Travelling lightly: Here are the world's most eco-friendly destinations

The world is changing and travel is changing with it thanks to a green revolution occurring beneath our feet. Not so long ago most of us travelled to forget the world's problems, as well as our own. Now we're taking our sustainable sensibilities with us. We're travelling with our own reusable water bottles and coffee cups. We're choosing trains over planes, eating plant-based and SLO (seasonal, local and organic), picking up litter, saying no to plastic bags and straws, thinking twice about the impact we're having, being kind to animals, giving back.

But we can all do more to put our frequent flyer points where our values are.

An increasing number of us want to visit places that are moving in the same direction. So where to go? There are various ways to measure a destination's "green-ness" such as energy-efficiency, use of renewables, and plastic-free and zero-carbon initiatives, as well as their ability to reconnect us to nature.

The list Traveller has compiled isn't intended to be exhaustive but shines a spotlight on 10 destinations doing good and green things. Just remember that as travellers we're part of this movement towards sustainability too and the more we care about these issues and support destinations, tourism organisations and travel businesses doing the right things, the more we normalise sustainable travel.

Perhaps one day, in the not-too-distant future, there will be no such thing as sustainable travel. There will just be travel that naturally enriches our lives, those of the people we visit, and the planet upon which we all depend.

THE GREEN LAND

COSTA RICA

A perched bare-throated tiger heron sits in under the rainforest jungle canopy on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica satoct5cover
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A perched bare-throated tiger heron on the Osa Peninsula. Photo: iStock

GREEN CREDENTIALS This little ecotourism pioneer has grown into one of the world's most sustainable tourism destinations and last month was crowned Champion of the Earth, the UN's highest environmental honour. For the past four years almost all Costa Rica's energy has come from renewable sources, predominantly water and wind. It has doubled its forest cover since 1984 to more than 50 per cent. Two of its domestic airlines have been carbon neutral since 2004 and 2007: Nature Air and SANSA respectively. It plans to be the first country to ban all single-use plastics, including plastic bottles, by 2021, and the whole country will decarbonise by 2050.

WHY VISIT Costa Rica is a natural wonderland, home to 5 per cent of the world's biodiversity, 20 national parks, 19 wildlife refuges, eight nature reserves, active volcanoes, pristine rainforests and untouched beaches. It's a place to go birdwatching and sloth-spotting, zip-lining through the rainforest, surfing and hiking along coastal trails.

DON'T MISS The Osa Peninsula on Costa Rica's southern Pacific coast, dubbed "the most biologically intense place on Earth" by National Geographic.

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KEEP IT GREEN The Sustainability Certification Program developed by the Costa Rica Tourism Board gives hotels, guest houses and resorts sustainability ratings of one to five leaves; just choose the "leafiest" option. See visitcostarica.com/en

ESSENTIALS National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World has three lodges in Costa Rica including Lapa Rios Lodge on the Osa Peninsula, which has a five-leaf rating. Rooms from $US520 a night, including a contribution to the National Geographic Society. See nationalgeographiclodges.com

THE GREEN LAND

FRANCE

GREEN CREDENTIALS France has been kicking climate goals since the COP21 climate conference in 2015 that led to the historic Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries and the European Union. It was the first country in Europe to require supermarkets to donate waste food to charity, in 2015, and the first in the world to ban plastic picnicware – plates, cups and cutlery – from 2020. Last year President Macron pledged to close all the country's coal-fired power plants by 2021 and reduce its reliance on nuclear power from 75 per cent to 50 per cent by 2035.

WHY VISIT Paris, of course. But also Provence, Mont Blanc and the French Alps, Corsica with its GR 20 hiking trail, Burgundy for its wines, and the Loire Valley, the surf coast around Biarritz and so much more. And in June/July every year the entire country celebrates the culture of cycling with the world's biggest bike race. See letour.fr

DON'T MISS It's still five years away, but the Paris 2024 Olympics will be the first to align with the Paris Agreement to ensure it's the most sustainable Games yet. See paris2024.org

KEEP IT GREEN In October last year Paris introduced car-free Sundays, once a month in the city-centre; get around like a local by renting a bike or doing a guided bike tour. See bikeabouttours.com

ESSENTIALS For the ultimate European cycling adventure, spend a week riding some of the best stages of the Tour de France, hours before the pros, with Swiss-based Australian environmental advocate Keith Tuffley who rode all three grand tours in 2013 to promote sustainability. See grandtoursproject.com

