Travel isn’t just a one-way ticket to self-improvement; it can also change lives on the other side. Here are our picks for 2020 adventures that will make an impact—both for the traveler and destination.
From helping to revive tourism in destinations such as Sri Lanka and Nicaragua to tracking koalas in bushfire-stricken New South Wales and taking part in innovative women-only expeditions, we’ve pulled together trips you can take in 2020 that’ll still give you everything you crave—adventure, growth, challenge, excitement—but also raise awareness, shift perceptions, and provide resources to destinations in need. And in some cases, just give a much-needed cash injection into the local economies and communities.
After the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019, this on-the-up island nation saw a huge drop in visitor numbers, by as much as 70 per cent in May. But now that travel restrictions have been removed, travelers are returning—and with around two million Sri Lankans reliant on tourism in some way, it’s a good place to give back. An easy place to travel around in, Sri Lanka’s beaches, national parks such as Yala and Udawalawe, tea plantations, and temples around Anuradhapura and Dambulla, are popular sights. Alternatively, take the train to the city of Jaffna in the north, (off-limits during the civil war, which ended in 2009), and don’t miss the lively capital Colombo.
Recent bush fires in Australia have highlighted the great need to address climate change in a country that has the world’s worst mammal extinction rate, with extreme weather, water shortages, land development and loss of biodiversity among the reasons. Travelers who want to help, even in a small way, can help track wild koalas with a koala researcher with Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours. Since 2011, the project has removed over 1,500,000 Boneseed weeds (koalas avoid eucalyptus trees surrounded by this introduced weed) to improve koala habitat, and since 2016, they’ve planted 7,500 Koala trees, in support of the non-profit Koala Clancy Foundation. Travelers on tours such as Koalas & Kangaroos IN THE WILD, Sunset Koalas & Kangaroos and Great Ocean Road can also help out with weed removal—the operator says around 50,000 weeds are removed every year on these tours. Other citizen science projects include tracking spotted quolls, manta rays, and killer whales.
Political turmoil has plagued Nicaragua since April 2018, but the lifting of travel restrictions by the UK government, and the lowering of travel advice by others (excluding the US), is encouraging travelers back. Famous for its volcanoes, lakes, colonial-era architecture, complex history, and spectacular beaches, Nicaragua is, remarkably, still relatively untamed. The general advice is to exercise caution and stay away from public protests—tourist areas remain unaffected by political events and with many locals reliant on tourism for their livelihoods, it’s another destination where traveling smart can leave a positive impact.
If you like the sound of high-altitude trekking, yoga, photography, relaxing, and learning about organic farming in the middle of the Himalayas, this trip may be your ticket. A women-led NGO, Fernweh Fair Travel combines mountain adventures with female empowerment in Uttarakhand, by creating jobs for mainly women (90 per cent); young widows with no possibility of re-marrying again, survivors of domestic violence, and ‘untouchable’ tribes. Fernweh tailor-make each trip, with accommodation in comfortable homestays, and work closely with local communities, helping to train them as artisans, tour guides, homestay hosts, and more.
Find out more at Fernweh Fair Travel.
Indigenous voices and perspectives have often gone overlooked in the past, but many travel companies are now putting them at the heart of the travel experience. Case in point: This eight-day trip around the archipelago of Haida Gwai, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, off Canada’s west coast. Known as Canada’s ‘Galapagos’ thanks to its marine life and the Great Bear Rainforest, it’s also home to the rich Haida (a coastal First Nations) culture, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the village of SGang Gwaay (Ninstints in English). Maple Leaf Adventures gain permissions from local First Nations, the caretakers of this land, before visiting villages, memorial poles, traditional big houses, and the trip, while luxurious, is low-impact.
Find out more at Maple Leaf Adventures.
Led by female tour leaders for female travelers, these new expeditions from Intrepid Travel aim to further understanding of female culture in destinations where regular encounters with women are still limited to those traveling in mixed groups. In Kenya, guided by Becky, East Africa’s first female overland truck driver, the trip includes meeting female wildlife rangers for an insight into working male-dominated industry, while Umoja Village, a women-only Manyatta (settlement), is a sanctuary for survivors of genital mutilation, rape, and forced marriages. It’s also a chance to hear about women’s often overlooked roles in shaping history: At the Mau Mau caves, visitors will find out more about how women helped win the war against colonial rule. Another destination is Turkey where travelers will meet Syrian women creating new lives in a new country, sailing with a female skipper in Üçağız and enjoying a women’s-only beach in Antalya.
