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Are you interested in travelling in a way that limits damage to the natural environment? Are you motivated by an appreciation of wildlife, and a willingness to support the community where you will be staying? If you are, you can be considered an ecotourist.
For ecotourists, sustainable travel and visiting destinations where they can support wildlife conservation are key. That is why Forbes Advisor has carried out research to create an Index of the 50 best countries for ecotourism. Scoring is based on factors such as the number of animal and plant species found in a country, the number of species per 10 km2, the percentage of the country’s landmass that is protected, and the number of UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites it has.
For more information on how the countries were scored, refer to the ‘Methodology’ section below.
Top five countries for ecotourists
Brazil, South America
Ecotourism Index Score: 94.9/100
Brazil is the most biodiverse country of all the destinations we researched, with over 43,000 various animal species, and plants. This is despite large-scale deforestation of the Amazon.
Around 30% of Brazil’s landmass is currently protected. This includes eight UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites, one of which is the Central Amazon Conservation complex, which protects threatened species such as the Amazonian manatee and the black caiman.
Mexico, North America
Ecotourism Index Score: 86/100
Mexico is home to 29,000 animal and plant species, of which 115 are protected. Endangered animals include the Angel Island mouse, the fish-eating bat and the Buller’s chipmunk.
With a 2 million km2 landmass, Mexico is around a quarter of the size of Brazil, but offers an equal number of UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites. One such site, the 244 coastal areas, islands and islets in the Gulf of California, is the habitat for 39% of the world’s marine mammals.
Ecotourism Index Score: 84/100
Australia is the only country in the top five located outside America. Its ranking was boosted by its environmental performance rating of 60 out of 100. It also boasts 16 UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites – the highest number out of all 50 countries researched.
Its UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, the Great Barrier Reef, is the world’s biggest collection of coral reefs, and is home to endangered species such as the sea cow and large green turtle. Around 20% of Australia’s landmass is protected, and 101 of its 27,000 species of animals and plants are protected too.
Ecuador, South America
Ecotourism Index Score: 82.1/100
The fourth smallest country in South America, around 23% of Ecuador’s landmass is protected. It has 3,000 types of animal and plant, including 52 which are protected. It also offers two UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites, Sangay National Park and the Galápagos Islands.
The latter is exposed to unique geographical influences such as continuous volcanic activity, which have created unusual species, including land iguanas, and a variety of finch. They capture the interest of ecotourists today, as they did biologist Charles Darwin, author of On the Origin of Species, in 1835.
Costa Rica, Central America
Ecotourism Index Score: 81.2/100
Around 27% of Costa Rica’s 52,000 km2 is protected. It’s the smallest country to feature in this top five, but is occupied by approximately three species of animal and plant per 10 km2. This is the highest number out of the five countries listed.
Almost 14,000 different animal and plant species can be found in Costa Rica, and 12 are protected. The country has three UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites, but for those eager to explore underwater ecosystems, Cocos Island National Park is a popular attraction, offering the opportunity to view tuna, rays, dolphins and sharks.
Top 50 countries for Ecotourists
Top five most nature-rich countries
For ecotourists itching to see as much of the wildlife as possible while away, Forbes Advisor have identified the countries with the most flora and fauna per 10 km2.
59.3 species per 10 km2
With around 59 species of animal and plant per 10 km2, Singapore is far more nature-rich than any of the 50 countries researched. In total, it is home to 3,600 species of animal and plant. Endangered species include the large flying-fox and the sunda pangolin.
15.9 species per 10 km2
This Poloneysian archipelago of 171 islands has over 1,200 different animal species and plants, including the endangered Pacific sheath-tailed bat. Around 16 forms of wildlife can be found per 10 km2.
Saint Lucia, The Caribbean
11.4 species per 10 km2
Saint Lucia is the first of three Caribbean islands rated as some of the most nature-rich destinations. There are approximately 710 species of animal and plant on the island. Around 11 can be found per 10 km2. This includes the Saint Lucia parrot, the national bird.
Dominica, The Caribbean
9.5 species per 10 km2
While 730 animal species, and plants occupy this Caribbean island, around 10 are found per 10 km2. Birds and marine life are particularly noteworthy such as the Hispaniolan Woodpecker, the Trogón humpback whale and dolphins.
Jamaica, The Caribbean
3.9 species per 10 km2
Jamaica is the final destination highlighted as nature-rich, and the third Caribbean island. There are almost 4,300 species of animal and plant on the island – the most to make this top five list. Around four species can be found per 10 km2. These include endangered bats.
Top five countries for protected land
When considering the amount of protected terrain in each country, Forbes Advisor found that the following countries took the lead.
49.7% of landmass protected
A landlocked country in the South of Asia, Bhutan comprises almost 50% protected landmass – the largest amount of all 50 countries researched.
46.9% of landmass protected
Around 47% of Brunei’s landmass is protected. Situated on the north coast of the island of Borneo, it boasts beaches as well as rainforests.