THE GREEN LAND

CANADA

Niagara Falls with fall colors at sunset, viewed from New York side. Some motion blurs from the plants may be visible due to the wind and not focus issue. satoct5cover
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Niagara Falls at sunset. Photo: iStock

GREEN CREDENTIALS Earlier this year Canada, while not entirely a cleanskin when it comes to the environment, passed legislation to stop whales and dolphins from being bred or held in captivity. It announced a Zero Plastic Waste strategy that includes holding manufacturers responsible for plastic waste – important in a country with the world's longest coastline. It banned deep-sea mining and gas drilling in marine protected areas. And British Colombia is phasing out petrol-powered vehicles by 2040, the first province in North America to do so.

WHY VISIT The Rockies, Banff and Lake Louise, Vancouver Island, the Northern Lights (in winter), the wild Yukon, Inuit and First Nation cultures, Niagara Falls and the Great Lakes, the "Canadian Galapagos" of the Haida Gwaii islands, polar bear safaris in Manitoba, wilderness lodges and grizzly-viewing, sea kayaking with orcas … Canada's nature show is one of the most varied in the world.

DON'T MISS Former PM Pierre Trudeau, father of Justin, was a fan of Canadian canoes and they're still one of the most quintessentially, and most sustainable, ways to travel. There's nothing more Canadian than a guided canoe-camping trip exploring the wild lakes of Algonquin Provincial Park. See algonquinoutfitters.com

KEEP IT GREEN Beat "flight-shame" by using VIA Rail to criss-cross Canada, which will have 32 more energy-efficient trains by 2022. One of the best long-distance trains is The Canadian, the four-night sleeper between Toronto and Ontario. See viarail.ca/en

ESSENTIALS Escape the ordinary at Fogo Island Inn on Newfoundland. Built in 2013, it's ecologically minded in every way and co-exists lightly with the island and its people. From $1975 CAD a night. See fogoislandinn.ca

THE GREEN LAND

NEW ZEALAND

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New Zealand's Milford Sound. Photo: iStock

GREEN CREDENTIALS Two words: Jacinda Ardern. New Zealand's PM banned single-use plastic bags in July, is aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2035 and has been encouraging vegetarianism to ameliorate climate change. New Zealand also plans to "lead the world in sustainable tourism" according to Chris Roberts, chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa, whose goal is to see every tourism business in New Zealand committed to sustainability by 2025. See tia.org.nz

WHY VISIT Natural beauty galore: its glaciers, fiords, big mountains, tussock-grassed ridges, volcanoes and hot springs, rugged coastlines and pristine beaches, not to mention its kiwis, keas and other birds. Then there are its spectacular multi-day hikes, particularly the nine iconic Great Walks that include the world-famous Milford Track, the Abel Tasman Coast Track and the volcanic Tongariro Northern Circuit. See newzealand.com

DON'T MISS Three hours north of Christchurch by the Coastal Pacific train, Kaikoura is an EarthCheck-certified Zero Waste community with a deep undersea canyon just offshore that makes it one of the world's best places to see whales of all kinds and to swim with fur seals and pods of up to 300 dusky dolphins. See kaikoura.co.nz, whalewatch.co.nz

KEEP IT GREEN Late last year, Tourism New Zealand launched the Tiaki Promise, a pledge based on Maori guardianship of the land and respect for others, to encourage visitors to look after New Zealand's natural environment. See tiakinewzealand.com

ESSENTIALS Adventure South NZ has a new five-day Moonlight Valley & Ben Lomond Backcountry Hike in the ranges behind Queenstown in the South Island from $NZ3195. See adventuresouth.co.nz

THE GREEN LAND

BHUTAN

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Punakha Dzong​. Photo: iStock

GREEN CREDENTIALS This tiny Himalayan country is the first country to be carbon negative – by exporting to India more hydroelectric power generated by its fast-flowing rivers than it needs – and Bhutan's Prime Minister has vowed to keep it carbon neutral. Electricity is free for farmers, to prevent them cutting down trees or burning kerosene. More than half the country is protected in national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries and 80 per cent of the country is forested; more than the 60 per cent mandated by the constitution.

WHY VISIT Billed as the last Shangri-La, Bhutan is more down-to-earth than that, its countryside dotted with subsistence villages in between landmarks such as fortress-monasteries like Punakha Dzong and Gangtey, an important rest-stop for migratory black cranes.