While the Masai Mara in Kenya and Tanzania’s Serengeti are undoubtedly two of the most classically epic landscapes in Africa, don’t overlook landlocked Uganda amid these two giants of safari. It’s best known for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to several groups of mountain gorillas, but a boat trip along the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park is another wildlife treat, and there’s chimpanzee trekking in nearby Kyambura Gorge. Murchison Falls National Park is home to great numbers of elephants and of course, the eponymous waterfall, there’s excellent hiking in the Rwenzori Mountains, not to mention Lake Victoria, adventure activities in Jinja, and the easy-to-explore, lively capital of Kampala.
However you experience this World Heritage Site, choose an ethical operator—Master Reef Guides features best-practice companies who contribute to research in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. But while marine marvels are the big ticket here, there’s more on offer. The land, like all of Australia’s, is home to the world’s oldest living culture and an increasing number of Indigenous-run and -owned operators are now sharing their stories. At the Mossman Gorge Centre, you can take a walk to a sacred site with the local Kuku Yalanji people and learn about traditional plants, visit the UNESCO Quinkan Rock Art and hear the Dreamtime stories with Jarramali Rock Art Tours, and find out what the reef means to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel.
When you think of the Dominican Republic, it’s likely that all-inclusive resorts and mass tourism come to mind, but—and the same goes for most overly touristy destinations—there are always exceptions. In a tiny surf town called Cabarete is eXtreme Hotel, a community-centered, solar-powered property which uses clever ventilation instead of air-conditioning, and employs over 80 per cent Dominican staff. Their on-site permaculture farm plus one of the Caribbean’s biggest aquaponics system (one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture) provides produce for the two beachfront restaurants, and a whole of activities are available such as yoga, surfing, flying trapeze, horseback riding, zip-lining and hiking.
Find out more at eXtreme Hotel Cabarete.
If you’re after café culture, good beer, interesting history and rural landscapes, it’s hard to beat Europe. But you don’t have to go the usual suspects—as well as the smaller towns and cities in popular countries like France, Italy and Greece, move your eyes northeast on the map to the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Here, castles, forests, beaches, lakes await, with ferries connecting the three countries. Nazi and Soviet occupation is commemorated through mass grave memorials and informative museums, while the three architecturally distinct capital cities—Vilnius, Tallinn and Riga—serve up every city treat you could possibly want.
For many years, this South American nation has been tainted by headlines of drugs, kidnappings and civil war. But the picture is rarely black-and-white, and the country has a growing economy thanks to tourism. Through Much Better Adventures, travelers can trek into the Colombian jungle and help fund the protection of the Samana Watershed, threatened by dams. Located in Colombia’s central Andes, the Rio Samana is one of the country’s most powerful rivers, often called the “jewel of the Magdalena Valley.” The trips supports a campaign by local conservationists who organize an annual fundraising festival and train locals in tourism and adventure sports to show the benefits of protecting the river.
Another trip that combines adventure and river conservation is Raft, kayak and hike Albania which raises funds to save the 167-mile Vjosa River, one of Europe’s last wild rivers.
Find out more at Much Better Adventures.
For wildlife and conservation, Silk Road Adventures’ pioneering snow leopard expeditions in Tajikistan‘s southwestern Pamir mountains, home to the world’s highest density of snow leopards, or in Kyrgyzstan’s Ala Too ranges, may tick the box. Led by a ranger, activities include setting camera traps, analyzing footage,and talks from local experts. As well as directly feeding into the local economy, 25 per cent of the costs for staying at the mountain lodge go towards supporting volunteer rangers.
Another impactful trip is their Walk The Abraham Trail in Palestine, traveling north to south in the West Bank along the ancient Masar Ibrahim al Khalil or Abraham’s Path, from Rummaneh village near Jenin to Jerusalem, staying in homestays and Bedouin settlements. The idea behind this itinerary was to give a “human face” to the Middle East, as well as develop new trails and encourage sustainable community tourism.
Find out more at Silk Road Adventures.
