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The Best Countries for Sustainable Travel

By Samanda Dodger for The Street | March 25, 2021

Eco-tourism is on the rise, and destinations and businesses are joining forces to declare a climate emergency.

Travel is fun and often necessary, but it has significant negative impacts on the planet. Tourism contributes to more than 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with transportation accounting for 90% of that, according to TheWorldCounts, a Danish site which tracks data on the state of the planet.

Tourists deplete the local natural resources of the places they visit, and contribute to pollution, waste, and damage to land areas, ultimately destroying the resources upon which tourism depends.

Sustainable travel, or eco-tourism, is a greener alternative. A rapidly growing industry, with potential benefits for both the environment and the economies of tourist destinations, sustainable travel can protect natural and cultural heritage, conserve biodiversity, generate sustainable livelihoods and improve human wellbeing, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organization.

Travel and tourism businesses are joining forces to declare a climate emergency. Tourism can be responsibly planned and managed, and the sustainable travel sector is experiencing tremendous growth, UNWTO says. UNWTO encourages the use of its code of ethics for its 156 member countries to maximize tourism’s socio-economic contribution while minimizing the negative impacts.

Euromonitor International, a market research firm, developed a sustainable travel index to help destinations and travel businesses shift to more sustainable and purpose-driven tourism models. They analyzed 99 countries across seven key pillars which make up sustainable tourism. These are:

  • Environmental sustainability

  • Social sustainability

  • Economic sustainability

  • Risk

  • Sustainable demand

  • Sustainable transport

  • Sustainable lodging

Scandinavian countries lead the way, with 65% of travel businesses already having implemented a sustainability strategy, according to Euromonitor's report, and the top 20 countries are in Europe. The U.S. ranks No. 35, and sixth in the economic stability category, which addresses a country’s overdependence on tourism. The U.S. is fifth for sustainable demand. The level of resilience, value creation and amount of overtourism determines how sustainable a country’s tourism demand is for this index.

The countries that ranked at the bottom are Pakistan, India, Mauritius, Vietnam, and Morocco.

Based on Euromonitor International’s report, these are the 30 best countries for sustainable travel.

1. Sweden

The birthplace of the flight shaming movement and home to climate strike activist Greta Thunberg, (center) Sweden is highly engaged with sustainable development goals to preserve Arctic ice and permafrost to help stop climate change, and aiming to achieve net zero emissions by 2045, Euromonitor says.

2. Finland

No. 2 Finland also ranks sixth in the social sustainability category, which encompasses access to resources, food security, poverty, happiness, freedom, equality and education. It also ranks No. 9 for sustainable transport.

3. Austria

Austria topped the ranking for social sustainability, performing well in education, equality, peace and freedom and is also the leader for sustainable transport.

4. Estonia

Estonia has reduced poverty and boosted freedom and happiness. The country ranks No. 2 in the sustainable transport category.

5. Norway

Norway ranks No. 4 in the sustainable lodging category.

6. Slovakia

Slovakia ranks No. 10 for both sustainable transport and social sustainability, and No. 21 for lodging.

7. Iceland

Iceland is second in the social sustainability category, performing well in education, equality, peace and freedom. Many of the country’s tourism companies recognize the benefit in creating a more holistic and sustainable offering, combining the need to protect Iceland’s natural environment and attracting a growing number of visitors who want to travel in responsible ways, the report says.

8. Latvia

The Eastern European country Latvia ranks No. 7 in environmental sustainability, which addresses the overall health of a country in terms of the environment, biodiversity and natural resources under threat due to climate emergency. It’s also No. 6 for transportation and No. 7 for lodging.

9. France

Paris is the home of the U.N. Climate Change Agreement. According to Frommers, sustainable transportation here is plentiful, with tens of thousands of bicycles and bike-rental stations spread throughout the city and several other major French cities. There are car sharing programs, a train system dedicated to becoming completely carbon-neutral, and a green hotel labeling program that rewards hotels that take a more environmental approach to water, energy, and waste, and help raise the awareness of their guests.

