The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development is the perfect time to start thinking about how you can make travel decisions that benefit the planet and its peoples, as well as yourself.

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A brown bear on the hunt for salmon in Alaska © Naphat Photography / Getty Images

Bears in Alaska

With one transatlantic flight adding as much to your carbon footprint as a year’s worth of driving, look for travel opportunities in your own backyard. The 355 million residents of the US and Canada might consider Alaska, with its endless low-impact adventures. Viewing its three species of American bear – especially the polar bear, whose environment is increasingly threatened – is as educational as it is awe inspiring. Look for operators with Adventure Green Alaska sustainable-tourism certification.

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Striped dolphins frolicking off the coast of the Azores © Andrea Izzotti / Getty Images

Whales and dolphins in the Azores

Witnessing whales and dolphins breaching and frolicking in their natural habitat is arguably one of the world’s most thrilling wildlife experiences. With 27 species of cetacean plying Azorean waters, including sperm whales and blue whales (depending on the time of year), sightings here are guaranteed. A World Cetacean Alliance partner dedicated to sustainable tourism, Dolphin and Whale Connection offers whale- and dolphin-watching tours.

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Glow of a traditional Sami tent (lavvu) in snow covered forest.
A traditional Sami tent in Sweden © Gary Latham / Lonely Planet

Sweden

Widely considered to be the world’s most sustainable country, Sweden almost guarantees your travel footprint will be teeny. There are over 250 Nordic Ecolabel–stamped hotels and hostels to choose from, as well as hundred of tours with Nature’s Best ecotourism certification. Buzz around Gothenburg on bicycles, explore Stockholm’s urban national park, and dine on organic, locally sourced produce just about everywhere in between. Read more about Sweden’s sustainable initiatives.

Nepal

Travelling sustainably extends to spending your tourist dollars as thoughtfully as possible. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck in April 2015 devastated Nepal’s tourism industry. With most affected trekking routes now reopened and many communities reliant on income from trekking groups, there’s no better time to go. Want to stay on to help rebuild a village? Sustainable-travel company Eco Companion runs a 20-day program.

Head of a southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), Gansbaai, South Africa
Join an eco-friendly whale-watching tour in Gansbaai, South Africa © ap-images / Getty Images

Gansbaai, South Africa

Recently little more than a fishing village, Gansbaai is now thriving with community-focused, responsible-tourism initiatives and activities – hike, kayak, fat bike, whale watch and more. Its Grootbos Private Nature Reserve has been a shining light, winning awards for poverty reduction and conservation of fynbos flora. Watch whales with Dyer Island Cruises, a Fair Trade Tourism certified company involved with conservation projects.

Stay

Cayuga Collection Hotels, Costa Rica

A global leader in sustainability, Costa Rica is working to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2020. On top of the environmentally and culturally friendly attractions and tours are reams of sustainable hotels. Tucked away in incredible corners of the Costa Rican wilderness, check out the Cayuga Collection of eight award-winning sustainable properties. Look for Certification for Sustainable Tourism-listed hotels, which must comply with a model of natural-, cultural- and social-resource management.

Man playing guitar at table during Midsummer celebrations.
Homestays help you give back to the local community © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Community homestays

Bedding down with a local family is a great way to learn about, and give back to, communities that may not otherwise benefit from the tourist traffic that passes through. The tricky part is ensuring that your stay benefits the community in the long term. Fortunately, many sustainable-travel operators do this groundwork for you. Visit Responsible Travel for sustainable homestay options across the globe, from Goa to Guatemala.

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Visit the gentle giants of Chiang Mai's National Park, Thailand © cons972 / Getty Images

Opt for ethical elephant interactions

Riding an elephant used to be a rite of passage for travellers to Thailand. Today, however, there is strong evidence to support expert claims that elephant rides and shows are harmful for these gentle giants. Fortunately, a growing number of Thai sanctuaries offer visitors the chance to interact with elephants in an environment that’s safe for both parties. Check out Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, and Elephants World near Kanchanaburi.

Support sustainable restaurants

From farm-to-table restaurants to reducing food loss and waste, initiatives adopted by restaurants around the world are making a difference to the planet. Cities leading the charge include Seattle, with its mandatory recyclable food containers and Copenhagen, home to many highly sustainable restaurants. Visiting Copenhagen? Book a table at Relae.

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A traveller refills his water bottle from a glacial river © Holly Hildreth / Getty Images

Be conscious of your plastic footprint

Many of the world’s most popular travel destinations can’t cope with the volume of waste produced by locals, let alone visitors. On the Indonesian island of Bali, for example, it’s thought that around three million plastic bottles are used every month. Refill reusable canteens instead of buying plastic bottles, use cloth carry bags and avoid using plastic straws in drinks. Visit banthebottle.com for more on the impact of plastic bottles on the environment.

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