Ecotourism experiences are a growing (and much-needed) trend in the travel industry. As we collectively move toward a more sustainable future, world travelers seek more responsible travel to natural areas with better environmental and cultural understanding. One of the easiest ways to practice ecotourism is by choosing eco-lodges, hotels and resorts as your accommodation. We will look at some of the most admirable eco-lodges worldwide and how they serve the local communities as well as their environmental conservation efforts.
But first, let’s delve a little deeper into the ecotourism industry and what it entails.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines ecotourism as all tourism having the following characteristics:
- All nature-based forms of tourism in which the primary motivation of the tourist is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.
- Contains educational and interpretation features.
- Generally organized by specialized tour operators for small groups. Service provider partners at the destinations tend to be minor, locally-owned businesses.
- Minimizes negative impacts on the natural and socio-cultural environment.
- Supports the maintenance of natural areas which are used as ecotourism attractions by:
- Generating economic benefits for host communities, organizations and authorities managing natural areas with conservation purposes;
- Providing alternative employment and income opportunities for local communities;
- Increasing awareness towards conserving natural and cultural assets among locals and tourists.
Source: The British Ecotourism Market, UNWTO 2002
In short, ecotourism development focuses on conserving the environment, protecting wildlife and promoting sustainable travel and tourism.
The 7 main principles of ecotourism
Besides the World Tourism Organization, many guiding ecotourism principles have been written and practiced for the industry. Martha Honey, who co-founded the Center for Responsible Travel, authored the book, Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, and is a central figure in the international ecotourism society, created a set of 7 principles we particularly like:
- Travel to natural areas
- Minimize impact
- Build environmental awareness
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
- Provide economic benefits and power to local communities
- Respect local cultures
- Support human rights and democratic movements
We will explore how some of our favorite eco-lodges worldwide implement and practice some or all of these low-impact ecotourism principles. But first, let’s clearly define an eco-lodge or sustainable hotel.
What is an eco-lodge?
An eco-lodge is an ecotourism-based business that offers ecotourism experiences to make your visit to nature areas as environmentally friendly as possible. Eco-lodges are becoming increasingly popular as they provide a unique experience that cannot be found in traditional hotels and resorts. These lodges allow guests to explore nature while learning about conservation efforts and sustainability practices. Moreover, they benefit local communities with education, employment and infrastructure.
Here are common traits of eco-lodges:
- Recycling programs
- Reduction of waste
- Sustainable use of natural resources
- Green building materials
- Community development
- Cultural respect
- Clear environmental guidelines
- Use of non-permanent structures
- Alternative power sources
- Conservation efforts
- Educating guests and locals
These are all factors to take into account when identifying sustainable accommodations. To ensure they are doing their best for the planet, ask yourself (or them):
Do they have a sustainability policy?
If a hotel or lodge is committed to sustainable tourism development, it should have a sustainability policy on its website. This will tell you if they have been certified by a credible organization such as LEED or EarthCheck. However, it is more complex and expensive for some of the smaller eco-lodges to receive these certifications, so don’t be too quick to judge.
Are they committed to limiting their environmental impact?
It’s important to note that not all eco lodges are relatively new establishments. Many older hotels have made tremendous strides in greening up their impact. However, be vigilant of accommodations ‘greenwashing’, whereby they heavily market themselves as environmentally friendly without practicing minimal environmental impact or having unsustainable ecotourism projects.
Is it locally owned and run?
Finding an eco lodge or hotel owned and run by locals means your dollars go directly into the local communities instead of into a large multinational resort chain. Even a small, locally-owned lodge without sound sustainability practices is a more sustainable choice than a big resort.
Is it involved with the local community?
An authentic eco lodge empowers the local communities by hiring local staff, sourcing local produce and supporting sustainable tourism development. Moreover, they encourage guests to undertake local tours and they positively contribute to the preservation of natural and cultural heritage.
Ecolodge design and construction
There are also several design and construction features that go into the building of an eco-lodge, the most common being:
Solar power has become a staple of many ecolodges. Solar provides renewable energy and is a great power source for more remote eco lodges and the communities around them. This is especially true if the location gets plenty of sunlight.
