of the World's Most Sustainable Travel Destinations
Enacting all the necessary measures to battle the devastating effects of climate change requires a coordinated global effort, but many destinations have taken it upon themselves to lead by example. These cities and countries have implemented creative initiatives and ambitious climate goals to help support the safekeeping of our home for future generations to come, one piece of the puzzle at a time. In celebration of Earth Day, here are 15 destinations where you can make an impact on the world’s future in your travels.
San Luis Obispo, California
This city on the California Central Coast has recently been winning accolades for its sustainability measures — and for good reason. San Luis Obispo has set an ambitious goal to be carbon neutral by 2035 and has planned a number of initiatives to make that possible. Through its Keys for Trees program, a portion of every hotel room booked is donated toward reforestation through the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo (EcoSLO), which hopes to plant 10,000 new plants by 2035. Additional efforts include banning single-use plastics, switching to greener energy, installing more electric vehicle charge stations, and offering discounts to those who travel car-free. The city has also preserved an additional 500 acres of open space since 2016 alone.
San Luis Obispo’s famed wineries have been among those leading the way, and the area even has a Sustainable Wine Trail. Along the route are wineries like Chamisal Vineyards, which was one of the first Sustainability in Practice (SIP)-certified wineries in the state; Tolosa Winery, which has a solar electricity system that offsets nearly 90% of its own usage; and Wolff Vineyard, which has an innovative PVC irrigation network to save water.
Monaco may be small in size, but it’s big on sustainability. The European nation, known for its lavish lifestyle with glamorous hotels and flashy casinos, has been countering that reputation in recent years, led by head of state Prince Albert II. His foundation, established in 2006, has long been focused on developing sustainability practices, with three main pillars: combating climate change, fighting biodiversity loss, and preserving water resources. Along with those lofty ambitions, Albert has vowed that, by 2030, his nation will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from its 1990 levels and be completely carbon neutral by 2050.
To highlight the commitment to visitors, Monaco has developed an Eco-Responsible Visitor Trail to guide travelers toward sustainably certified hotels (88% of its rooms meet the standards), gardens and parks (20% of the nation is green space), and eateries that follow the Responsible Restaurant certification to reduce plastic use and food waste. One highlight is the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel’s Michelin-starred Elsa restaurant, the first restaurant to earn the Ecocert certification for its environmentally friendly sourcing practices. Monaco’s sustainable tourism guide also encourages visitors to take advantage of the country’s plethora of public transportation options, including public bikes and electric vehicles.
The Apennines, Italy
The Apennines Mountain Range runs for 870 miles through central Italy and is one of the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems. The range features massive beech woods, alpine grasslands, and limestone hills, where native species like red deer, wolves, Apennine chamois, golden eagles, and Marsican brown bears thrive — earning the Apennines the nickname the “wild heart of Italy.”
In order to preserve that natural balance, an environmental nonprofit organization named Rewilding Europe has led efforts such as creating coexistence corridors to allow wildlife to travel safely between its national parks, protecting the population of rare bears with electric fences to prevent poaching, and adding better signage to curb traffic accidents. Visitors can embark on a six-day Rewilding the Apennines trip to see the projects in action and to responsibly spot the wolves and bears in their natural habitat.
San Diego, California
San Diego recently topped a list of Green Cities in the U.S., but the Southern California city has a long history leading the way in sustainability initiatives. It is one of the state’s top cities for solar energy production, and its airport was the first in the country to issue a Global Reporting Initiative-certified sustainability report. San Diego aims to continue that trend by working toward a goal of using 100% renewable energy by 2035.
The city itself was built with open spaces in mind. Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre urban park in downtown San Diego, features 10 buildings that are LEED-certified and has created a partnership with local organizations that has helped reduce 5,139 metric tons of carbon dioxide since 2009. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a 1,750-acre space north of the city designated to preserve the Torrey pine tree and other endemic species, while Sunset Cliffs National Park protects 68 acres of the area’s rugged coastline.
