How you spend your money matters.
Not just in a financial sense, but in these days of totalized capitalism, who you are as a consumer is a reflection of your values. Travel is no exception. Some might even say it’s the original sector in which where you go says something about you. Ever seen a nose turn up at the suggestion of visiting Saudi Arabia? Just remember, people often don’t reflect the politics of their national governments, and if everyone avoided countries with bad regimes, the U.S. wouldn’t have any tourists right now.
Negativity aside, why not put your money where your values are?
So we’ve rounded up a list of the countries with fantastic political and social perspectives, where your traveling dollars go to helping citizens on the ground through education or environmental efforts. Because sometimes dropping cash can be a political act.
In 1986, the country that traded its military to fund education is, not surprisingly, a place where your morning coffees and coastal glamping adventures are aiming toward going fossil fuel-free by 2021. There’s a commitment to sustainability here and a priority for the country both in agriculture (its primary economic driver) and tourism (secondary). The small and safe country has flourished as a leader in sustainable tourism not just in terms of low-impact travel but also of circulating economic directly back into local economies. But it’s not all just do-gooding: the Central American paradise is a lure for nature-seekers or beach-bums alike, whether via the surfer’s paradise of Nosara, the mysterious Cloud Forest, or famed Lapa Rios eco-lodge. And it’s not just for backpackers or burnouts, but plenty of luxury hotel groups have staggering resorts along the Pacific, like the Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo.
By now, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index has become the stuff of legend. This mountainous Buddhist country has a holistic approach to everything, including prosperity and community. While you may share a meal with Buddhist monks, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all a free lunch. Bhutan has a $250-a-day tourist tax, mostly to ensure its pristine monasteries and Himalayan mountains remain intact. Though the Land of the Thunder Dragon may be selective as to who comes in (through mandatory group tours only), it’s a bucket-list for many a serious outdoor adventurer (with legendary hikes) but also for luxury seekers at the Aman Amankora resort.
Botswana has been leading the charge in sustainable tourism, particularly in regards to its wildlife and environment, as well as economically. With a stable government and one of the world’s longest economic booms, traveling here is only contributing to its growth. From the no-place-like-it Okavango Delta to the many varieties of safari (Self-driving? Check. Horseback? That too.) Botswana is known for life-affirming adventure. Sleep amongst elephants, lions, and crocodiles in the all-sustainable Chobe National Reserve at the 5-star Savute Lodge or in the Savute Elephant Camp (which yes, lives up to its name).
Scandinavia merits more than one mention, and Finland is the dark horse of traveling we didn’t expect. Historic and design treasure trove Helsinki (and its lavish display of Alvar Aalto and the Saarinens) is matched by the vast landscape of a thousand lakes and mountains (try a steamboat down Lake Saimaa). The country is a totally innovative and socially responsible society (while Universal Basic Income results are mixed, it’s great that they are trying), making Finland a feel-good for spending your hard-earned cash—good thing, as it’s no cheap date. Huskies and reindeer await in Lapland (as do the auroras)!
With a governmental commitment to sustainability and well-funded public education–even a river with the same legal rights as a human–New Zealand is one of the most rewarding journeys. And your trek to the South Island will still win you mega points on IG, which was kind of put on the map because of the social media platform. But no need to get caught in the lines at Roys Peak in Lake Wanaka and try Milford Sound or explore bioluminescent Lake Te Anau instead.
Often overlooked in favor of Brazil or Argentina, this coastal paradise boasts emptier beaches than Bahia and European charm equal to Buenos Aires, it also touts a clean, green socio-political landscape that stands out against its flashier neighbors. The easy breezy life of Punta del Este is only matched by the chillness of Montevideo, which has 25 kilometers of uninterrupted boardwalk and a slew of historical and glamorous hotels.
Known for being a leader in sustainable tourism, this skinny South American country on the Pacific has so much to offer: the Atacama desert (ruins! sandboarding! pisco!), coastal wine country, and Patagonia with its newly protected Route of Parks. There’s a nationwide commitment to putting tourist dollars to work for the upkeep of its national resources, meaning your traveling helps improve the country not just economically, but with social programs, too.
Spectacularly beautiful and prolific in cheese, Switzerland’s high peaks and long lakes have attracted hikers, bikers, and picnickers since, actually, almost forever (it started with the Romans). On top of being one of the world’s cleanest economies currently and least corrupt governments—which may seem anathema to some as it’s the land of freeports and political neutrality—the high quality of everything in Confoederatio Helvetica makes for a conscientious vacation fit for a king, which is what you sort of have to be to spend lots of time here. Gstaad and the four Ls (Lausanne, Lucerne, Locarno, and Lugano) don’t come cheap!
Scandinavia really does have a high quality of living and an emphasis on respect for humanity and society. Norway has been rated the highest functioning and stable democracy globally for the last two years and has federal protections in place for reindeer so that its indigenous Sami people have both sustenance and a livelihood. Run off of clean energy (hydroelectric!) to preserve its pristine coastlines and not-so-intimidating winters, Norway is a sophisticate’s sustainable wonderland.