As 2019 came to a close, we wrote that some travel can actually be good for the planet. When we travel to natural habitats, we show locals, businesses, and policy-makers that there’s value in preserving these places. Tourism provides local communities with a viable economic alternative to selling for extraction and development. Visitors fuel jobs, giving a tangible, real-time value to natural resources. But where should you go?
We talked to experts around the world and got their top picks on some of the best, and most beautiful, places to put your tourism money to good work.
We spoke with Don Sawyer of Brazil’s Institute for Society, Population, and Nature (ISPN) and Saúl Blanco Sosa, who’s responsible for sustainable tourism at NEPCon, a non-profit that seeks solutions that help people and tackle climate change.
Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve — Amazonas, Brazil
Brazil houses the bulk of the Amazon rainforest. ISPN’s Sawyer recommends several locations where you can support local environmental efforts. One is the Mamirauá Reserve on the Amazon floodplain, the largest flooded forest reserve in the world. Mirarauá Institute supports several eco-initiatives, among them community-based tourism centered on the Uakari Lodge, a 10-room, floating lodge comprised of five cabanas. The lodge rises and falls with the seasons, as the water level here changes up to 40 feet every year. Three-, four-, or five-day stays include boating, bird watching, and dolphin watching opportunities, but hiking is only possible during the dry season.
Novo Airão — Amazonas, Brazil
Closer to the city of Manaus and hence easier to reach is the area of Novo Airão. Here he says you can visit traditional and indigenous communities and support the Institute for Ecological Research, which does great work here and in many of Brazil’s threatened regions. In Novo Airão, you can visit Jaú National Park, a massive forest reserve, and Anavilhanas National Park, a massive freshwater archipelago.
Cantão and Jalapão — Tocantins, Brazil
Sawyer says the Brazilian savannah, or “Cerrado,” south of the Amazon has been suffering even more development pressure than the rainforest, and is disappearing faster — making ways for ranching and factory farming. This vital area is home to indigenous communities and astounding biodiversity, and it’s a critical watershed for much of Brazil and neighboring countries. Brazil’s savannah needs you. As Sawyer says, “The income provided by tourists helps maintain ecosystems and local cultures now under pressure from expansion of cropland and cattle-raising.”
Cantão State Park is one place where the two Amazon and Cerrado biomes meet. The park has over 500 bird species, as well as turtles, fish, deer, and jaguars. You’ll find the greatest animal diversity during the wet months, but tempting freshwater beaches appear in drier months like June and July.
Another area in Tocantins is Jalapão, which has emerged as an adventure-travel destination not just for Brazilians but also for a growing number of foreign visitors. With its clear-water springs, gushing waterfalls, plateaus, and 120-foot-tall sand dunes, it’s easy to see why. Fortunately, much of the region has earned protected status in parks like Jalapão State Park and the Parnaíba River Springs National Park.
Amazonia Expeditions Tahuayo Lodge — Loreto, Peru
You don’t need to head to Brazil to visit places that are working to sustain the Amazon, as the rainforest actually stretches across nine countries. Blanco, NepCon’s sustainable tourism director, says his first pick in Peru would be the Tahuayo Lodge, which uses tourism to provide employment, offer local scholarships, and support research.
Located in Iquitos near the origins of the 4,000-mile-long Amazon River, the lodge offers activities like hiking, canoeing, birding, looking for primates or reptiles, and learning about the region’s colorful (and sometimes poisonous) frogs and insects. Amazonia Expeditions’ head guides are Peruvian men and women who mostly grew up near the company’s lodges.
Manu Learning Center — Manú, Peru
This is another destination in the Peruvian Amazon that Blanco recommends, which you can visit as a volunteer, intern, or tourist. As a tourist, you can stay anywhere from three nights to three weeks via tours focused on wildlife, adventure, family activities, and even cooking. The area is in the Manu Biosphere Reserve, which as the learning center tells it, has species so rare they don’t even have names for them. Your money supports the local community and research — and maybe even some eventual naming.
Yasuni National Park — Orellana, Ecuador
This 3,800-square-mile UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Nearly 600 species of bird have been recorded here, along with jaguars, pumas, tapirs, several monkey species, over a dozen bat species, and a unique giant otter. Blanco recommends staying at La Selva Amazon Lodge, which lies at the edge of Yasuni Park. Beyond canoe rides or hiking, guests are invited to visit local communities. Every group excursion into the national park includes a local guide whose knowledge of the area is unparalleled.
We spoke with Alison Ronson, the National Director of the Parks Program at the Canadian Park and Wilderness Society, which works to protect Canada’s public lands and water. She told us about two stand-out parks where your tourism is welcomed by the local community and helps preserve the land.
Gros Morne National Park — Newfoundland, Canada
On the west coast of Newfoundland, Gros Morne has tall peaks, dense forests of fir, maple, and birch, and a lake that’s actually an inland fjord flanked by green cliffs. Wildlife is abundant, with moose, caribou, red and arctic foxes, snowshoe hares, and ptarmigans among the many species you may encounter. Ronson tells us the local communities near the park depend on the tourism the park’s beauty brings, and they’ve opposed initiatives that could deter from the visitor experience. Their support has been instrumental in preventing fracking operations just outside the park.
“Fracking has been the biggest thing we’ve been fighting,” says Ronson, adding that they’ve had the “support of the local communities in fighting the fracking.” While there’s a provincial moratorium on fracking, there’s no law as yet against it — so visiting Gros Morne responsibly shows that tourism is a viable and preferable alternative to fossil fuel extraction.
Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve — Northwest Territories, Canada
In August of 2019, an agreement signed by Parks Canada, the Government of the Northwest Territories, and indigenous groups created this protected area, which includes a national park and a locally administered wildlife conservation area. The total area under protection here measures over 10,200 square miles. Ronson says that the park doesn’t just protect this pristine area, which lies at the transition from boreal forest to tundra — but it also protects the way of life for the people of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation.
Activities in this forested and watery wilderness include exploration, berry-picking, camping, fishing, and hiking. Ronson says the Lutsel K’e Dene were interested in co-governing because they “see it as an opportunity to share their culture with visitors and bring in resources.” The Northwest Territories are also rich in diamonds, so help hold off the mining by showing that tourism there pays.
Melina Nikolova is the director of knowledge and education at the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). Based in Bulgaria, Nikolova works on how we can use “… tourism as a vehicle of economic growth and protection of cultural and natural assets.” Here are some of her European suggestions.
The 2,200 square miles of this UNESCO Natural World Heritage site comprise the most biodiverse natural area in Europe. The Danube River delta is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with over 300 species of birds and an astonishing additional 3,000 animal species, all within the area’s marshes, lakes, many waterways, and wetlands. Depending on the time of year, you can admire Egyptian white pelicans, Dalmatian pelicans, arctic geese, ibises, egrets, or cormorants, or you can fish for pike, perch, and catfish. Oaks and willows are just some of the 1,700 plant species, and you may spot deer, boar, foxes, or other large mammals.
Previously, Romania’s communist government wanted to develop the area, and Ukraine (site of the delta’s northern end) has been trying to build channels through the area — the efforts of which have so far been halted. “It’s a phenomenal natural area,” says Nikolova, adding, “And the only chance for it to remain this way is through tourism.”
Via Dinarica Mega Trail — The Balkans
This 1,200-mile trail along the Balkan Peninsula’s Dinaric Alps was specifically designed to bring economic opportunities to the young Balkan countries through which it crosses. Old shepherding routes and paths etched during the 1990s war connect with newly made links to create this path through the steep mountains and lush valleys of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia.
While Nikolova says some parts of the trail, such as the northern boundary in Slovenia, are more utilized, but “many stretches don’t see many tourists.” It’s in these places that your tourism can assist the local communities and culture. “It’s a way to support one of the most preserved natural areas of Europe,” says Nikolova.
We spoke with Peter Knights, CEO of WildAid, which combats the illegal wildlife trade. He told us that in many poor African countries, eco-tourism and the jobs it creates are the only way governments have been able to justify dedicating resources to the preservation of natural lands, rather than to their development.
While countries like Kenya, South Africa, and Rwanda offer fantastic ecotourism opportunities, Knights says it’s also important to look beyond the countries that dominate the tourism sector. He asks us to, “Shop beyond the obvious.” Here are two of his recommendations beyond the big names; travel here may depend on your comfort level with risk.
Pendjari National Park — Northwest Benin
Knights points out that Pendjari Park has “a unique population of West African lions and elephants.” The park is part of a trans-national protected area that includes the countries of Burkina Faso and Niger, and which is West Africa’s largest intact ecosystem. Benin is one of the poorest countries in the world, and tourism dollars can encourage the preservation of its critically endangered West African lions. Keep in mind, though, that while the US State Department recommends normal travel precautions in Benin, it asks travelers to reconsider travel to Pendjari Park due to terrorism threats from neighboring Burkino Faso.
Tarangire National Park — Manyara, Tanzania
Another park Knights recommends is in Tanzania, a stunning park that he says is little visited. Beyond huge numbers of elephants, Tarangire is home to zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, impalas, elands, kudus, hartebeests, leopards, lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and even rarer mammals. Knights does point out that Tarangire can have tsetse flies, and while the chance of catching African sleeping sickness is low, please make travel decisions at your own risk.
Tourists have become rightly concerned about the treatment of animals used in tourism. At Matador, we’ve reported on abuses like riding elephants, but we’ve also informed you of places where animals are treated well. With so much confusion over the issue, though, many local tour operators have opted to take animals out of itineraries altogether.
This has become “a crisis for people who do things the right way. Entire communities depend on these tours, and now they’re not receiving that income,” says ATTA’s Nikolova. So support those communities and the animals they care for by visiting ethical elephant sanctuaries in places like Thailand. Nikolova recommends:
Sabah — Borneo, Malaysia
This area on the island of Borneo is a Malaysian state that is one of the best places in the world to observe orangutans. In the same way that tourism has been vital to the protection of gorillas in Rwanda, tourism revenue helps to preserve the habitat and wellbeing of these Asian great apes. The Sabah area is also home to the proboscis monkey, the binturong bearcat, Borneo pygmy elephants, and pangolins, the most trafficked animals in the world. Supporting local communities with tourism is these endangered animals’ best chance of survival.
Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries — Sichuan, China
Similarly, while panda bears are still vulnerable, they have been downgraded from endangered status only thanks to conservation efforts. Support these efforts by visiting the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries of Wolong, Mt Siguniang, and Jiajin Mountains, where almost a third of the planet’s giant pandas live. In addition, the 3,600-square-mile area is also to red pandas, snow leopards, and more than a hundred other mammal species.