The world’s most ethical tourism destinations

ethical tourism destinationsEach year, non-profit organization Ethical Traveler conducts a survey of the world’s developing nations, analyzing their progress toward promoting human rights, preserving their environment, and developing a sustainable tourism industry. The study, run by Ethical Traveler’s all-volunteer staff, factors in country scores from databases like Freedom House, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the World Bank, then dives into actions that governments have taken to improve circumstances within their countries in the previous year.

The top countries are celebrated in Ethical Traveler’s annual list of the Developing World’s Best Ethical Tourism Destinations, with the hope that increased tourism will help those countries continue to improve. “Travel and tourism are among the planet’s driving economic forces, and every journey we take makes a statement about our priorities and commitment to change,” they say. “Ethical Traveler believes that mindful travel is a net positive for the planet. By choosing our destinations well and remembering our role as citizen diplomats, we can create international goodwill and help change the world for the better.”

This year’s list includes Argentina, the Bahamas, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Latvia, Mauritius, Palau, Serbia, and Uruguay. Explore these countries more in the slideshow below.

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[Flickr image via Lisandro M. Enrique]

Travel then and now: Travel to the USSR and GDR

travel to the USSRThis year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and 21 years since the reunification of Germany. While citizens of the USSR and GDR were unable to travel abroad and restricted in domestic travel, foreign travelers were permitted under a controlled environment. In the early nineties, if you were a foreigner looking to go abroad to the Eastern Europe or Central Asia, you called your travel agent and hoped to get approved for a visa and an escorted tour. After your trip, you’d brag about the passport stamps and complain about the food. Here’s a look back at travel as it was for foreigners twenty years ago and today visiting the biggies of the former Eastern Bloc: the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Soviet Union/USSR (now: independent states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldovia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.)

Travel then: Before 1992, most tourists were only able to enter the Soviet Union with visas and travel itineraries provided by the state travel agency, Intourist. Intourist was founded by Joseph Stalin and also managed many of the USSR’s accommodations. Like North Korea today, visitors’ experiences were tightly controlled, peppered with propaganda, and anything but independent, with some travelers’ conversations and actions recorded and reported. Read this fascinating trip report from a Fodor’s community member who visited Russia in 1984 and a Chicago Tribune story with an Intourist guide after the glasnost policy was introduced.Travel now: UK travel agency Thomas Cook bought a majority stake in Intourist last year, gaining control of their tourist agencies, and many of the old Intourist hotels can still be booked, though standards may not be a huge improvement over the Soviet era. In general, the former Soviet Union now welcomes foreign and independant visitors with open arms. Even Stalinist Turkmenistan is softer on foreigners since the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. Russia now receives as many visitors as the United Kingdom, the Baltic and Eastern European states are growing in popularity for nightlife and culture, and Central Asian states have a lot to offer adventurous travelers (including Azerbaijan’s contender for New 7 Wonders, the Mud Volcanoes). This year, Estonia’s Tallinn is one of the European Capitals of Culture. While a few FSU countries are now EU members, several still require advance visas, letters of invitation, or even guides; check the latest rules for Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan before you make plans.

German Democratic Republic/East Germany/DDR (now: unified state of Germany)

Travel then: After 40 years apart, East and West Germany were reunited in 1990. Like the USSR, travelers to the GDR had to deal with visas and an official state travel agency, the Reisebüro. Western tourists in West Germany could apply for day visas to “tour” the Eastern side but were very limited in gifts they could bring or aid they could provide (tipping was considered bourgeois and thus officially discouraged). Read this Spiegel article about the East German adventure travelers who snuck into the USSR to see how travel to inaccessable is often the most exciting, no matter where you are coming from.

Travel now: November 2009 marked the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Berlin is now consistently lauded as one of the world’s hippest and most vibrant cities. The city is full of museums, monuments, and memorials to document the time East Germany was walled off from the rest of the world, from the sobering Berlin Wall Memorial to the tongue-in-cheek DDR Hotel. Outside of Berlin, Leipzig’s Stasi Museum documents the gadgets and horrors of the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. For more on life in the GDR, Michael Mirolla’s novel Berlin deals with cross-border Germany travel and the fall of the republic, and film Goodbye Lenin! is a bittersweet look at life just before and after the fall of the wall.

Gadling readers: have you traveled to the USSR or GDR? Have you been recently? Leave us your comments and experiences below.

[Photo credit: USSR flags and GDR ferry postcards from Flickr user sludgeulper, Berlin Wall by Meg Nesterov]

Schengen and the disappearance of European passport stamps

schengen passport
Creative new use for border crossing posts at German/Austrian border.