DON'T MISS A full-day hike to Taktshang, the mountain-clinging Tiger's Nest monastery, is obligatory, through oak, rhododendron and fir forests. And perhaps a traditional Bhutanese bath, in a tub full of river water heated naturally by stones warmed in a fire.

KEEP IT GREEN Bhutan's famous "high value, low impact" tourism model introduced in 1974 – with its daily all-inclusive tariff of $US250 per person per day which includes a $US65 Sustainable Development Fee – ensures your visit benefits local communities. See bhutan.travel

ESSENTIALS The family-run Wangdue Eco Lodge, built in 2015 east of Thimphu, Bhutan's capital, blends traditional Bhutanese architecture with sustainable low-carbon design principles and organic meals. Rooms from 4500 BTN a night. See bhutanecolodge.com

THE GREEN LAND

ANTARCTICA

GREEN CREDENTIALS The world's last pure and unblemished wilderness was also one of the first sustainable tourism destinations, thanks to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), founded in 1991 to promote safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to the Antarctic. With rules covering everything from shore excursions and waste reduction to reduce visitors' plastic footprint, IAATO now has 116 member operators.

WHY VISIT Nothing compares to the vastness of Antarctica's landscape – all that ice, those icebergs, the unexpected mountains – and its inhabitants, most notably the penguins, seals, albatross and whales. There are three distinct regions: the Antarctic Peninsula, off the tip of South America; the Ross Sea, where you'll find Scott and Shackleton's historic huts; and the seldom visited East Antarctica, south of Tasmania and New Zealand.

DON'T MISS Taking a polar plunge, a dip in the Southern Ocean surrounded by sea ice, is a rite of passage that connects you with the white continent like nothing else.

KEEP IT GREEN Minimise your impact and maximise your experience by voyaging to Antarctica on an expedition vessel that takes fewer than 200 people and is licensed to make landings (cruise ships with more than 500 passengers aren't usually permitted to go ashore). And make sure you go with an operator that is an IAATO member. See iaato.org

ESSENTIALS Aurora Expeditions, one of the longest-running Antarctic operators, has small-ship cruises, some of which include adventure activities such as polar diving, sea kayaking and camping on the ice. See auroraexpeditions.com.au

THE GREEN LAND

SWEDEN

Dramatic sky over old town of Stockholm, Sweden. satoct5cover
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The old town of Stockholm. Photo: iStock

GREEN CREDENTIALS Ground zero for "the Greta effect" – the climate action revolution sparked by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg – and "flygskam" (Swedish for flight-shame) and "tagskryt" (train-bragging), Sweden sources about half its energy from renewable sources and Stockholm is on track to be fossil-fuel free by 2040.

WHY VISIT Sweden's 100,000 lakes and 3200 kilometres of coastline make it ideal for wild swimming. Or rent a rail-bike and pedal along disused train lines. In summer, long days make for great hikes; one of the best known is the King's Trail, north of the Arctic Circle, which can be skied in winter and has 16 mountain huts en route. See visitsweden.com

DON'T MISS Stockholm is built on 14 islands but there are more than 30,000 islands outside the capital, and one of the best ways to experience them is on a one-day or multi-day sea kayaking tour. See truenaturesweden.com

KEEP IT GREEN Nature's Best Sweden was the first quality label for nature tours in the northern hemisphere when it was launched in 2002. And the innovative new 360 Eat Guide, published in Malmo this year, ranks Nordic restaurants based on sustainability as well as gastronomy. See naturesbestsweden.com; 360eatguide.com

ESSENTIALS 72 Hour Cabins, minimalist huts with glass roofs and glass walls built in 2017 and 2018 on remote wilderness sites in western Sweden, offer three-day stays to help people reconnect with nature, the Swedish way. See vastsverige.com

THE GREEN LAND

KENYA

GREEN CREDENTIALS In 2017, Kenya introduced the world's toughest single-use plastic bag ban: anyone caught making, selling or carrying a plastic bag could face fines of up to $US40,000 and up to four years in prison. It's been so successful in the cities, making for cleaner streets and waterways, that President Kenyatta recently announced the ban would be extended to Kenya's national parks, forests and beaches next year. It has inspired others too: this year Tanzania became the 34th African nation to ban plastic bags, according to the UN Environment Program.

WHY VISIT Kenya is safari-central thanks to its annual wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara, but there are other natural attractions including: Mt Kenya, a 5199-metre trekkable peak within a World Heritage-listed biosphere reserve; Samburu National Reserve, where conservationists Joy and George Adamson raised Elsa the lion cub in the 1950s; and a coastal and marine park near Mombasa with some of Africa's finest beaches and coral-reef dive sites.