10. Slovenia

Slovenia has incorporated sustainable tourism into their marketing strategy with a successful "I Feel sLOVEnia" campaign. The country also has high levels of marine and terrestrial protected areas, and is one of the founding signatories of the Future of Tourism Coalition and a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

11. Switzerland

Switzerland ranks No. 5 for social sustainability.

12. Lithuania

Thanks to the European Green Deal, Lithuania has made strides across major environmental categories, such as slow temperature growth. Lithuania ranks first in the lodging category for hotel sustainability metrics like energy, water and carbon emissions along with a balanced lodging supply.

13. Croatia

Croatia ranks second in the environmental category, which includes climate, natural assets, pollution, energy and water, addressing the overall health of a country in terms of the environment, biodiversity and natural resources under threat due to climate emergency. It’s also No. 8 for economic sustainability, which looks at a country’s relative economic performance based on its tourism dependency, debt levels, hospitality employment and business readiness.

14. Czech Republic

The Czech Republic ranks third for social sustainability, performing well in education, equality, peace and freedom.

15. Ireland

Ireland has a sustainable travel board that provides certification for hotels, tour operators, activities, attractions, restaurants, etc., using globally recognized standards. The Dublin airport has been accredited as carbon neutral.

16. Germany

German travelers are increasingly concerned with the impact cruises have on the environment. A German app called Meravando partnered with major cruise lines to allow consumers to book climate-neutral cruises.

17. Belgium

Belgium has embraced a regenerative tourism approach as seen in Flanders, which takes a holistic approach to the negative and positive impacts of tourism, going beyond sustainability to encourage regeneration in nature and greater harmony between all living things.

18. Denmark

Denmark ranks ninth in the social sustainability category, and third for sustainable lodging.

19. Netherlands

In the Netherlands, electric passenger trains are powered using green energy, and all new buses must use 100% renewable energy or fuel by 2025.

20. Portugal

According to Frommers, Portugal has many protected nature preserves, and the government has recently declared some of Portugal's coastal areas as protected landscapes, rescuing them from developers.

21. Poland

Frommers says Poland has taken big steps in the past two decades to clean up the environment and to undo the environmental degradation experienced under Communism.

22. Bolivia

Bolivia has made progress in sustainable transport and lodging. The South American country ranks No. 8 for sustainable tourism demand: The level of resilience, value creation and amount of over-tourism determines how sustainable a country’s tourism demand is. The point is not to overwhelm communities or damage nature and the environment.

23. New Zealand

New Zealand has progressed in sustainable transport and lodging. It ranks fourth for sustainable tourism demand: New Zealand is exemplary in resilience thanks to its robust domestic tourism market and high levels of spend-per-trip and high levels of trip frequency per capita.

24. Canada

Canada benefits from a large landmass and low rates of endangered species. In 2020, Canada, along with the EU and UK, vowed to protect 30% of its biodiversity and seas by 2030 to avoid the extinction crisis where 30% to 50% of species could be lost by 2050. Canada also enjoys a low carbon footprint per square meter for full-service hotels, and a diverse range of lodging formats like short-term rentals, cabins and eco-lodges.

25. Spain

When a country is overly dependent on tourism it can be vulnerable to external threats such as natural disasters, terrorism or pandemics, which can put jobs and communities at risk. Spain has a high economic performance based on its tourism dependency, debt levels, hospitality employment and business readiness, ranking fourth in the economic sustainability category.

26. Belarus

Belarus ranks fourth for sustainable transport and ninth for its resilience to risk.

27. Hungary

Hungary ranks No. 8 for transport and is one of the countries most improved in sustainable lodging.

28. Romania

In Romania's Carpathian Mountains (pictured) a program called Rewilding Europe reintroduced bison to the area, according to Lonely Planet, and locals are benefiting from bison-related tourism opportunities.

29. Australia

Australia is fifth for economic sustainability. After suffering from devastating fires in 2019 and Covid-19 travel restrictions, domestic tourism is helping drive recovery while borders remain limited

30. Ukraine

Complexes of ecological tourism are being created and developed in places of preserved biodiversity in the Ukraine, according to the United Nations, and ecotourism is a part of a whole system of tourism in the country.

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