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10 Eco-Friendly Travel Destinations for 2015

One of the things many of us are doing as the year draws to a close is starting to plan our big vacation for 2015. And tourism can be a dicey subject. Are we as tourists impacting another culture and consuming  its resources? Are we supporting unfair trade and labor practices, climate change-inducing activities or even child sex trafficking or slavery? We can sometimes feel like interlopers, not quite sure if we are furthering bad outcomes or helping to grow an economy.

A vacation in Samoa offers both gorgeous ocean vistas and the knowledge that you're supporting ethical human and environmental justice practices.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Luckily, Ethical Traveler is here to help. Each year, the organization releases its top 10 most ethical travel destinations to consider for the upcoming year.

"Travel is now the world’s largest industry, with a trillion-dollar annual footprint," says Ethical Traveler. "This means that travelers have enormous power. Where we choose to put our footprints has economic and political reverberations that reach far beyond our personal experience. Ethical Traveler believes that mindful travel offers many rewards, both personal and global. By 'voting with our wings'—choosing our destinations well, and cultivating our roles as citizen diplomats—we promote international goodwill and help change the world for the better."

The organization reviews  the policies and practices of developing nations around the world to find  the ten that are doing the best job of promoting human rights, protecting the environment and supporting social welfare while growing a vibrant, community-based tourism industry. Last year, it began including animal welfare for the first time.

Ethical Traveler looks at information from sources like Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Reporters Without Borders, UNICEF, World Bank and LGBT organizations and assesses not only where a country stands right now but how it has improved over time. It also looks at the country's unspoiled natural beauty, outdoor activities it offers and opportunities to interact with local residents in a more than superficial way.

"By visiting these countries, we can use our economic leverage to reward good works and support best practices," says Ethical Traveler.

Last year's list included the Bahamas, Barbados, Cape Verde, Chile, Dominica, Latvia. Lithuania, Mauritius, Palau and Uruguay.

Seven of last year's winners are back: Cabo Verde, Chile, Dominica, Lithuania, Mauritius, Paula and Uruguay. Latvia (no longer considered a "developing" nation), the Bahamas and Barbados lost their slots to Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, all islands in the south Pacific Ocean.

"Climate change affects islands dramatically, so they tend to be very aware of the importance of effective environmental policies," said Ethical Traveler, pointing out that seven of the ten countries are island nations. "Sadly, no developing Asian country qualified this year; all betrayed too many human rights abuses and showed too little movement toward sustainability.

It found a host of things to praise in these countries' approach to protecting the environment, reducing their carbon footprint and contributing to reducing climate change.

1. Cabo Verde is working to build stronger connections between rural development, poverty alleviation and economic growth, and to build up its agriculture and fishing sectors.

2. Chile scored highest in environmental protection, followed closely by Mauritius and Uruguay. Chile approved the first carbon tax in South America, to take effect in 2018. It's the latest in a series of measures the government has implemented to move toward its goal of getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. In October, Chile’s Supreme Court blocked development of a gold and copper mine after the indigenous Diaguita community said it would pollute the local river. And Patagonia’s government rejected the HidroAysén project to construct five hydroelectric dams on the Futaleufú River, which environmentalists said would harm the Patagonia wilderness.

3. Dominica has launched a pilot project to reduce energy consumption in business sectors which has spurred an effort to energy climate-proof their shorelines and help build a green economy.

4. Lithuania set a goal of 23 percent use of renewable energy by 2020 and is already almost there with 22 percent of its energy generated renewably.

5. Mauritius, a nation of great biodiversity, has launched a campaign to plant 200,000 trees by 2014. It has established fishing reserves and marine parks and begun a community-based coral-farming program to combat the loss of reefs.

6. Palau is offering subsidies for citizens to incorporate more energy-efficiency features into new homes. It was designated an “Environmental Star” by the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) for its care of marine and terrestrial areas.

7. Samoa has set goals for improving environmental sustainability and disaster resilience and this year it hosted a conference on sustainable development. In September the UN praised Samoa for its work and co-signed a $1 million project for sustaining and improving the island’s biodiversity and managing the threats of climate change and desertification.

8. Tonga is aiming to reduce its diesel imports 50 percent by 2020 by promoting solar home energy. It has instituted a National Development Plan to address both the economic and ecological environments. In 2015, Ha’aapai will become Tonga’s first island to institute organic farming.

9. Uruguay is a leader in sustainable public transportation in Latin America, with plans to roll out electric buses and taxis on its streets by 2015. it's working to become carbon neutral, with 80 percent of its energy now coming from renewable sources and a goal of 90 percent by the end of next year.

10. Vanuatu, an archipelago of about 80 islands, is very vulnerable to climate change. It's begun to farm freshwater tilapia as climate change has decimated its coral reefs and its stock of ocean fish.

If none of those appeal to you, Ethical Traveler says to consider Grenada, Malawi, Madagascar, Ghana and newly accessible Cuba, saying "Open-minded travelers can learn much by visiting them. Nothing compares to witnessing firsthand the dynamic processes of social and political change."

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.