Photo: Brad Hammonds

EVERY YEAR, THE ETHICAL TRAVELER organization releases a list of ten developing nations that it believes are the most ethical places for the socially conscious traveler to visit. The idea behind the project is simple: by encouraging travel to developing countries that have done an outstanding job in the fields of environmental protection, social welfare, human rights, and animal welfare, they are encouraging good behavior.

Without further ado, here are the ten countries that Ethical Traveler chose for their 2017 “Best Destinations” list.

The Top Ten

In alphabetical order:

  • Belize
  • Cabo Verde
  • Chile
  • Costa Rica
  • Dominica
  • Mongolia
  • Palau
  • Tonga
  • Uruguay
  • Vanuatu

How the list is created

First, the organization looks at all of the world’s developing countries based on their four categories (again, environmental protection, social welfare, human rights, and animal welfare). Communications director Michael McColl explains:

“We consider country scores from a variety of databases related to our [four] categories, using information from sources like Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Reporters Without Borders, UNICEF, the World Bank and LGBT resources. After identifying about 25 “short list” performers, we turn to detailed case study research, focusing on actions these governments have taken over the past year to improve (or, in some cases, weaken) policies and practices in their countries. We use many strategies to finalize our list—including engagement with civic leaders, discussions with travelers and reviews of local English-language media.”

Every year, a few countries are narrowly bumped off of the list for some reason or another, and the list tends to favor islands. This, they speculate, is because island nations are disproportionately affected by climate change, which makes them more likely to take serious steps to combat environmental destruction and emissions.

Who was best at what

The winner in the environmental protection category was a perennial Matador favorite: Costa Rica. The country made news earlier this month for supplying 98.1% of its energy through renewable resources, and it has managed to modernize without destroying its environment, which is almost unprecedented. Uruguay — which pretty much always appears on this list — scored incredibly high for air quality, environmental sustainability, and forests.

Social welfare is a tricky one — it’s measured with unemployment numbers, social mobility, and access to healthcare and education programs. For this list, the number one country in social welfare was Chile, followed closely by Uruguay.

All of the countries did a pretty solid job in regards to human rights — Belize struck down its anti-LGBT law, Costa Rica helped support refugees and fought human trafficking, Tonga and Vanuatu took serious steps to fight domestic violence, and Dominica took real steps towards gender equality.

In regards to animal welfare, the organization was comfortable with nine of their ten winners on this front, with Mongolia being the outlier. Mongolia has a stray dog culling problem, but are also getting better at protecting their wildlife. If the dog issue doesn’t get resolved, they may well end up off the list next year.

What does this do?

The goal of a report like this is to give a tourism boost to countries behaving responsibly. The idea is that the list works as a type of incentive and marketing tool for the winning countries, and it rewards destinations that have made progress. It also provides a bit of a carrot to countries that didn’t quite make it — Ethical Traveler also, this year, singled out Senegal and Ecuador as outstanding destinations in most regards, but rejected them for anti-LGBT laws and environmental issues, respectively.

Kim Malcolm recently argued against Ethical Traveler’s method on this site, suggesting that it holds developing countries to higher standards, and that there’s much to be learned from countries that would never make their list. There’s probably room for both approaches — Ethical Traveler doesn’t suggest that we should never visit countries that aren’t on the list, but rather that we should identify countries that are improving themselves, and reward them as much as possible.

And of course, ethical travel extends beyond mere destination selection — you should also consider the environmental impact of your travel, whether the money you’re spending is going to the right places, and how you can be a better guest in the countries you visit. But as McColl puts it, “Travelers have enormous power. Where we put our footprints has reverberations reaching far beyond our personal experience. By “voting with our wings”—choosing our destinations well and cultivating our roles as citizen diplomats—we can help to change the world for the better.”

You can read Ethical Traveler’s full report here.

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