The Greenest Countries on Earth Are Stunning Destinations
Ethical wanderlust never looked so good.
Imagine a world where one day every month was a national holiday dedicated to making your neighborhood a cleaner place. In Rwanda, on the last Saturday of each month, they do just that. During Umuganda—the Kinyarwanda word for “coming together in common purpose”—people from around the country of a thousand hills pick up trash, repair roads, and generally help each other to make the world sparkly and just a little more beautiful.
While that’s just one example of a community actually caring about having a liveable home, other countries are making it easier for travelers to participate in metaphorically picking up some of our collective trash. The best part, though, is that these countries are taking on most of the work—just by picking the right places, travelers can enjoy all the perks of seeing more greenery without much personal effort. Just decide where to put your money, so it goes to places with the right intentions, and then kick back and explore forests you just helped to still be there in 50 years.
“We’re seeing a rise in the conscious traveler,” says Jessica Blotter, CEO & Co-Founder of Kind Traveler. According to the company’s 2022 Impact Tourism Report, 96% of those surveyed said it’s important that their travel dollars make a positive impact in the communities they visit. “In 2022 and beyond, we expect to see more hotels and travel companies focus more heavily on building sustainability efforts,” she continues—but in a way that visitors actually notice, beyond just not washing towels as much.
Launched in March 2022, Alight became the first hotel booking platform that allows travelers to book their hotel while simultaneously calculating and offsetting their carbon emissions, inspiring what they call a sense of ‘ethical wanderlust’ in all of us.
“Travel is what inspires many of us to want to create a better world.”
“The trend across all of these destinations, despite their vast differences, is a push towards sustainability, not because it can be more profitable, but because there is a genuine desire to create a more sustainable hospitality industry,” Alight founder Nelly Gedeon told Thrillist. “If you can avoid flying, the impact of your travel could be greatly reduced; however, we don’t believe you should let flights stop you from traveling and exploring the world. Travel is what inspires many of us to want to create a better world.”
Of course, it goes without saying that anytime you board a plane that’s hemorrhaging carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the opportunity to reduce your carbon footprint—whether flying direct, staying longer in the destination, or choosing to stay in a sustainable hotel—has never been more important.
“Many of the sustainable travel trends that were already on the rise pre-pandemic will accelerate exponentially as consumers are more conscious than ever about their impact on the people and places they visit increasingly look for opportunities to contribute to positive change,” says Vice President, Sustainability for sustainably hotel site Beyond Green Nina Boys. “If readers are asking themselves how they can travel more sustainably, they are already on the right path.”
If you’re looking to countries who are walking the walk when it comes to a greener, more sustainable future, here are ten places to consider booking your next adventure.
Denmark—and its capital city Copenhagen—has long been hailed as the beacon of hope when it comes to sustainability. In 2012, Copenhagen vowed to become the first carbon neutral city by 2025. And the country as a whole has the ambitious aim to be completely free of fossil fuels by 2050.
How are they doing that, you ask? Well in Copenhagen, cycling is not only the main source of transportation, but it’s a way of life so much so that 2022 has been dubbed “The Year of the Bicycle,” following a major infrastructure initiative to the tune of $458 million.
If you want to do as the locals do, Green Bike Tours is a wonderful way to experience the city. Meanwhile, the Green Kayak program allows you free access to kayak across the harbors—all you have to do is pick up a piece of garbage when you see it. Otherwise, get yourself a Copenhagen Card which gives you access to public transport and serves as a ticket for 90 attractions across the city from Tivoli Gardens to electric canal tours. A visit to CopenHill, a former power-plant turned ski slope and hiking trail, serves as one of many ways the city has turned a net negative into a net positive—and the views from the top aren’t bad, either.
“Take leisurely strolls, hop on a bike, seek out public transportation, and embrace the local way of life,” says Nina Boys. “Rather than rushing from place to place, you will be richly rewarded when you take time to really enjoy a destination and connect with the people who live there.” There’s arguably no better place to do just that than Copenhagen.
Shintō is not only the predominant religion in Japan, it’s also a belief system largely centered around the harmony found in nature and a mutual respect for the environment. This belief system has helped shape Japanese culture, and while the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked Japan as a leader when it comes to public transportation and recycling practices, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to create a “green society” with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.
