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The World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations 2021: Special COVID-19 Edition

02 Mar 2021

here’s a sad but wonderful irony in these words from author David Mitchell, whose books, such as Cloud Atlas, have transported us through time and across the globe. During the past year, many of us have not been able to travel at all—yet somehow, in the midst of our isolation, we have come to meet ourselves, and know ourselves, in ways that we never anticipated. While in the Introduction to last year’s report, we suggested that “the only authentic way to experience the world is with boots (or flip-flops) on the ground,” the wing-clipping pandemic has reminded us that there are many legitimate ways to explore our planet.

Despite the devastation wrought by COVID-19—and all of 2020’s madness, from the Australian wildfires to home-brewed attacks on American democracy—we enter 2021 seeing rays of hope. Vaccines against the virus have been developed in miraculous time, and though their distribution has been a huge challenge, there’s reason to believe they will save millions of lives. A desperately needed change in U.S. leadership may signal a renewed commitment to fighting climate change, supporting human rights, and combatting institutional sexism and racism. And as we prepare this report in early 2021, we see a new awareness of how fragile democratic institutions are, and how imperative it is to defend them.

But things won’t recover overnight. This is especially true for the international travel industry—which employs one out of 10 people worldwide. The free fall in travel and tourism has inspired a rethinking of the ways that we travel. Two important, if paradoxical, discoveries were made during the pandemic. First, when carbon emissions and the human impact on the environment are reduced, the results are almost immediate. We saw this in Beijing, where many people saw the stars for the first time; and in Nepal, where the Himalaya were once again visible from the Kathmandu Valley. But the flip side of this reduction in travel is that millions of people in scores of countries, from taxi drivers to safari guides—have no safety net.

During the past year, industry leaders have made strong statements about “sustainable” and “regenerative” travel. It’s absolutely true that we need new models of travel—models that empower local people and help them steward and grow their environs. Our 2021 Ethical Destinations is an attempt to inspire this process. Though the suggestions in this report may seem wishful, they are actually aspirational, because this much is certain: Travel will return. And as it does, we hope our international community will support the initiatives in the countries listed here. Though all our winners have suffered badly during the pandemic, they have managed to keep their priorities straight and offer a smarter, more sustainable path forward. By “voting with your wings” (once you are vaccinated, of course!), you can reward these nations for their efforts and motivate others to do the same. 

It’s all part of the Big Picture. As the pandemic is defeated and 2021 begins, we must cultivate our sense of global citizenry—an obligation to the whole of humanity. If COVID-19 taught us one thing, it’s that our borders are imaginary. We are the inhabitants of a small planet, stunning in both its beauty and fragility. We can move forward, and survive as a species, only by taking care of each other. This begins with knowing each other. Travel and exploration—whether to the reefs of Belize, the steppes of Mongolia, or the volcanoes of Cabo Verde—brings more than a new awareness of ourselves. It shows us what it means to be human.

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The Winners

Ethical Traveler congratulates the countries on our 2021 list of The Ten Best Post-Pandemic Ethical Destinations. The winners, in alphabetical order (not in order of merit), are:

  • Belize
  • Benin
  • Cabo Verde
  • Costa Rica
  • Ecuador
  • Jamaica
  • Mongolia
  • Nepal
  • The Gambia
  • Uruguay

Please note that Ethical Traveler is an all-volunteer non-profit organization, and a project of the Earth Island Institute. No money or donations of any kind are solicited or accepted from any nations, governments, travel bureaus, or individuals in the creation of our annual list. 

How the List Is Created

I think we can all agree that this year is different. In “normal” years, Ethical Traveler surveys the world’s developing nations, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, focusing on four general categories: environmental protection, social welfare, human rights, and animal welfare. For each category, we look at information past and present to understand not only the current state of a country, but how it has changed over time. This process helps us to select nations that are actively improving the state of their people, government, and environment. Our goal is to encourage practices and mind sets that help create a safer and more sustainable world. Our Ethical Destinations Awards are given to the 10 that have shown the greatest improvement over the past year. They must also offer unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities, and the opportunity to interact with local people in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.

This year, due to COVID-19’s withering effect on international travel, we realized we had to do something different. Instead of starting with a shortlist based on our go-to metrics and databases, we decided to have a closer look at some of the countries that have appeared on our winners’ list over the last five years. We investigated how they handled the pandemic and how this disease has impacted their travel and tourism industries. We also researched whether there were any positive initiatives and opportunities emerging from this crisis—strategies, for example, for making tourism more sustainable. Diverse sources were consulted, including reports by international institutions and other NGOs, in-country governmental resources, and both local and international media. 

Even though this year’s Ethical Destinations report is different, our goal is the same: to encourage behaviors that help create a safer and more sustainable world through travel. We have added some guidelines for each country that will help travelers understand how best to “vote with their wings,” and help these countries recover from the current crisis in a safe and ethical way. 

Please note that this is not an exhaustive explanation of our methodology but an overview of how we conduct our research. An appendix listing our sources will be sent upon request.


This smallest country on the African continent features golden beaches backed by swaying palms, scenic lagoons, sleepy fishing villages, and teeming wildlife—including manatees, hippos, crocodiles, and nearly 600 bird species. The Gambia also hosts the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center, Africa’s longest-running chimp project. Ethical Destinations honored The Gambia with our Ethical Destinations Award in both 2019 and 2020.

As in the majority of Sub-Saharan countries, COVID-19 has not caused a major health crisis on the level of the Americas and Europe. However, The Gambia could not avoid the devastating economical impact, mainly because it depends heavily on tourism, which accounts for 20% of The Gambia’s GDP and provides a living to nearly a fifth of Gambians. The pandemic is also damaging hotels and tour operators, while affecting thousands of small businesses in the tourism supply chain—such as providers of food, transport, and souvenirs.

The Gambia re-opened its borders to tourists in October, after having developed safety measures for hotels. But the crisis is also seen as an opportunity to change tourism in The Gambia for the better. The country has been over-dependent on a few tour operators and charter flights—resulting in a single yearly season focused on winter-sun, especially for Europeans. Even before COVID-19, The Gambia was already developing alternatives to all-inclusive beach holidays such as the Ninki Nanka Trail, allowing visitors to discover The Gambia’s rich natural and cultural heritage. The country hopes to create a more sustainable tourism economy, reducing poverty in rural areas through community-based tourism and extending the tourist season both geographically and seasonally. The current crisis seems to support the need and strengthen the calls for these kinds of changes.

What can we do?

When the time is right, support the positive change in Gambian tourism and discover its natural and cultural heritage. The Gambia’s health system is fragile; it might take a while before the locals receive vaccines. So wait until the pandemic is over, and you’re no longer a risk to the locals. As a poor country. As personal interactions with local cultures are intrinsic to the new sustainable tourism products, be patient—and visit when you can have a full experience.

Source: Ethical Traveler

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