Found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, bonobos, also known as pygmy chimpanzees, are our closest living relative (they’re more related to humans than gorillas) and they’re the most endangered species of great ape in the world. This Secret Compass trip, launched in 2019, was the first official expedition into Congo’s Lomako-Yokokala Faunal Reserve, home to a new research and conservation center.
The journey, via plane, boat, dugout canoe and foot through wild jungle and floating fishing villages, is supported by Congo’s government and the African Wildlife Foundation, giving travelers a chance to observe these animals in their natural habitat, increasing awareness of the bonobos’ plight and raising funds for conservation. You’ll also see four other primate species, trek and camp in the bonobos’ natural habitat and visit rehabilitated bonobos in sanctuaries and orphanages.
A new Congo expedition for 2020 visits the critically endangered mountain gorillas, where travelers will learn about life on the frontline of conservation in Virunga National Park. The trip includes hiking to and sleeping on the crater rim of the lava lake of Mount Nyiragongo and hiking in the Rwenzori Mountains, the ‘Mountains of the Moon’ in neighboring Uganda.
In an age of overtourism, there’s nothing sweeter than traveling somewhere visited by just 400 people each year. This rare cloud forest in northern Laos, one of the country’s densest forests, is part of the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area which includes Phou Louey, ‘Forever Mountain’, Laos’ third-highest peak whose summit is reached during a challenging five-day hike.
It’s a challenging hiking trip that focuses on rural Laos, its rice fields, Khmu villages and farmers’ huts, so travelers can appreciate the importance of agriculture here, while staying in unusual places—think hanging ‘nests’ in the forest suspended from the tree canopy, homestays and traditional jungle bungalows. Throw in campfire dinners, wildlife walks—the area is home to the rare white-cheeked crested gibbon, civets and medicinal plants—and stints in the beautiful UNESCO heritage town of Luang Prabang.
Find out more at InsideAsia Tours.
Ever wondered what it’s like to be on the front line of wildlife conservation? This trip from Intrepid Travel (part of the same parent company as Adventure.com) in partnership with The Thin Green Line Foundation which supports rangers in the field, gives travelers a chance to visit the ranger training academy, as well as follow rangers on game drives and foot patrols through Chyulu Hills National Park, home to the endangered Eastern Black Rhino. The price of the eight-day tour also include a $100 donation to support the rangers’ work.
Find out more at Intrepid Travel.
This is no ordinary safari. Conservation and sustainability are at the heart of this trip which combines a stay at Uakari Lodge in Brazil’s protected Mamirauá Reserve with helping wildlife researchers track the area’s tree-dwelling jaguars.
Not only does the reserve have the world’s highest density of this species, during rainy season when the forest is flooded, these big cats head into the trees where they live and hunt for around four months— and Mamirauá is the only place in the world where this happens. Travelers will help researchers with placing camera traps, studying blood samples and tracking the cats via GPS. Other wildlife includes the uakari monkey, giant river otter, three-toed sloth and scarlet macaw.
You’ll then travel along the Transpantaneira Highway, south towards the northern Pantanal’s waterways, considered the best place in the world for jaguar-spotting—and sightings of their prey such as caiman and capybara.
Find out more at Natural World Safaris.
Head further north than most visitors to Pakistan do, and into mountainous Baltistan on Pakistan’s northwest frontier with this small-group foodie trip. Led by cookery professional Sumayya Usmani, the trip also contributes to local economies, restaurants and hotels.
With gastronomic influences from the Middle East, Far East and India, this mouthwatering trip has a hyper-local element, with visits to Sumayya’s friends who help her cook up unforgettable feasts, local farms in the Karakoram Mountains to show farming traditions, and into the rural villages of Khaplu in the beautiful Hunza Valley.
Travelers will learn to cook traditional Baltistan dishes and see how the cuisine has evolved against a background of politics, conflict and generational changes.
Find out more at Responsible Travel.
In August 2018, the south Indian state of Kerala was devastated by the worst floods in almost a century which left hundreds dead and thousands homeless.
Thankfully, quick actions to rebuild affected areas resulted in houses being reconstructed, rubble cleared and boats relaunched. But despite picking itself up with relative speed, the severity of the floods did affect tourist numbers in the immediate aftermath, affecting jobs and local economies.