Installing rainwater tanks is another excellent way to utilize a natural resource in the tourism industry. Relatively self-explanatory, a rainwater tank collects rainwater for guests to use as the main water supply.
Sustainable building materials
Eco-friendly building materials are a common feature of eco-hotels. The owners usually source local, natural products such as bamboo, reclaimed wood and palm fronds for thatched rooves. Recycled plastic, glass and even tires can be used for the construction of an eco lodge.
15 of the best eco-lodges around the world
1. Volcanoes Safaris Eco Lodge - Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Best for - African jungle and mountain gorillas
Ecotourism in Africa is a big business. As such, we have featured three admirable eco-lodges on this list, the first being the famed Volcanoes Safaris in Rwanda and Uganda. If you plan on getting close and personal with the mountain gorillas in their native habitat, the world heritage-listed Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Volcanoes Safaris is the way to go.
While they have five eco lodges, our favorite is Bwindi Lodge. It is also featured in our unique lodging experiences blog post, one of our most popular posts! Bwindi has several initiatives benefiting the local communities. The Bwindi Bar is a tourism training institution for disadvantaged local youth. They have also partnered with local team processing communities and are supporters of the Gorilla Health and Community Conservation Center.
Terraegna Mountain Hut - Abruzzo National Park, Italy
Best for - Cozy mountain cabin escape... and bears!
Suppose you’re into hiking, wildlife and cozy mountain cabins. In that case, Terraegna Mountain Hut is right up your alley! Set high up in the mountains between Pescasseroli and Bisegna, Terraegna offers the perfect rest and escape for the hiking enthusiast. Did you know Italy has bears? Neither did we, but there’s a good chance you will spot a bear, along with wolves, deer and wild boars.
Terraegna is certified by Europarc Federation for sustainable tourism in protected areas. They are committed to protecting the natural and cultural heritage in the protected area. Their continuous improvement to develop ecotourism management combines adventurous outdoor experiences with the environment while supporting the local population and businesses.
Origins Lodge - Upala, Costa Rica
Best for - Wellness, gastronomy and hiking volcanoes
For those who haven’t yet experienced Costa Rica, it has a thriving nature tourism industry. Costa Rica is well-suited for eco-lodges, from dense jungles to volcanoes and dry forests meeting pristine beaches. And one of the best is Origins Lodge, a luxury escape focusing on well-being and gastronomy in the heart of the Costa Rican jungle. You can hike to a cloud forest and the still-active Tenorio Volcano and perhaps spot jaguars, toucans, sloths and more.
But what is truly impressive about Origins Lodge is its sustainable development practices. These include a 100% ecological water system supplying the entire lodge without energy. They produce their own honey, fruit, vegetables, cheese and milk. Their 8 chickens provide guests with the freshest free-range organic eggs.
The Origins Lodge team plants roughly 500 native trees every year to aid reforestation for environmental conservation. Many of these double or triple-purpose trees provide sources of water, fruits, and seeds for the local wildlife. The guests are welcome to eat the leaves, fruits and edible flowers from the trees which are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Wolwedans Lodges - Namibia
Best for - Total isolation in an otherworldly landscape
There’s a reason why so many sci-fi movies like Star Wars and Mad Max do their filming in Namibia: because of its otherworldly landscape. No other accommodation captures it quite like Wolwedans Lodges. They have a range of camps to choose from, including Dune, Desert and Mountain View, but our favorite is Boulders Lodge. As the name suggests, the lodge is nestled amongst giant desert boulders with an outlook over the landscape.
The team at Wolwedans is passionate about sustainable development, ecotourism initiatives and environmental education. Their philosophy of balancing the planet, people and profit underpin everything they do. Every guest stay has economic benefits for the local people and contributes to the Wolwedans Foundation, which drives its 5C’s sustainably:
Notably, Woldwedans has its own Desert Academy, a hospitality training school for local Namibians where they can leave with a nationally and internationally recognized qualification.