DON'T MISS The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, established in 1977, rescues and raises young elephants and rhinos orphaned by poaching and is open to the public for an hour every day; you can also foster an elephant for $US50 a year. See sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

KEEP IT GREEN Choose a safari company committed to wildlife protection, conservation and community wellbeing, such as Bench Africa, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. See benchafrica.com

ESSENTIALS Intrepid Travel's new 10-day Kenya: Women's Expedition, launched earlier this year, starts at $3850 and introduces travellers to local female park rangers, Masai villagers and social entrepreneurs doing good things. See intrepidtravel.com

THE GREEN LAND

ICELAND

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Almost all of Iceland's power comes from renewables. Photo: iStock

GREEN CREDENTIALS Iceland was one of the first countries to ratify the Paris Agreement, almost all its power comes from renewables (mostly hydro, the rest geothermal) and Reykjavik aims to be the world's first carbon neutral city by 2040. The air is ridiculously clean, because of the country's North Atlantic location; much of its food is farmed, bred or caught locally; and its drinking water comes glacier-cold straight from the tap – a new Inspired by Iceland campaign this year has actually been promoting it to reduce plastic bottle waste.

WHY VISIT The power of nature is Iceland's stock in trade: active volcanoes (including Eyjafjallajokull, which made headlines in 2010), ice caps, some of Europe's largest glaciers, glumping mud geysers, gorges and massive waterfalls. Not to mention about 10 million North Atlantic puffins.

DON'T MISS Blue Lagoon, an aquamarine pool full of healing minerals just outside Reykjavik, expanded last year and now has a 62-room luxury hotel, subterranean spa and two restaurants, all sustainably designed and run. BYO swimmers and pre-book a time slot online. See bluelagoon.com

KEEP IT GREEN Keflavik Airport installed a "pledge button" last year to help visitors take the Icelandic Pledge, launched in 2017, to protect nature and reduce pressure on over-touristed parts of the country. And say no to the novelty of minke whale meat; if tourist demand declines, so will commercial whaling. See inspiredbyiceland.com; icewhale.is

ESSENTIALS Bypass Iceland's busy loop road by doing a Lindblad Expeditions 10-day circumnavigation of Iceland expedition cruise instead. Cruises operate June-August with daily outdoor adventures (hiking, kayaking, Zodiac cruising) from $14,150. See au.expeditions.com

THE GREEN LAND

ETHIOPIA

GREEN CREDENTIALS As part of a government Green Legacy initiative attempting to reverse the country's environmental degradation through deforestation, combat climate change and promote sustainable behaviour, and plans to build an 8000-kilometre Great Green Wall across Africa, Ethiopia undertook a record-breaking tree-planting mission earlier this year. More than 350 million trees were planted on July 29, in 1000 sites across the country. (India had held the previous record since 2016 with 50 million trees planted in a day.)

WHY VISIT Ethiopia is like nowhere else. The only African country never to have been colonised by Europeans, it's fascinatingly multicultural, home to "Lucy" the 3.4 million-year-old hominid fossil woman (unearthed in 1974), medieval castles, the ancient rocky churches of Lalibela, even Ethiopian wolves.

DON'T MISS The volcanic Simien Mountains, where you can get so far off the tourist track it's just you and the gelada baboons.

KEEP IT GREEN Plant more trees without getting your hands dirty by: switching your browser to Ecosia (ecosia.org), which uses ad revenue from online searches to plant trees; using B'n'Tree (bedandtree.com), which plants trees when you book hotel stays through major booking sites such as booking.com; or donating to One Tree Planted (onetreeplanted.org), where one US dollar buys one planted tree in Ethiopia (they also plant in Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania).

