It’s 2021 and the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live. It has forced us to prioritise health and safety over the joy of travel and discovery, and social distancing over summer vacations. After almost a year of self-isolation, lockdowns, and working from home, we’re slowly and cautiously starting to consider travel plans with news of the vaccine being confirmed around the world. We’ve also had the time to reflect on how to travel responsibly, without causing further harm to the environment. That’s where ecotourism destinations come in. 

According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism can be defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” Also known as sustainable tourism, it is a part of the conservation of our environment, as well as learning about the different ways to preserve it. As an eco-tourist, not only can you enjoy and immerse yourself in these pristine locations, but also contribute to maintaining and protecting the regions. Ecotourism also boosts the employment and empowerment of locals and encourages conservation by providing financial relief. It allows economies to thrive without exploiting the local wildlife. 

Go swimming with sharks, adventure caving, snorkelling, and witness the great migration — there’s no missing out on the fun while being eco-conscious. You can do all of this while reducing the negative effect of travelling on the environment and without harming animals or ecosystems in the process. These experiences are carefully curated for eco-travellers to experience the lesser-seen, non-touristy and untapped versions of the environment, while also giving them an opportunity to leave it better than they found it. 

From Malaysia and Philippines to Sweden and Iceland, here is a round-up of some of the best ecotourism destinations around the world. Can you pick a favourite?

Gothenburg, Sweden

Image courtesy of Martin Magnemyr via Unsplash

This is the second-largest city in Sweden and has been considered one of the top sustainable destinations globally in recent years. A majority of the former industrial port town’s public transport today runs off renewable energy, and over 90 percent of the hotels are eco-certified. The city is surrounded by thick forests and offers vast breathing spaces in the form of parks, meadows, as well as hiking routes.

Gunung Mulu National Park, Malaysia

Image courtesy of Gurazuru via Wikimedia Commons

The national park is nestled on the island of Borneo in the State of Sarawak and is famous for its extensive cave networks and rich biodiversity. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to lofty peaks, deep gorges, serene rivers, as well as unique geological formations, like the Pinnacles, which are a forest of spires made of limestones. One can engage in activities such as hiking, adventure caving, canopy walking and more. Visitors are encouraged to help conserve and protect the park by tour guides. 

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

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Besides being one of the world’s richest destinations for biodiversity, this archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean is also famously home to a host of unique iguanas and lizards. Interesting fact: Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was inspired by a visit to the Galápagos back in 1835. The islands have a delicate ecosystem, consisting of thousands of species of endemic and unusual plants and animals. The authorities practice low-impact tourism — only a limited number of visitors, accompanied by a registered guide, are allowed access on a day-to-day basis.

Donsol and Peleliu, Philippines

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The metropolis of Donsol facilitates ecotourism by only allowing a limited number of tourists to sign up to swim with whale sharks, as locals try to preserve their population in the region. One can also experience scuba diving with manta rays. Similarly, Peleliu, located to the east, is the best for kayaking — you’ll come across spinner dolphins and stingless jellyfish.

Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

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Often considered a celebrity hotspot (with visitors including actor Will Smith, football star David Beckham, former US president Barack Obama and others) the Serengeti National Park is the oldest game reserve in Tanzania. The country has gone a long way in protecting its habitat by designating 25 percent of its land to conservation. Home to colossal herds of animals like zebras, gazelles, and gnu, it is also the only place in Africa where land-animal migrations still take place. Witnessing the great migration should definitely make it to your bucket list. The local guides go out of their way to lay emphasis on the importance of wildlife preservation and to ensure visitors cause the least disturbance to the ecosystem.

Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

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Pronounced “thingvellir”, this national park is one of the most iconic (and visited) places on the Icelandic mainland. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers breath-taking views of mountains on three sides, Lake Þingvallavatn at one end, and lava-fields dotted with lush grass. You truly have to see it to believe it. To balance the tourist footfall, the park, which is managed by the environmental agency Umhverfisstofnun, focuses on the use of sustainable resources to maintain the region’s ecological purity as much as possible.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

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Arguably the world’s most famous and largest coral reef ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef, has been under threat for a while now due to pollution, excess fishing, and global warming. The good news is that this home to diverse marine life, including 4,000 types of molluscs and 1,500 species of fish, is now on a slow path to recovery. The islands along the reef have taken it upon themselves to practice ecotourism in limited ways that help boost the economy and fund further conservation.

Koh Kong, Cambodia

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Cambodia is one of the popular ecotourism destinations in Southeast Asia. The province of Koh Kong, located near the border with Thailand, is a hidden gem and boasts of dense mangrove forests, crystal-clear rivers, tropical islands with virgin beaches, and rich biodiversity, including several threatened species. Visitors can enjoy the pristine location with the help of eco-friendly hotels and restaurants here, as well as by engaging in activities such as day trekking, kayaking and snorkelling.

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

Image courtesy of Haakon S. Krohn via Wikimedia Commons

With tons of ecotourism activities, Costa Rica is a haven for conscious travellers. The country has also reserved a quarter of its land mass as protected land, national parks and reserves. The Monteverde (meaning “green mountain”) cloud forest reserve is home to several endemic animal and plant species — accounting for more than 100 species of mammals, 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles, as well as 400 species of birds.

The Burren, Ireland

Image courtesy of Psyberartist via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most unique locations on the island nation, the Burren is home to 70 percent of Ireland’s native plant species, and boasts of a rugged, moon-like landscape and a diversified ecosystem. Formed millions of years ago, it is also one of the largest and most accessible karst regions in the world. The Burren Ecotourism Network, which works to ensure sustainable development of its communities, environment, and heritage, has been named the “Best Community Tourism Project” by Lonely Planet in its “Best in Travel 2021” list.

Featured and hero images courtesy of Rolands Varsbergs via Unsplash