People & Places
Celebrating Earth Day: 11 Eco-Friendly Travel Destinations You Should Visit
April 09, 2023
Earth Day makes its annual appearance later this April – a day for redoubling our collective efforts to support and protect the environment. The mid-spring date also happens to coincide with the beginning of the high season for travel, as people across the globe finalize their summer plans.
Those wishing to carry over the Earth Day ethos to their summer vacation plans have come to the right spot. In this post, we’re exploring eco-friendly destinations – cities, national parks and scenic spots across the globe.
What Makes a Destination “Eco-Friendly”?
What’s a list without a few parameters? While it’s tempting to regard any destination with lush forested areas as “eco-friendly,” we’re aiming to be a bit more inclusive – and a little more discerning – with this list. Here are a few criteria we looked for in an eco-friendly travel destination:
- Access to a sustainable tourist infrastructure, including (but not limited to) eco-friendly accommodations, green transit options, and attractions with minimal impact on the surrounding environment.
- Urban environments that take care to prioritize green space, manage waste, promote urban agriculture, utilize green energy and de-emphasize car dependence.
- Rural areas with unspoilt nature (and firm governmental policies to keep it that way).
- And lastly, a destination can be eco-friendly on a citizen level. The points above frame eco-friendliness through a top-down lens, citing government policies and industrial practices. But even if a place lacks these top-down structures, it doesn't necessarily mean the people aren’t trying their best. A destination can be eco-friendly if its population feels a responsibility toward environmental stewardship and respect.
Sadly, there are very few places that tick each of these boxes. But the world is a work in progress. And the list below represents a few of our favourite places putting in the effort. The first five destinations on the list are cities, and the back six are countryside locales.
Iceland’s capital city routinely pops up on lists of the world’s greenest places. Its bona fides are impressive. It runs primarily on geothermal energy (with proposals for a 100% switch in the near future). The city enjoys low air pollution and great drinking water. And Reykjavik affords its citizens and visitors easy access to the surrounding natural beauty.
The city itself is chock full of eco-friendly accommodation choices and dining options. But most visitors use Reykjavik as a launching off point to see the dramatic Icelandic countryside, which boasts lava fields, waterfalls, thermal hot springs, volcanoes, fjords and countless other impressive environmental features. Temperatures can remain chilly throughout the year at certain elevations, so pack a merino base layer complete with travel pants for men or comfortable leggings for women.
The Vancouver metro area is roughly ten times the population of Reykjavik’s – and with that leap in size comes environmental concessions. Still, Vancouver does a fantastic job of being green. Its “greenest city” sustainability initiative aimed to make it the most eco-friendly city in the world by 2020. And by some measurements, it succeeded.
It’s easy to see why. The surrounding natural beauty of the North Shore Mountains and Pacific Ocean are pristinely preserved, and available to citizens via unspoilt sightlines and affordable public transit. There are bike lanes aplenty, abundant urban farms and gardens, and public parks in virtually every ten-minute radius. Vancouver's Stanley Park is a notable highlight nestled in the city's northwestern corner: a 405-hectare public park girded by a "sea wall" promenade overlooking English Bay.
Seoul, South Korea
Seoul’s metro population is ten times that of Vancouver (or a hundred times that of Reykjavik). At an eye-watering 26 million, it’s one of the earth’s most densely inhabited areas. And yet, despite all that human activity, the South Korean capital finds ways to be eco-friendly.
Take the “Skygarden,” for instance – a decommissioned highway repurposed by the city into an elevated, linear park spanning a full kilometer. By some accounts, the Skygarden is home to 24,000 plants. It’s a great way to escape the frenetic energy of street-level Seoul for an afternoon.
Beyond its impressive urban features, the city has made firm commitments to sustainability – and stuck by them. For its efforts, it was named Asia's second most sustainable city on the “Sustainable Cities” index. It trails behind the following destination.
Credit: chuttersnap Via Freepik
A leader in green urban development, Singapore represents the poster child for countless other cities aiming to expand responsibly. The city-state slashed its greenhouse gas emissions, doggedly sought alternative energy sources, boosted its public transport sector, greenlit green development projects and poured money into public greenspace.
The results are amazing. One of the world’s most densely populated areas feels somehow… tranquil. There are a thousand and one other reasons to visit Singapore (the food is top tier, and the nightlife is wildly fun, e.g.). But it earns a spot on this list by sheer eco-friendliness alone.
“Africa is projected to have the fastest urban growth rate in the world: by 2050, Africa's cities will be home to an additional 950 million people.” That’s according to recent research on urbanization dynamics by the OECD. As such, several African cities have set their sights on sustainable solutions and development plans.
Leading the charge is Kigali, Rwanda’s capital and largest city. We recently wrote about Kigali in our list of underappreciated alternatives to popular travel destinations, citing its rolling hillsides, bustling markets and lush, tree-lined streets. Kigali is sometimes affectionately referred to as the “Singapore of Africa,” which is apt given the Asian city’s green credentials. But Kigali is its own thing – a city on the rise with big ideas, smart solutions and a vast surrounding landscape of natural beauty.
Corcovado, Costa Rica
So far, we’ve looked at five cities trailblazing their way to sustainability. But we understand that some travelers don’t want a city; when they think of “eco-friendly destinations,” they picture unspoilt nature. That’s fair.