Cars and trains are also leading the charge here. The country is making a push towards Clean Energy Vehicles (CEV’s) as they continue the transition towards their goal of 100% electric car sales by 2035. In the meantime, the fact that Japan’s expansive network of train routes can crisscross the country via shinkansen (bullet train) makes it quick and easy to get to from Tokyo to far-flung destinations as far as north as Sapporo and as far south as Kagoshima.
Gorgeous hotels integrated into nature are starting to heed the sustainability call, too. Located in Okinawa, The Treeful Treehouse opened last year and is leading by example when it comes to next gen-eco resort by using solar power, along with a series of design-forward treehouses that are seamlessly integrated into nature.
Arguably one of the most eco-friendly destinations on earth, Costa Rica is not only the land of plenty when it comes to sustainably built eco-lodges, but also with forests and animals. Boasting 30 National Parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, wetland areas, forest and biological reserves, the land of pura vida was awarded the United Nations Earthshot Prize in 2021 for its efforts in conservation and sustainability.
Costa Rica boasts some of the cleanest air on earth (according to the World Air Quality Report 2021), is home to more than 6% of the world’s biodiversity, and has long strived to strengthen the conservation of wildlife, forests, and volcanoes.
Located within the country’s mountains, rainforests, beachfronts and national parks, eco lodges like Mother Earth Vegan Hotel in Tamarindo and Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa in the heart of the rainforest are just two examples of eco-hotels offering travelers the opportunity to experience the best Costa Rica has to offer in an environmentally friendly and sustainable setting.
Despite its name, Iceland is one of the greenest places on earth. That’s thanks in large part to sheer geography. Set on two active tectonic plates, Iceland’s renewable and geothermal energy is used to heat 90% of homes across the country. It’s considered one of Europe’s most sustainable countries.
Doubling down on their desire to move away from fossil fuels and into a more sustainable future, the country as a whole aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2040 and be free of fossil-fuels by 2050.
You can feel good about traveling and staying here, too. With an abundance of eco-friendly inns and hotels peppered throughout the country and nestled in an 800-year-old lava field in the heart of the Reykjanes UNESCO Global Geopark, renewable electrical and thermal energy from the nearby Svartsengi Geothermal Resource Park provides 100% of the power for the Blue Lagoon. The two hotels The Retreat at Blue Lagoon and sister property Silica Hotel also benefit from the geothermal energy that abounds here. Plus, the nearby Research and Development Center has worked to create one of the world’s greenest, most sustainable Blue Lagoon Spa and skincare lines, making this trendy tourist destination a sustainable stay to boot.
For anyone’s who’s been tuning into “Our Great National Parks” on Netflix (which if you haven’t, you should), Chile is not only home to 41 national parks, but with more than 10-million acres of protected land spread across Chilean Patagonia, the country is emerging as a global leader when it comes to conservation and green initiatives.
Chile’s dedication to protecting and preserving these regions–which account for more than 20% of the country’s landmass–is not only setting a new gold standard for how national parks can and should operate, but is changing ecotourism in a very important way through wildlife conservation and repopulation efforts alone.
The Patagonian national park network is three times the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone Parks combined, and according to the World Travel Awards, Chile is the world’s leading green country thanks to its National Parks, two of which have been added to the “IUCN Green List,” the highest achievement in international conservation and tourism.
Hotels and tour operators are following in the country’s sustainability-forward footsteps, too. Just outside Torres del Paine National Park,Tierra Patagonia is a sustainable eco-lodge that’s fiercely committed to reforestation and animal conservation in the area. Not far from there, Explora Patagonia is part of a network of sustainability-driven, all-inclusive hotels and offers hyperlocal activities like visiting a nearby gaucho ranch, hiking, biking, and exploring the best this wildly beautiful stretch of the southern hemisphere has to offer.
New Zealand has long been committed to a greener future, so much so that they launched an entire tourism campaign called the Tiaki Promise, designed to help protect and ensure everyone (read: tourists) are on the same page when it comes to protecting the environment and all it has to offer. That’s why you can feel better about paying the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL) to support environmental development and conservation every time you travel to New Zealand.