41.3% of landmass protected
Approximately 41% of Zambia’s landmass is protected. The landlocked country in southern Africa shares the UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site, Victoria Falls, with its neighbour, Zimbabwe.
41% of landmass protected
Bulgaria’s protected areas account for 41% of its landmass. The Balkan country’s three UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites include Pirin National Park, which is predominantly forest.
40.4% of landmass protected
Slovenia is the second Balkan country to feature on this top five list. Around 40% of its landmass is protected. One of its two UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites are the Škocjan Caves formed from limestone.
Top five European countries for ecotourists
One key aspect of aligning your travel habits with your ethics is considering your carbon footprint. Forbes Advisor has also specifically pinpointed those countries closer to home that scored highest across the board.
Ecotourism Index Score: 70.3/100
Greece has almost 6,700 species of animal and plant, including the endangered Cretan white-toothed shrew. While it doesn’t have any UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites, 35% of its landmass is protected.
Its efforts to protect the environment have been noted as it was awarded a score of 56 for its environmental performance.
Ecotourism Index Score: 70.2/100
Forbes Advisor previously highlighted this country as 41% of its landmass is protected. Out of the European countries researched, it also ranks highly for its overall environmental performance, scoring 52.
Bulgaria has three UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites, and almost 4,400 various species of animal and plant, including the endangered Roach’s Mouse-tailed Dormouse.
Ecotourism Index Score: 69.5/100
Slovenia scores 67 for its overall environmental performance. It also features on the list of top five countries for protected land.
It has nearly 730 species of animal and plant, which include the endangered Alpine Shrew and Mediterranean horseshoe bat.
Ecotourism Index Score: 69.5/100
Scoring 63 for its environmental performance, 28% of France’s landmass is protected. It has seven UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites, including a nature reserve on the island of Corsica.
There are around 6,200 species of animal and plant in France. The country produces 4.58 tons of carbon dioxide per capita – the lowest amount out of the five countries listed here.
Ecotourism Index Score: 68.9/100
There are six natural world heritage sites in Spain. These include Doñana National Park in Andalusia, the habitat for five threatened bird species.
Spain is home to around 7,200 species of animal and plant, of which 10 are protected. This compares to six protected species in France, and fewer for the other countries on this list. Around 28% of Spain’s landmass is also protected. It scores 57 for environmental performance.
Top 10 European countries for Ecotourists
Tips for sustainable travel
- Book eco-friendly accommodation such as a carbon-neutral retreat or an organic farm from an ethical travel agent. There’s a whole industry that caters to ecotourism. Find out more on The International Ecotourism Society website.
- Check a company’s ethical status.The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance lists the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), Earth Check, Green Globe, Green Key, Travelife Accommodation Sustainability, EU Ecolabel or EU Flower as reputable certifications for hotels operating ethically. It lists LEED, BREEAM and EDGE as reputable certifications for hotel buildings. Genuine animal sanctuaries are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).
- Pack zero-waste toiletries as recycling facilities are not always available.
- Learn about the area and community you are visiting, and support local and indigenous communities by purchasing their products and services.
- Opt for the bus or train where possible to limit your carbon footprint.
What else should I consider?
Whether you plan to explore the natural wonders of a country, have an action-packed adventure, do some volunteer work or do all three, travel insurance can be a vital form of financial protection.
Travellers should purchase a policy as soon as they have booked their trip for immediate cover for trip cancellation due to an emergency. Among accepted reasons are usually illness and bereavement.
Travel insurance can also cover expensive medical fees for emergency treatment abroad should you fall ill or get injured, as well as the loss or theft of your baggage. The policy smallprint will detail any other types of cover offered, such as for missed departure, travel delay and loss of passport.
Travellers should also look out for sports or activities covered. Insurance for high-risk activities such as snorkelling, bungee jumping or even volunteer work may be available to bolt on to a policy at an extra cost, if not already included. Similarly, gadget cover for lost or stolen devices may be offered as an optional add-on.
To find the best deals you can compare travel insurance policies using an online comparison tool.
Forbes Advisor identified countries that are considered safe to visit by travelsafe-abroad.com. The website uses a traffic light system to rate countries based on factors such as risk of mugging, pickpockets, transport including taxi safety, female traveller safety, natural disaster and terrorism.
Forbes Advisor discounted the most unsafe ‘red’ countries. Out of the countries left, it down-weighted the score for any country with a travelsafe-abroad.com rating of less than 50 out of the best rating of 100.
It then scored each country across the following data points:
- number of amphibia, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and plant species
- number of protected species
- percentage of protected landmass
- number of UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites
- environmental performance determined by factors such as air quality and the protection of land and species
- CO2 emissions in tons per capita
Forbes Advisor also calculated and scored each country on the number of species per 10km2 found there.
The higher the total score for each country the more suitable the country is deemed for ecotourists.