Now, there’s nothing to stop travelers heading that way now. This adventure itinerary has a strong local focus with visits to temples, tea plantations and Keralan towns, plus small-boat cruises through Kerala’s peaceful backwaters.
Find out more at Wayfairer Travel.
New Zealand is streets ahead when it comes to celebrating its indigenous culture: Artwork and Maori greetings adorn most international airports; the All Blacks—their international rugby team—perform the Haka (a traditional Maori war dance) before every game; Maori language and history is taught in schools. But on a global scale, there’s still much to be done from an education perspective.
Luckily, there are plenty of on-the-ground adventures for those who want to dig deeper. Napier Maori Tours, run by a young local Maori family, offer ‘eco-cultural’ day tours along the protected Ahuriri Estuary where travelers can practise traditional fishing methods and take archaeological tours of an ancient Maori village, the largest and oldest in the country.
And if you find yourself in Northland—New Zealand’s northernmost peninsula—Footprints Waipoua offer Maori-led tours through the Waipoua Forest, home to Tana Mahuta, the country’s largest living tree.
For a vacation with a twist—if you don’t mind a little physical exertion—consider a National Trust volunteering break in the UK. Not only do these trips help the environment or local heritage, you’ll also learn new skills and find out about ancient traditions and crafts.
Trips, which take place year-round, include river restoration at Croome in the county of Worcestershire, where, with your waders on, you’ll be pulling out reeds to restore the clear waters, and Surveying ‘The Rise of Northwood’ Slindon Estate in West Sussex, the National Trust’s largest woodland regeneration project. Here, participants will survey the habit and record plants, invertebrates, butterflies and birds, with a week’s accommodation in a converted stable block.
Find out more at the National Trust.
In recent years, Armenia’s neighbor Georgia has hit its stride from a tourism perspective, following years of conflict; now, Armenia—after similar struggles—is starting to follow suit. And there’s nothing better than visiting an emerging destination with fewer crowds and supporting local economies.
With peaks of up to 2,500 meters, Armenia offers challenging trekking through the canyons and gorges of the the wild Geghama mountains, including the summit of Aragats, Armenia’s highest peak, and picturesque ‘Armenian Switzerland’. Spot vultures and wild flowers as you hike, and look out for Caucasian leopard, wolf, lynx, bear and Asian wild sheep. Other highlights include Lake Sevan, the ‘Lake Titicaca’ of Armenia and one of the world’s largest Alpine lakes, passing nomadic shepherds, historic monasteries and ancient caravanserai (roadside inns). The trip starts and ends in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, where sights range from the food market to the Tsitsernakaberd-Genocide Memorial.
Find out more at Walks Worldwide.
Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean hard in 2017, with many islands suffering loss of life, homes, and businesses. The ‘nature island’ of Dominica was one, with parts completely obliterated, and the harsh wind leaving 95 per cent of its trees without leaves. Today, the Caribbean island of Dominica is on its way to become the world’s first hurricane-proof country, with climate-proof architecture and other facilities.
However, travelers can still enjoy the island and help with rebuilding. On the Help rebuild Dominica after Hurricane Maria trip, you’ll stay and help at an ecolodge which needs everything from gardeners and anyone who can sew (to make school uniforms for children who lost theirs) to skilled carpenters and roofers. They also welcome donations of tools and school items. In between jobs, you can relax in hot springs, go snorkeling, and see Dominica’s famous waterfalls.
Find out more at Responsible Travel.
Iceland has been all the rage for some time; now, Finland could well be the next red-hot, cold-climate destination—minus the crowds.
And no self-respecting traveler could possibly visit Finland without embarking on a husky sledding adventure. Not all husky sledding operators are created equal though, and while many companies in the Arctic claim to provide their dogs with the highest quality of life possible, sadly this isn’t always the case.
Finland’s Hetta Huskies has taken it upon itself to not only provide an ethical and sustainable husky sledding experience for travelers, but also to improve the industry overall. The company was awarded a gold in the 2015 World Responsible Tourism Awards for Best Animal Welfare Initiative.
Offering short and multi-day husky safaris through arctic Finland, Hetta Huskies also provide information on their website about the worldwide need for better welfare standards in the sled dog industry. They even offer a service that allows regular punters to adopt their elderly or injured dogs who can no longer run.