“One major tip to being more mindful that's often overlooked is the impact on local communities,” Alight founder Nelly Gedeon said. “Sustainability tends to make people think of the environment, but it’s also about communities. Respecting local communities can also lower your environmental impact on those communities and make it easier for them to provide you with an authentic experience.”
Eco-tourism is serious business to Kiwi’s, and if you’re looking book an eco-friendly stay, Camp Glenorchy on New Zealand’s South Island recently launched an all-inclusive package in one of the countries most sustainably designed eco-lodges. Also on the South Island, a new Zero Carbon itinerary is the first of its kind in New Zealand, and includes visits to sustainable wineries, canyoning trips, shopping, and supporting local eco-friendly businesses and nonprofits.
In the land of all things chocolate, cheese, and the mighty Matterhorn mountain, Switzerland’s idea of sustainability is more than just an important ideal—it’s a way of life. In September 2016, Switzerland made history when it became the first country to vote for implementing a green economy with the goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050.
In addition to boasting one of the highest rates in waste recycling and composting in the world, train travel is one of the best and most efficient ways to get around the country. Explore scenic routes ranging from the snow covered mountains on the Bernina Express to the famous glass-topped Glacier Express traveling through idyllic alpine villages and past winding rivers and waterfalls. Here you can post up in a Whitepod Eco-Luxury pod, visit an urban farm, or stay in a sustainable lifestyle hotel in the heart of Zurich.
Sweden & Finland
Scandinavia has long been ahead of the climate curve, and according to Sustainabilitymag.com, Sweden tops the list as the most sustainable country in the world when it comes to renewable energy rates and low carbon emissions. By 2045 the country will have reduced their emissions by 85% to 100% thanks to the boom in electric buses, smart roads, and urban farming. Eco-tourism has also been at the forefront in Sweden, with places like the Arctic Bath, a literal floating eco-retreat in the Swedish Lapland, a Treehotel, and a collection of sustainability-driven Nordic Choice Hotels scattered across the country.
Next door, Finland’s capital of Helsinki aims to be completely carbon-neutral by 2035 and cut greenhouse emissions by 60 percent by 2030. About 70% of the country is covered by forest and the majority of that is protected to prevent deforestation and disruption of wildlife. Other sustainable practices like secondhand shopping and the circular fashion economy for everything from clothing to furniture is a way of life.
Rwanda (and its capital city of Kigali) has emerged as one of the cleanest African nations and cities thanks to a number of sustainability initiatives from banning plastic bags back in 2008 to their efforts in promoting sustainable tourism and conservation.
“Rwanda is just one excellent example of a country that’s emerged as one of the world’s leading ecotourism destinations,” say Byron Thomas, founder of Niarra Travel. “The north is home to mountain gorillas, and a handful of troops of these gentle giants have been habituated, allowing a strictly limited number of visitors to spend time in their presence.”
In the west, the Nyungwe Forest protects some of Africa’s rarest primate species, including chimpanzees that you can track. While to the east, Akagera National Park is currently undergoing one of the most ambitious restoration projects in Africa, with its savannahs once more playing host to lions, black rhinos, and giraffes. Thomas says it comes down to three things: “how the benefits of tourism are shared with communities, country-wide efforts to reforest and protect biodiversity, and a collection of incredible lodges that let you be a part of the story.”
Antarctica remains one of the greenest and most environmentally protected places on the planet, largely thanks to the Antarctic Treaty and International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). That said, tourism has increased substantially over the years, so it’s more important than ever to choose an ethically and sustainably responsible tour operator when traveling there.
In 2019, Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten Expeditions introduced the world’s first hybrid electric-powered expedition cruise ship to the region, and this summer Hurtigruten will be introducing the first battery-powered catamarans custom-built for Polar exploration.
“Ultimately, how we define sustainable travel today will eventually become the norm rather than the exception,” Nina Boys told Thrillist. “Living through the pandemic was the single most transformational shift that the world has collectively experienced in our lifetimes, and we will see the effects of that reverberate throughout society in a myriad of ways, the travel industry included. We are alive at too critical a time for there to be any other viable path forward, and demand for meaningful, impactful travel will only continue to grow.”