image via My Five Acres, Mongolia image via NOMADasaurus