In the late 1980s, an American spending a summer traveling across Europe with a Eurailpass would see his or her passport stamped possibly dozens of times. With a few exceptions, every time a border was crossed, an immigration agent would pop his or her head into a train compartment, look at everyone’s passports, in most cases stamp them, and move on. Every Eastern Bloc country required visas, some of which could be obtained at the border and others of which had to be applied for in advance.

Today, an American can enter the Schengen zone in Helsinki, fly to Oslo and then on to Amsterdam, proceed by train through Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, then by bus to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then by ferry back to Helsinki before catching a flight to Athens and landing in Greece without once needing to submit a passport to a border guard’s scrutiny.

The development of the Schengen agreement across Europe has altered the geopolitical map of the continent in many ways. For tourists, the development of the Schengen zone has simplified travel by drastically reducing the number of times a passport can be checked and stamped as national borders are crossed.

The Schengen Agreement is named after the town of Schengen in Luxembourg. It was here in 1985 that five countries-Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, and France-signed an agreement to essentially create borderless travel between them. A model for this agreement had been created years before by the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), which eliminated border controls back in 1948. The Nordic countries also did away with internal border posts, in 1958.

In 1995, the five original Schengen countries plus Portugal and Spain inaugurated the zone. In 1997, Austria and Italy joined. Greece followed in 2000 and the five Nordic countries joined in 2001. In late 2007, nine more countries joined the Schengen zone; most recently, Switzerland signed up in 2008.

schengen passport
Abandoned border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary.

Today, 22 European countries are part of Schengen. Every European Union country (save the UK, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus) belongs. Other members include EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland. The European microstates present a few complications. Monaco’s borders are administered by France, which makes the tiny principality a part of Schengen, while Liechtenstein’s accession, approved by the European Parliament in February, is pending. San Marino and the Vatican are de facto versus official members, while mountainous, landlocked Andorra remains outside of the zone altogether.

There are five EU countries not currently part of the Schengen zone. The UK and Ireland (as well as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) operate a Schengen-like agreement called the Common Travel Area. Neither country is obligated to join the zone.

Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus, however, are all bound by treaty to eventually join. Romania has fulfilled all the criteria for joining Schengen and Bulgaria is close to fulfillment as well. These two countries will accede together, likely later this year. Cyprus presents a more complicated situation given the division of the island between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the largely unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north.

With the coming accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, the Schengen zone will almost definitely continue to grow. Might it one day cover the entire landmass of Europe? Check back in two decades.

[Images: top image Flickr | Mike Knell; middle image Flickr | jczart]

AirBaltic expands, spruces up

Yesterday, Latvian airline AirBaltic launched two new routes: Riga-Madrid and Riga-Beirut.

Riga-based AirBaltic is an airline to watch. Little known in North America, the airline is notable for its low starting fares and the inclusion of most of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations on its route map. But what really sets the airline apart from the pack is its range of underserved destinations across Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Nordic countries.

These less well-served destinations include Baku, Tbilisi, and Yerevan in the Caucasus; Almaty, Dushanbe, and Tashkent in Central Asia; Amman, Beirut, Dubai, and Tel Aviv in the Middle East; and destinations like Kuopio, Tromsø, and Visby across Nordic Europe.

The catch is that most routes fly in and out of Riga, a beautiful city that is sadly not exactly top-of-mind among most visitors to Europe. While AirBaltic’s fabulous range of destinations can best be accessed from a starting-point in the Baltics or the Nordic countries, the airline’s fares for connecting flights from cities across Western Europe can also be quite competitive.

In anticipation, no doubt, of the summer traffic to come, AirBaltic also upgraded its site yesterday. The visual changes are minimal, but they go some way toward making the site more streamlined and enjoyable to peruse.

(Image: Flickr/Londo_Mollari)

The Latvian way to fix the economy? Hot blondes!

The world is in a global economic meltdown, but Latvia is suffering a bit more than most other nations – their economy is expected to shrink by 16% this year.

Some countries have introduced financial measures to get things back on track, others have been forced to simply sit back and wait for the worst to blow over.

Latvia is not one of them – their economic stimulus package is brilliant, and involves declaring May 31st “national blondes day”

The event was organized to cheer up the nation, and raise money for a charity. The event started with a parade, and other activities included a golf tournament, fashion show and an evening ball.

I’d say this is the kind of event that every country should consider. Perhaps May 31st could become a worldwide blondes day. Even if it doesn’t fix the economy, it certainly will spice things up a little.