Five countries that are blazing a trail in sustainable tourism

Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia

These five destinations are making sustainable tourism the cornerstone of their appeal to vacationers through unique approaches

Lists on sustainable tourism often cover which destinations are already the most sustainable. That leaves us wondering, where might we expect to see the biggest boom in sustainable tourism in the coming years? To find out, we’ve consulted some of the world’s leading sources on the matter to determine which countries are most heavily investing in sustainability. Without further ado, here are five countries innovating sustainable tourism.

Sweden pioneers sustainable tourism

It should come as no surprise that the nordic state of Sweden finds itself on this list. Hailed as the country that sets the pace of change by Euromonitor International, Sweden has long been a pioneer in sustainable travel. Sweden generally aligns its sustainability policies with UN Sustainable Development Goals and aims to become the first fossil-free state by 2045, according to OECD. The nordic country began a ten-year National Tourism Strategy in 2021, which lists sustainability as one of four horizontal perspectives across five strategic areas.

Sweden’s success as a sustainable tourist destination is due in part to a long-term investment in eco-friendliness. In 1967, Sweden became the first country to pass environmental protection. Today, about 60% of Sweden’s energy is produced through renewable sources.

When it comes to sustainable travel, Sweden promotes eco-tourism, innovative dining and local cultural experiences. Such experiences include stays in the Arctic Circle with the indigenous Sami people, kayaking through the 13,000-island archipelago Roslagen near Stockholm, getting a glimpse of the Northern Lights at Aurora Sky Station, timber rafting and the Gothenburg Culture Festival.

Sapmi Nature Camp Lapland Sweden
Sapmi Nature Camp Lapland Sweden

Uruguay is a rising star in sustainable travel

Uruguay had the largest ranking jumps out of the top 20 sustainable countries as ranked by Euromonitor International. The South American country rose 15 places between 2021 and 2022, while also rising up the ranks 17 positions between 2017 and 2022. Uruguay currently generates over 98% of its electricity from renewable sources, most of which are wind and hydropower, according to a recent report from the US International Trade Association. Meanwhile, the World Bank approved a $350 million USD loan – the first of its kind – to Uruguay in November 2023 to support the country’s economy as it strives to meet its ambitious environmental targets.

Uruguay has created both a National Sustainable Tourism Plan and a Tourism Law, which aims at ensuring social and economic benefits for Uruguayans to improve the wellbeing of local people. Uruguay’s unique biodiversity makes it one of the top destinations for ecotourism with several protected areas such as the marine area of Cabo Polonio and Rocha Lagoon, which is home to over 220 bird species.

Top destinations in Uruguay include the bustling capital of Montevideo, the picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Site of Colonia del Sacramento, the resort town of Punta del Este, northern hot springs, and the Sierra, which offers both adventure activities and wine tourism.

Hombre in Uruguay
Hombre in Uruguay

Estonia supports local communities’ sustainability initiatives

Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn, was named The Green Capital of Europe 2023. The country piloted a green destination programme with seven of its cities. Each of the pilot cities received a toolkit for defining and developing sustainability measures thereby improving visitors’ sustainability experiences. The implementation of the program resulted in all seven locales ranking in the top 100 most sustainable cities as measured by Green Destinations. Estonia also ranked fourth on Euromonitor International’s 2022 ranking of countries with the most sustainable tourism, following an increased ranking of 5 spots from 2021.

Travelling to Tallinn is like a step back in time where some of the architecture dates back to the Middle Ages. For a taste of the mediaeval period, Old Hansa prepares dishes based on 700 year old recipes. Biking in Pärnu along Estonia’s coastline offers a green escape with one-fifth of the city covered in trees, shrubs and other greens. Other green destinations include Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Rakvere, Lahemaa, Järva County and Tartu.

trail in Pärnu, Estonia
trail in Pärnu, Estonia

Bhutan’s key to happiness

In the 1970s, Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan invented the Gross National Happiness (GNH). This four pillar approach centres on good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation. Bhutan’s efforts in sustainability and sustainable tourism make it clear that the GNH is a chief priority for the country.

The small Asian country has earned its place on this list by reaching carbon neutrality in 2022. Bhutan has an ambitious goal of becoming carbon negative – or removing more carbon dioxide than it produces – by 2030, if not 2025. As of September 2023, Bhutan had already surpassed 72% carbon negativity, according to the World Economic Forum.

When it comes to tourism, Bhutan’s approach to reduce the impact the industry has on the country’s environment relies on its “high-value, low-volume” motto. Bhutan began capping tourist numbers at 200,000 a year in 2023. Enforcement of the cap will be spurred by a daily tourist fee of $100 USD a night, which the country will put towards conservation and development projects. Exemptions from the tariff are available through the MICE waiver that covers eligible meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions.

Over 70% of Bhutan’s lands are forests, offering a unique look into the flora and fauna of the region including red pandas and golden langurs. Protection of these forests is enshrined in the constitution that mandates a minimum of 60% forest coverage. Travellers to Bhutan can immerse themselves in the unique art and culture of the country through experiences like a trip to the Royal Textile Academy or taking in the traditional architecture. Adventure abounds in Bhutan with active options ranging from trekking and cycling to traditional sports like archery and the dart throwing team sport of Khuru.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery Bhutan
Tiger’s Nest Monastery Bhutan

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund spurs technological innovations

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is using its Public Investment Fund, which is worth about $925 billion USD, to launch sustainable tourist destinations that support citizens’ wellbeing while introducing cutting edge technologies. The country has announced the development of several cutting-edge destinations in the works, including NEOM and Red Sea Global.

While tourism currently accounts for three percent of the country’s gross domestic product, Saudi Arabia aims to raise that to ten percent by 2030. This comes as part of an effort to decrease the country’s reliance on oil. Multiple desalination plants are in the works as part of Vision 2030 – a roadmap to improving the country’s economy, societal vibrancy and ambition. Visitors to the country’s capital city may have already noticed one of the associated projects, Green Riyadh, which aims to improve green spaces and air quality while striving to make Riyadh one of the top 100 most livable cities in the world. If Green Riyadh is successful, the city will see a 16 time increase in green spaces per capita.

Saudi Arabia is home to a rich history and unique ecology. Visitors looking for a step into the past should consider AlUla, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra that dates to the first century BCE. A trip to the Red Sea coast presents an opportunity to view diverse marine life and coral reefs.

Elephant Rock, AlUla, Saudi Arabia | Aman

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