Pikaia Lodge - Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Best for - UNESCO-protected areas and wildlife
As eco lodges and nature-based tourism go together like peas and potatoes, it is only natural that the Galapagos Islands is a popular ecotourism destination. Famous worldwide for its incredible nature and wildlife found nowhere else on earth, Pikaia Lodge is the perfect place to experience this UNESCO World Heritage site. Like most eco-lodges, it isn’t just about the lodge itself, but the entire eco-adventure experience Pikaia provides with the surrounding environment.
Pikaia Lodge states on its website that the lodging concept has been designed for environmentally conscious travelers. Besides ecotourism activities, such as scuba diving, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and sports fishing, Pakaia Lodge prides itself in welcoming families and they love providing worldschooling opportunities in biology and conservation while children experience close encounters with native wildlife.
Mara Serena Safari Lodge - Maasai Mara, Kenya
Best for - African safari and the great migration
Serena Hotels have been sustainable lodges worldwide for over 40 years and are considered leaders in the area. They choose remote, deprived, yet fascinating destinations for their lodges, intending to bring the best social, cultural and economic development practices. While they have several eco-lodges throughout Africa and Asia, we have chosen their Mara Safari Lodge in Kenya due to the iconic tourism activities. These include one of the best African safaris in the Maasai Mara National Park, Maasai Village visits and if you time it right, the world-famous great migration event.
Mara Serena has an impressive, responsible tourism and sustainability policy on their website. They have well-detailed sections on:
- Responsible business
- Business ethics and human rights
- Business model and sustainability practices
- Health, safety and well-being
- Responsible sourcing
- Human development and training in the workplace
If you’re after a quintessential Africa safari experience while supporting sustainable development, you can’t look past Mara Serena Safari Lodge.
Gili Lankanfushi - North Male Atoll, Maldives
Best for - Romance and Honeymoon
Suppose you’re planning the perfect honeymoon or romantic getaway to a paradise ecotourism site that actively protects its natural environment. In that case, Gili Lankanfushi should be on your radar. These sustainably built rustic-luxe villas over crystal-clear turquoise waters differ from your average over-water bungalows. Gili has made excellent use of local resources. The bungalows are constructed from responsibly sourced local materials like palm wood, bamboo, teak, and palm fronds harvested when the island underwent extensive rehabilitation.
Other sustainable practices include:
- Organic toiletries in refillable earthenware containers
- Minimal plastic usage and waste
- A desalination plant for still and sparkling water
- Pole-caught seafood and vegetables from an organic vegetable garden
- Coral cleaning adventures and activities for guests
- Collecting underwater data for leading scientific organizations like Manta Trust
By staying at Gili Lankanfushi, you can fall asleep peacefully, knowing you are staying in natural areas that conserve the environment. That’s if listening to the lapping of calm waters beneath your bed is enough to put you into a deep slumber.
Dene Cottage - Orkney Islands, UK
Best for - Unique island village getaway
Maybe not your idea of luxury, but the cozy and comfortable Dene cottage in the Orkney Islands is a little-known gem. For those who have yet to learn about the Orkney Islands, they were requested by the residents of Storylines private residence ship for our ultimate world cruise Itinerary: UK and Ireland dream travel destinations. The cottage is peaceful, with beautiful views of the countryside, and only a short walk from the charming village of Dounby.
Dene Cottage is totally off-grid; 100% powered by renewables, including wind turbines and solar panels, earning it a Gold Green Tourism Award. It was also named by The Guardian as one of the best eco-friendly places to stay in Europe. The super-reliable renewable energy provides all your creature comforts, including television, washing machine and Wi-Fi. The cottage is suitable for a family or two adult couples who desire a quiet escape and perhaps a pint or two at the local pub on the shores of Harray Loch.
Christalino Lodge - Amazon Rainforest, Brazil
Best for - Rainforest education and birding
We couldn’t make this list without including an eco-lodge deep within the Amazon jungle, and none beat Christalino Lodge, renowned for its well-being, total immersion in nature and protection of the local indigenous inhabitants. The luxurious lodge has separate bungalows surrounded by jungle, offering complete privacy. The rainforest sounds at night will put you to sleep and by day, there are plenty of activities including canoeing, jungle trails and river cruises, to name a few.