ESSENTIALS World Expeditions has several Ethiopian trips including the 18-day Simien Mountains and Beyond Timket Festival trip in February which includes a 10-day Simien trek, from $5740. See worldexpeditions.com

STREETS AHEAD: FIVE OF THE GREENEST CITIES

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Bicycles parked in a town square in Copenhagen. Photo: iStock

COPENHAGEN This Danish bike-topia of a city, where bikes outnumber cars, has more than 450 kilometres of bike lanes and "cycle highways", bike-only bridges and even bike parking stations. It also has a harbour so clean you can swim in it (in summer) and plans to become world's first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. See visitcopenhagen.com

SAN FRANCISCO The first US city to ban plastic bags, in 2007, San Francisco introduced America's first large-scale food-composting program in 2009 and plans to be waste-free by 2020. It also has an annual eco-film festival, the world's first "net zero energy" airport (SFO) and plenty of green spaces; the Presidio, for instance, is twice as big as New York's Central Park. See sftravel.com

SINGAPORE Plans to become a garden city back in 1967 mean that much of Singapore is now parkland – including Gardens of the Bay with its two iconic Supertrees and Singapore Botanic Gardens, the city's first World Heritage site in 2015. There are laws to limit car ownership, 80 per cent of its buildings will be green-certified by 2030 and a world-first "biophilic" resort by Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts will open in 2023. See visitsingapore.com

BRISTOL This southwest English city was declared the world's vegan capital by Chef's Pencil earlier this year. It's also a Fairtrade City, was the UK's first Cycling City in 2008 and has its own currency, the Bristol Pound, to support local, ethical businesses. See visitbristol.co.uk

LJUBLJANA, SLOVENIA Voted most sustainable city at the ITB travel trade show in Berlin in March, Slovenia's capital has been car-free since 2012. Within the city limits you can also walk in a forest, paddle a kayak or SUP on a clean river – not surprising when Slovenia is one of the most densely forested countries in Europe. See visitljubljana.com

COMPANIES TO KEEP: FIVE ECO-MINDED TRAVEL LEADERS

INTREPID TRAVEL GROUP Based in Melbourne, Intrepid has been carbon neutral since 2010, was the first global tour operator to ban elephant rides on all its trips in 2014, became a B Corp last year to commit to balancing purpose and profit and plans to be "carbon positive" next year by supporting Australia's first carbon-drawdown seaweed farm in Tasmania. See intrepidtravel.com

INTERCONTINENTAL HOTELS GROUP IHG, whose brands include hotel heavyweights such as Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn, announced in July that it is removing tiny toiletry bottles from more than 840,000 rooms in its 5600 hotels worldwide, replacing them with refillable bulk dispensers by 2021 to reduce plastic waste. See ihg.com

WORLD EXPEDITIONS A long-time advocate of "leave no trace" travel, World Expeditions recently announced that all its trips will be carbon-neutral from November 1 this year; it has also produced a "Thoughtful Traveller" guidebook for clients, was a founding partner of litter-collection initiative 10 Pieces, and built the first eco-camps in Nepal to fight deforestation. See worldexpeditions.com

G ADVENTURES Launched by G Adventures' philanthropic founder Bruce Poon Tip in 2003, the Planeterra Foundation, a not-for-profit that helps communities around the world benefit from tourism, recently reached its target of supporting 50 social enterprise projects in five years early – and set a new target, Project 100: to support 100 social and environmental projects by 2020. See planeterra.org

THE TRAVEL CORPORATION Through its philanthropic arm, the TreadRight Foundation, set up in 2008, TTC announced last year it would remove all non-essential single-use plastics across all its brands worldwide, including AAT Kings, Trafalgar and Contiki, by 2022. See treadright.org

PUTTING THE GREEN INTO THE GREEN AND GOLD

BRISBANE

Last month, Queensland's capital hosted Australia's biggest sustainability event, the three-day Brisbane Eco Expo, first held last year, showcasing products and ideas to inspire a more sustainable lifestyle. Next year's event is September 11-13, 2020. See savetheworldexpo.com.au

BUNDANOON, NSW

The first town in the world to ban bottled water celebrated the 10th anniversary of this historic decision last month with the inaugural Bundanoon Earth Festival; chief campaigner Huw Kingston, who still lives in the little Southern Highlands town two hours south of Sydney, now works with communities all over the world to reduce plastic pollution. See visitsouthernhighlands.com.au

SYDNEY

The City of Sydney recently joined more than 1000 cities and regions in 19 countries (including 50 communities in Australia) in declaring the climate crisis a national emergency. See climateemergencydeclaration.org

ULLADULLA, NSW

This small surf town three hours south of Sydney is home to Designer Eco Tiny Homes, Australia's biggest builder of tiny houses, including those rented as weekenders by In2theWild and Tallarook Tiny Home. See designerecotinyhomes.com.au

CANBERRA,

The national capital this month became the first city outside Europe, and only the eighth city in the world, to source 100 per cent of its energy from renewables and plans to have net zero emissions by 2045. See environment.act.gov.au/cc

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