First on our list of (what we’re calling) rural locales is Corcovado in Costa Rica. A 424-square-kilometer national park in the country’s southern peninsula, Corcovado is the largest conservation of old-growth forest in the American Pacific and one of the vastest tropical forests in the world. It’s home to a ridiculous amount of biodiversity: tapirs, wildcats, dolphins, humpbacks, mangroves, swamps, etc. And several organizations work to ensure that human presence doesn’t negatively impact its conservation.
As such, tours through Corcodavo are strictly regulated, and guests need to find a certified guide to accompany them on their treks. These regulations might sound severe, but they are a small price we, as travelers, must pay to preserve these eminently important ecosystems.
Coral reef conservation is a pressing facet of overall environmental management. These underwater ecosystems are some of the world’s most diverse, home to an infinitely complex community of marine life. The world’s reefs are currently under existential threat from human-driven acidification, and we need to take appreciable steps to address the problem.
That’s what Chumbe is doing – a private island in Tanzania’s Zanzibar archipelago that doubles as a reef sanctuary and nature reserve. The island utilizes a bevy of alternative energy and waste management tools to curb its impact, and offers ecolodges for visiting tourists. It isn’t the easiest place in the world to reach. But if you can manage the trip, it’s a literal paradise.
For more tranquil travel destinations (within a single flight’s distance), check out our recent list of places to relax while abroad.
San Luis Obispo County, USA
California’s no slouch in the eco-friendly department. San Francisco could have easily made the running as one of our top city picks for eco-conscious travelers – but we figured most people were already well aware of San Fran’s accomplishments.
Instead, let’s turn our attention to that open space between LA and the Bay Area – namely, San Luis Obispo County. Home to nationally protected wildlife refuges, national forests and several marine protected areas, the county takes conservation seriously. And from a purely touristic standpoint, it’s a heady mixture of vineyards, coastal hills, beaches and mountains.
On the whole, Bali is a remarkably eco-friendly destination with countless eco lodgings and conservation areas. But for those hoping to escape the party beaches for a quieter, more natural experience might head to Ubud.
While Denpasar is where your flight will land, Ubud is the jumping-off point for Bali’s natural treasures. It sits at the foot of the “Ubud Monkey Forest” (Mandala Suci Wenara Wana), a sanctuary for over 180 plant species and – of course – monkeys. Locals consider this area of great spiritual and environmental importance, so make sure to be respectful as you tour the trails.
And if there were ever a prime time to pack your merino wool shirts or women's merino tank top, this would be the time. Bali's tropical combination of heat and humidity can render conventional clothing soggy and sticky. But our breathable, sweat-wicking, ultrafine merino wool withstands Bali's humidity to keep you feeling comfortable.
Credit: jcomp Via Freepik
Himachal Pradesh, India
In the northernmost cap of the Indian subcontinent, at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountain range, you’ll find the Himachal Pradesh state. It’s an understatement to call this corner of the world majestic. The towering Himalayan peaks feed glacial streams, verdant valleys, orchards and teal-blue basins. Roughly two-thirds of the state is forest, home to one of the world’s most abundant reservoirs for biodiversity.
Recognizing the state’s environmental, cultural and spiritual significance, the Indian government has ramped up preservation efforts, including clear policies for sustainable development. They have also established over 30 sanctuaries and three national parks to protect the singular beauty in Himachal Pradesh.
If you plan to tack on a trip to Himachal Pradesh (via the capital city Shimla) while in India, ensure that you pack properly. HP isn’t like the rest of India climate-wise. Instead of searing heat and dense humidity, you’ll find crisp alpine air and sometimes bone-chilling temperatures. Pack your travel clothes from Unbound Merino as a base layer, and check the seasonal forecasts to determine an appropriate outer layer.
The Austrian Alps, Austria
The Alps span several European countries: Switzerland (famously), Italy, Slovenia, etc. In truth, each of these countries strikes a fantastic balance between structuring a tourism industry around the mountain range and preserving its natural splendor. And while Switzerland tops several lists as one the world’s greenest countries, we’re tipping Austria.
Austria has an EPI score (Environmental Performance Index) of 79.6, representing a 10-year change of +5.4. Essentially, this means that in the past decade, Austria has made serious strides in everything from air quality and waste management to biodiversity protection and emissions minimization. Those improvements are on fine display in the Austrian Alps, a pristinely preserved stretch of mountain range dotted with charming villages and well-maintained trails.
On a Final Note: Traveling and Environmentalism
Some people wonder whether traveling and environmentalism can peacefully coexist. We think they absolutely can.
We tend to labor under the assumption that we exist in our immediate environmental surroundings, and that our sphere of influence is confined to our borders. But as reams of recent research from climate scientists show, our local actions have a global impact. People need to experience the depth and variety of natural beauty in the world – to see what's at stake.
Moreover, people can take actionable steps toward lessening the environmental impact of their travels. By purchasing carbon offsets and taking a “flight light” approach to touring their destination, travelers can help reduce the impact of travel-based emissions. By selecting eco-friendly destinations (like those listed above), travelers can also influence tourism boards to press their governments for stricter environmental protection and sustainability efforts.
Finally, by packing a sustainable bag with merino wool clothing, you can help make the overall travel industry a little eco-friendlier. Popular travel clothing materials like cotton, polyester, rayon and nylon are complicit in water over-usage, water contamination, landfill overflow, microplastics and more. By contrast, our Woolmark-certified merino wool is natural, biodegradable and renewable. Plus, unlike those other materials, our hard-working garments help you stay fresh while traveling. It’s a win-win.
For all those travelers who celebrate Earth Day, let us know in the comments where your favorite eco-friendly destination is.