After becoming an independent nation in 1990, Namibia was the first country in Africa to call out habitat conservation in its constitution. Since then, it has put the power of managing natural resources in the hands of its people through the establishment of 82 communal conservancies, providing its residents a sense of environmental responsibility in the process.
That setup has helped bring back populations of lions, cheetahs, black rhinos, and zebras to the southern African nation’s shorelines, woodlands, floodplains, and deserts. In turn, the initiative has also sparked ecotourism, which has helped bring income to the country’s rural communities. Namibia continues to pave the way as the first country in the South African Development Community to put a National Environmental Education and Education for Sustainable Development in place, requiring its citizens to become “environmentally literate people” who will take “responsibility and action for a sustainable future.”
The Austrian capital known for its classical music history is promoting harmony in a different way these days, ranking as the world’s greenest city in a comprehensive study released in 2020 for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. After all, Vienna is quite literally a green city, with the highest proportion of green space of any city on the continent. Among the city’s many sustainability highlights, its drinking water comes from two mountain spring pipelines that flow through hydroelectric power stations to create enough electricity to power a small town in the process.
Another interesting sustainability initiative in Vienna is a system of 6,000 beehives overseen by 700 beekeepers. The insects provide a natural source for sustainable development, plus a sweet side effect — the honey made from the nectar collected at City Hall Park is also sold at the Imperial Shop in Vienna's historic city center. The Austrian capital has even turned its clean energy power plants into part of its cityscape, with Instagram-worthy sites such as the Spittelau waste incineration plant, designed by architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
In 1967, Sweden became the first nation to pass an environmental protection act, and then followed that up by hosting the first-ever United Nations conference on the environment in 1972. Since then, the Scandinavian country has lived up to its eco-friendly reputation, especially in the areas of clean air and water and low emissions. And it’s no surprise that teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg hails from the nation’s capital of Stockholm.
What really puts Sweden at the forefront of sustainability is thinking beyond the obvious. Projects are in the works to turn former textiles into paper and to create a textile fiber called cellulosic in the Tree to Textile initiative. The city is using biogas, a type of fuel that’s made from food waste, to heat homes and power bus and taxi fleets. Every action brings the country one step closer to the goal of a fossil fuel-free transportation sector by 2030 and a completely climate-neutral society by 2045. Travelers can do their part to help by staying in one of the country’s 250 “Nordic Ecolabel” hotels, recognized for their sustainability; choosing food marked with the “KRAV” organic certification label; and drinking the crystal-clear tap water.
In the 1980s, American-born Jalsa Urubshurow went looking for his roots in Mongolia. When he woke up by a lake one morning and saw thousands of Demoiselle cranes take flight without anyone else around, he became eager to share that type of awe-inducing experience with other travelers — many of whom were unfamiliar with Mongolia’s treasures. He started Nomadic Expeditions, offering responsibly-sourced trips to his parents’ native country, and always making sure that every itinerary is mindful of the land, people, and culture with what they call a “high-value, low-volume tourism model” — whether that’s visiting a nomadic horse-breeding family or experiencing the Golden Eagle Festival with Kazakh falconers.
The company, which is run completely by Mongolians in all of its global operations, also made its sustainability commitment permanent by building the Three Camel Lodge, constructed using traditional Buddhist methods. It was the first lodge in the country to eliminate single-use plastics, it uses solar power for all its lights, and it depends only on local supplies from within a 50-mile radius.
With 365 million acres to explore, Alaska is filled with opportunities to travel beyond the well-trodden pathways, and opt for experiences through tourism partners who follow sustainable practices. The Adventure Green Alaska seal, a program launched in 2009, recognizes experiences such as viewing grizzly bears with Gondwana Ecotours, sea kayaking with Spirit Walker Expeditions, and glacier viewing with Alaska Outdoors.
One of the easiest (and most picturesque) ways to move about the state is via the Alaska Railroad, which was one of the state’s earliest Green Star Award recipients in 1993. The company continues to live up to its eco-friendly standards with upgrades to old locomotives and facilities to lower emissions. Also useful: The Juneau Carbon Offset Fund has a calculator to add up the carbon impact of your Alaska trips with the option to help offset them.