Find out more at Hetta Huskies.
Haiti is more than its disaster and aid-dominated headlines. There’s no doubt it’s had its fair share of challenges, from natural disasters to ongoing social and political unrest, but it has plenty to offer culture- and adventure-driven travelers; think undeveloped beaches, hidden waterfalls, centuries-old forts, and Vodou-infused art.
One way to see the country while still making an impact is via English in Mind (EIM) Haiti, a non-profit Haitian-led adult English program in Port-au-Prince that aims to empower rising Haitian leaders through vocational training. Speaking English greatly improves Haitians’ chances of finding meaningful, long-term employment—jobs generated by the influx of foreigners, NGOs, and a developing tourism industry.
EIM Haiti’s volunteer and tourism trips are one way to support this Caribbean nation. Led by Haitian students, these trips provide them with rewarding work, simultaneously letting visitors see Haiti through a local’s eyes. Trips include language and culture exchange with the students, and experiencing the country under their lead, from hiking the mountains in Furcy to following Rara bands through the streets of Jacmel.
Find out more at EIM Haiti.
Deep cultural immersion, supporting local communities and entrepreneurs, and generating income for local people is at the heart of Social Tours’ ethos. And this fascinating 10-day Experience Nepal Now itinerary helps travelers discover what makes Nepal tick.
You’ll see how the capital Kathmandu has got back on its feet after the 2015 earthquake, and better understand the country’s cultural, political and even architectural history. Travelers will also see the part Buddhism and Hinduism play in the Nepali psyche. The tour then explores the Kathmandu Valley to see life in rural Nepal—including meeting artisans who are keeping traditional skills alive—before ending with a stint in the lakeside town of Pokhara or wildlife haven of Chitwan National Park.
Find out more at Social Tours.
Struck by both a financial and refugee crisis, the last few years have been challenging for the people of Greece (and those hoping to enter Greece, for that matter.) Travelers hoping to head to this storied part of Europe can help alleviate—if only in a small way—some of these difficulties through making better choices and being better informed.
Billed as Greece’s “ultimate eco-walking” company, No Footprint is focused on low-impact walking tours that maximize the positive impact on local people and the environment. All tours use local businesses, guesthouses, taverns, agriculture, and markets—and in a country dealing with a devastating national debt, tourist dollars can go a long way.
For those interested in helping refugees, the first step is research. Lighthouse Relief is an organization that takes into account each volunteer applicant’s skills before deciding where they’ll be best situated to help.
Gorilla tourism isn’t just about seeing the great ape up-close; tourism has also helped to conserve this magnificent creature and one of the pioneering companies behind this is Volcanoes Safaris renowned for their gorilla and chimpanzee tourism.
After the Rwandan genocide in the ‘90s, Volcanoes Safaris helped kick-start gorilla tourism in both Rwanda and neighboring Uganda; they were also the only private sector company to sign up to the UN Kinshasa Declaration on Saving the Great Apes. Now, they’re part of a wider aim to not only preserve the habitat of the great ape, but also ensure local communities benefit.
Volcanoes Safaris runs several safaris including the popular six-day Gahinga and Virunga trip in Rwanda and Uganda. You’ll track gorillas and golden monkeys through bamboo forests, climb a volcano, and find about the local Batwa people of southwestern Uganda through community and heritage tours. You’ll also trek to the grave of celebrated primatologist Dian Fossey and the gorilla cemetery where her favorite gorilla Digit, among others, has his final resting place.
Find out more at Volcanoes Safaris.
Just three per cent of modern-day Australia’s population is comprised of people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. That’s a whole lot of culture—some 50,000 years’ worth—that needs to be sought out. And it’s just not going to come to us.
Owner Quenten Agius has built an immersive and award-winning set of itineraries, offering travelers the opportunity to embark on coastal (Adjahdura) or outbush (Ngadjuri) tours, or both. “Our aim is to take people on journey, not only physically but also spiritually, to a place where they have never been to before,” says Agius. “With each tour, our guests gain a wealth of knowledge about Aboriginal heritage, culture, traditions, and beliefs.”
Find out more at Aboriginal Cultural Tours.
If you’d like to donate to the Red Cross Bushfire Emergency Appeal, head over to The Intrepid Foundation.
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