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10 Most Ethical Travel Destinations for 2016

10 Most Ethical Travel Destinations for 2016

By Michael McColl

January can feel like a long month. In the northern hemisphere, at least, the days are short, temperatures are low and skies are often cloudy. In many ways it is the perfect time to fantasize about and, better yet, plan a summer vacation.

But nothing is simple these days and that includes travel. On top of planning flights, booking hotels and off-setting carbon emissions, many travelers want to know more about the places they are visiting—about how the countries they plan to explore protect the environment, support social justice and respect human rights. Luckily, these forward-thinking travelers have someone to do their homework for them.

Mongolia made Ethical Traveler's list of the 10 most ethical travel destinations for 2016. Seventy percent of Mongolia's herder populations now have access to solar power. Photo credit: Bernd Thaller

Every year, Ethical Traveler, a project of Earth Island Institute, puts together a list of the 10 most ethical travel destinations in the developing world. In compiling the list, Ethical Traveler investigates how countries are working to improve the environment, animal welfare and people's lives. For example, how are these countries preserving resources and cultivating sustainable practices? How much schooling does the average citizen receive in each country and what is standard of living? What have nations done to combat discrimination or to address child labor?

Aside from these metrics, Ethical Traveler also makes sure the destinations that make the list offer “natural beauty, great outdoor activities and the opportunity to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way."

None of the countries on this list are perfect—many have work to do when it comes to LGBT rights, domestic violence, human rights and women's rights. However, overall, those that made the cut are setting an example for the countries around the world.

So without further ado, here's a list of the ten most ethical travel destinations in 2016, in alphabetical order.

1. Cabo Verde

Cabo Verde, which was also listed among the most ethical destinations in 2015, stands out on nearly all counts. This small island nation, which sits off the northwest coast of Africa, is aiming to source 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020. Cabo Verde is also leading the way on marine protection and has established important programs to protect endangered loggerhead turtles from hunting and beach pollution. What is more, it is a leader on gender equality—many women hold leadership positions in the private sector as well as in government and the country seems poised elect it's first female prime minister in 2016. This small nation has also embraced LGBT rights, celebrating its third annual gay pride week in 2015.

2. Dominica

Dominica's strong and free healthcare system helped it earn a place on the list. In 2015 the country was certified free of measles, mumps and rubella. Dominica has also made strides in geothermal energy development, leading the Caribbean islands on this count. The island nation has achieved 94 percent literacy, well above the global average of 84 percent and has increased already impressive efforts to protect whales, creating a mandatory primary school curriculum about respect for marine mammals and other ocean life. But Dominca still has significant room for improvement on LGBT rights—the country's Sexual Offenses Act, which criminalizes same-sex relationships, is still on the books, though the law is rarely enforced.

3. Grenada

Grenada is new to the list and made the cut in part for its work to regenerate coral reefs through the establishment of a coral nursery program. This Caribbean island nation is also fighting for global action on climate change, as are many island nations around the world. In terms of human rights, Grenada has begun discussing LGBT rights within the context of constitutional reform. Ethical Traveler will monitor progress on this front when putting together next year's list.

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4. Federated States of Micronesia

Like Grenada, Micronesia is also an Ethical Destination newcomer. In 2015, Micronesia—which is made up of more than 600 islands in the western Pacific Ocean—protected 78 acres of forested wetland in the Yela Valley on Kosrae, the country's main island. Micronesia ultimately plans to protect the entire 1,400-acre valley and is also pushing to attain 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. The developing nation has plans to increase Internet access and received a perfect score in Freedom House's yearly report on civil and political rights.

5. Mongolia

Herders have grazed livestock on Mongolia's grasslands for thousands of years. Now, these nomadic communities are embracing renewable energy—70 percent have access to solar power. In addition to nurturing green power, Mongolia has protected nearly 15 percent of its land. Among the nations that made the 2016 list, Mongolia has one of the lowest unemployment rates, at just 5 percent and has also developed an impressive end-of-life care program, including subsidies for families caring for terminally ill members and improved access to pain medication. Additionally, Mongolia has begun widespread reforms of its legal system, including strengthened protections against hate crimes, bigotry and discrimination and is working to abolish the death penalty. Unfortunately, it is currently struggling with increased wildlife trafficking and mining, which poses threats to the environment.

6. Panama

Panama received the second highest environmental protection score on this list, in part because the Central American nation has doubled-down on reforestation efforts. This score comes despite the ongoing construction of a hydroelectric dam that threatens both indigenous communities and local water resources. Panama also received high markets on measures of social justice, reporting less than 5 percent unemployment and the highest life expectancy at birth of any of the countries on the list: Life expectancy in Panama is almost as high as that in the U.S. What is more, Panama ranked seventh in the world on the “Happy Planet Index" which measures “perceived well-being, life expectancy and ecological footprint." The country also stands out for having ratified the six big international conventions on child labor. In terms of animal welfare, Panama has banned dogfighting, greyhound racing and hare coursing. It also prohibits bullfighting and has placed restrictions on animal performances in circuses

7. Samoa

When it comes to climate change, Samoa means business. The South Pacific island nation plans to generate 100 percent of its electricity from sustainable sources by 2017 and has recently opened new solar plants to help reach this goal. In 2015, Samoa also received a perfect score from Freedom House in the nonprofit's yearly report on civil and political rights. Unfortunately, Samoa has not made as much progress when it comes to gender-based violence, but the country is beginning to tackle this pressing issue: It recently released a “State of Human Rights" report aimed at increasing protections for women, as well as for prisoners and people with disabilities.

8. Tonga

Tonga received the highest score among all 10 ethical destinations on environmental protection, in part due to the creation of new national marine reserves. The South Pacific nation is also pushing hard when it comes to renewables. It built nine solar arrays on outer islands as part of its plan to achieve 50 percent renewable energy by 2020. Tonga is leading the way on LGBT rights as well and in 2015 hosted its first Pacific Human Rights on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identification Conference. Not to mention that 99 percent of Tongans are literate. Unfortunately, like most of the countries that made the list, Tonga continues to struggle with gender-based violence and cultural beliefs regarding the status women remain entrenched in Tongan society. In fact, Tonga is one of just seven countries worldwide that has not ratified the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

9. Tuvalu

Tuvalu has been actively pushing for international action to address climate change and is a member of The Vulnerable 20, a group of nations that shares innovative approaches to climate finance. Like Micronesia, Tuvalu is also working hard to increase Internet access, which will, among other things, be a boost to education. The South Pacific island nation is also making an effort to address women's rights and gender-based violence issues: In late 2014, the parliament unanimously passed a bill criminalizing all forms of domestic violence.

10. Uruguay

Uruguay is ahead of the curve with respect to green energy, meeting 90 percent of its energy needs with renewable sources in 2015 and striving for a 100 percent electric public transportation sector. The South American nation is also honing in on education, working to lower high-school dropout rates, increase college scholarships and distribute laptops to both teachers and students. In terms of human rights, Uruguay was an early signatory to the new Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons, Uruguayan courts handed down the country's first labor trafficking conviction in 2015 and the government has begun assisting sex trafficking victims. Uruguay has also established itself as a champion of animal welfare. The country has issued a legal decree entitling all animals to be free from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, suffering and disease and fear and distress and free to express normal behavior. Animal performances in circuses are banned in Uruguay and working animals have been given protections against overwork and abuse.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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