The Galapagos earned a spot on the list of the original 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1979, and conservation has always been at the forefront in these Ecuadorian islands. In fact, a strict list of 14 rules has been long enforced by the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD). Most notably, tourists are not permitted on any of the Galapagos National Park’s protected lands without a sanctioned guide, limiting the number of visitors who tread on the fragile lands each day.
Social distancing has always been the practice here, as a six-foot distance is required from wildlife to not disturb them from their regular routines. The measures have worked, in large part, as experts believe that about 95% of the islands’ biodiversity has been intact for nearly 500 years. Still, efforts are being made to rewild the endemic giant tortoises, as well as curb environmental damage from humans over the years, in order to truly preserve the archipelago that famously captured Charles Darwin’s interest in the 1800s.
In 2018, the popular Colorado ski town of Vail earned the distinction of becoming the first Mountain IDEAL destination, a sustainability standard developed particularly for mountain resorts. Even more impressively, it also became the first U.S. destination to earn the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC) distinction as a Certified Sustainable Destination.
The efforts started decades ago in the 1966 town charter, which called for preservation of open spaces. The Vail Nature Center and Preserve was established in the 1970s, and a real estate tax was implemented in the 1980s to fund additional parks and sustainable measures. The city has also reduced its electricity consumption by 34% through the use of solar panels and LED lighting. And Vail has encouraged the use of green transportation with a playful initiative, the Sole Power green commuting challenge.
Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
As one of the most pristine regions on the planet, Patagonia serves as a technicolor reminder of what Mother Nature once looked like before humans encroached on it. Among those promoting sustainability efforts in the area is the former CEO of the outdoor gear retailer of the same name, Kristine Tompkins, who founded Conservación Patagónica in 2000 to purchase large plots of land in the area and require them to be turned into national parks.
The region, which straddles southern Argentina and Chile, is also filled with ecotourism opportunities, like EcoCamp Patagonia in Torres Del Paine National Park, which was built with minimal impact on the environment and continues to run on renewable energy, while also preserving the cultural traditions of the area.
Last year, the European Union RESponsible Island Prize — which each year honors an island that is making waves for its renewable energy production — went to the tiny Danish island of Ærø. Only reachable by sea and located in the South Funen Archipelago, the island actually makes more energy than it uses, with its six turbines generating about 130% of the island’s energy needs. The island’s heating comes from the large solar arrays that are owned as a collective. As there are no traffic lights and a population of only about 6,000 people, much of the local activities are rooted in biking, hiking, and boating. Despite the island’s small size, it features a handful of hotels, nature camps, and guesthouses for eco-minded visitors.
Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida
Along Florida’s panhandle, Destin and neighboring Fort Walton Beach are aiming to become the state’s foremost destination for diving — and they're working toward that goal with sustainability in mind. The area’s 24 miles of white-sand beaches lead to the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where the local government has built more than 300 artificial reefs, providing a habitat for the area’s marine life.
The Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park started the C.A.R.E. program for visitors to learn about the area’s sea turtles and how to best care for the endangered species. Temporary groynes (low barrier walls) have been put in place to help maintain the beaches, while mitigation efforts against the invasive lionfish include a spearfishing tournament to raise awareness — with last year’s removing 10,250 of the creatures.
Sustainability efforts have become a mainstay in every aspect of Singaporean life. Not only does the Southeast Asian nation reward businesses that adhere to green practices, but it also makes it easy for visitors to identify Green Venues. The list includes most of its major attractions — like Gardens by the Bay, Jurong Bird Park, National Gallery Singapore, and Singapore Zoo — as well as hotels such as the W Singapore, JW Marriott Singapore South Beach, InterContinental Singapore, and the Fairmont Singapore.
With a goal of carbon neutrality by 2030, the city-state is on its way to doubling electric vehicle charging stations and cutting carbon waste by 30% by 2026. The Green Plan, launched last year, will also focus on six main areas: a green government, sustainable living, natural resources, energy reset, a sustainable economy, and a resilient future.