Protect the planet and support local communities in a place with an eco-minded ethos.
Forget renting a gas-guzzling car, carrying plastic bottles or cranking up the air conditioning at a lavish resort. Instead, embark on an eco-minded getaway where you can empower local communities, aid conservation efforts and reduce your carbon footprint. With forward-looking hotels, tour companies and destinations putting sustainability at the forefront, it's easier than ever to travel responsibly. "Focus on what will really make a difference in the destination," says O'Shannon Burns, a sustainability officer for National Geographic Expeditions. Wherever you go, champion initiatives that benefit residents and support natural resources, she adds. With that in mind, here are eco-friendly spots where you can make a difference -- just in time for Earth Day.
For a far-flung African safari that balances sustainable-development practices with one-of-a-kind wildlife-viewing opportunities, head to Kenya, says Leigh Barnes, regional director of North America at adventure tour outfitter Intrepid Travel. Kenya is a leader in ecotourism and began banning plastic bags in 2017, he explains. Plus, "you can connect with wildlife in an educational way," he adds. On Intrepid Travel's eight-day Kenya Wildlife Safari, you can catch sight of exotic animals and engage with members of the Maasai tribe in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Meanwhile, small-tour travel outfitter G Adventures' eight-day round-trip safari (part of G Adventures' Jane Goodall Collection), helps women learn new skills through G Adventures for Good project at Ubuntu Café.
When it comes to ecotourism, "It isn't just the planet," says Steve Lima, G Adventures' director of marketing for the U.S. "It's trying to help and empower the people living on it," he adds. "With tourism, there's an ability to give back to these regions," he explains, pointing to Bhutan, the world's first carbon-negative country, as well as Norway and Costa Rica, which have both pledged to be carbon-neutral. Bhutan's verdant forests uniquely capture carbon, and the area also champions socioeconomic development and cultural preservation. On G Adventures' 10-day trip, which starts in the town of Paro, you can hike to legendary temples and monasteries and soak in dramatic views of the Himalayas while contributing to the local economy and conservation funding.
British Columbia, Canada
For an off-the-beaten-track destination that's sustainability focused, visit British Columbia. At Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, one of National Geographic's Unique Lodges of the World, you can see the rainforest in a pristine environment, Burns explains. From sea lions to migrating salmon, wildlife-viewing opportunities abound, thanks to the resort's perch in the Great Bear Rainforest. The resort has been a trailblazer for its sustainability initiatives, including a water turbine energy system that generates electricity and provides an off-grid renewable energy source, giving guests the chance to decrease their impact on the environment and "literally tread lightly," Burns adds. You can book adventure trips with a wide range of venerable outfitters, including Maple Leaf Adventures and G Adventures.
It's hard to resist the appeal of exploring the Galápagos Islands' diverse ecosystem. You can observe iconic giant tortoises, sea lions and birds, Burns explains. On National Geographic's small-ship cruise expeditions, you'll visit the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn about the area's endangered species and enjoy guided nature walks and hikes across diverse isles in the archipelago. A variety of other venerable tour outfitters offer eco-excursions to the Galápagos that aid conservation initiatives. G Adventures not only offers eco-minded trips, but the outfitter also aids community-driven tourism projects that support wildlife conservation and teach Floreana Island residents hospitality-management training through the Planeterra Foundation, its nonprofit arm.
With a mix of colonial buildings, beautiful pagodas and centuries-old Buddhist landmarks, it's easy to swoon over Myanmar's rich heritage and local charm. For a low-impact getaway, consider Intrepid Travel's 15-day trip. Beginning and finishing in Yangon, the trip takes visitors through the storied city of Bagan, past sacred religious and historical sites and into isolated villages. From Bagan, you can immerse yourself in the local culture at an off-the-beaten-track community lodge near Myaing and participate in Intrepid's ActionAid Myanmar project. What's more, Intrepid relies on local transportation options and funnels money into carbon offset programs. In fact, on this trip, Intrepid offsets 557 kilograms of carbon per traveler, making treading lightly and reducing carbon emissions a breeze.
"In the summer [wet season], people don't necessarily think of Costa Rica as a great destination," Burns says. But with astounding biodiversity -- the country accounts for roughly 5 percent of the globe's animal species -- it's a can't-miss year-round destination for eco-conscious visitors. Costa Rica has made profound commitments to protect its local biodiversity and offset greenhouse gas emissions, and has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2021, she adds. Consider retreating to Lapa Rios Eco Lodge, which was built to reflect its surroundings on a 1,000-acre reserve filled with animals such as howler monkeys and scarlet macaws. The lodge also works with a nonprofit to build solar panels, implement water pumps and provide electricity to local areas.
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