What sets Christalino Lodge apart is their involvement in and education of the incredible ecosystem which supplies most of the world’s oxygen. They have ecotourism activities, including nature tours led by expert guides and some of the best birdwatching on the planet, with an incredible 586 bird species in the vicinity. They hold workshops, the most popular being a wildlife photography workshop, in which they teach you to take quality shots for ever-lasting memories.
Capella Lodge - Lord Howe Island, Australia
Best for - UNESCO World Heritage protected areas
Lord Howe is an extraordinary Pacific Ocean island about two hours flight from Sydney. The entire island is listed as UNESCO World Heritage. Like the Galapagos, Lord Howe contains unique flora, fauna and wildlife, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. The island never suffers from mass tourism because the number of visitors is limited with only one airline flying from mainland Australia. Lord Howe is all about its natural attractions, including dense rainforests, mountain hiking and the most pristine beaches and bays for swimming, surfing and scuba diving.
“Lord Howe is so extraordinary it is almost unbelievable.” ~ Sir David Attenborough
Capella Lodge is the perfect example of ecotourism and luxury in harmony together. Built in the style of a carefree Australian beach house, it boasts priceless views of mountains, beaches and the world’s southernmost coral reef and the Pacific Ocean beyond.
Best for - Wildlife, lakes and indigenous knowledge and experience
Knight Inlet Lodge is an Indigenous-owned lodge in the thick of the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, Canada. It is famed for its wildlife viewing, national parks and responsible travel practices. The owners of Knight Inlet are made up of five partner first nations groups who have belonged to the land for thousands of years. As a result, you are unlikely to find better guides to help connect you with the local community and natural areas.
By visiting Knight Inlet Lodge, you directly support conservation efforts and economic benefits for the local indigenous community. There are few places in the world better for grizzly bear viewing and whale watching than here. It is also comforting that your dollars go towards conserving bears and salmon, one of their main dietary staples.
Maharaja Eco Dive Lodge - Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Best for - Unspoiled islands and scuba diving
Maharaja Eco Dive Lodge is located in the remote Indonesian-Papuan paradise of Raja Ampat, an archipelago of tropical islands. Many islands are uninhabited and unspoiled, like few places on Earth. It’s often described as the last paradise on the planet. Perhaps this is why it was requested by our residents for our Cruising Southeast Asia itinerary. The region is also known for some of the best diving on the planet, and Maharaja describes itself as:
“The only genuinely eco-friendly dive resort in the world!”
This may be true given the tourism industry's acknowledgments, including being among the world’s best eco-luxury resorts in 2019 by Lonely Planet. What distinguishes Maharaja from the other regional dive resorts is respect, appreciation and care for nature, especially their marine environment conservation efforts. The lodge also connects with the extremely friendly Papuan local population.
The island has four excellent dive sites accessible from the beach. This means that you can walk outside your bungalow and go for a scuba dive. So, if diving and sustainable development are your passions, add Maharaja Eco Dive Lodge to your travel plans.
Bab El Oued Ecolodge - Southern Oasis Biosphere Reserve, Morocco
Best for - Desert oasis and ancient archeological sites
Bab El Oued Ecolodge is definitely on this writer’s bucket list. Located in the Southern Oasis Biosphere Reserve of Morocco, another UNESCO World Heritage site, this desert oasis is amongst the world’s largest palm groves. It exudes pure Arabian luxury and culture. They have ten private lodges to choose from, all decorated in authentic and unusual Moroccan décor. All their food produce is grown locally and served farm to plate. It is super healthy and authentically Moroccan.
Bab El Oued has received:
- Morocco Responsible Tourism Award for Environment in 2012
- Longlisted World Responsible Tourism Awards 2015 for “Local Sourcing.”
- LTG Global Awards category Luxury Accommodation of the World in 2022
Besides the impressive green tourism industry awards, Bab El Oued has many epic experiences but none more magical than its night tour in the Sahara Desert. Here, you sleep in a comfortable tent in the desert dunes under a lit-up sky with more stars than you’ve likely ever encountered.
Jungle Bay Eco Lodge, Dominica
Best for - connecting with nature
Not to be confused with the much larger island nation of The Dominican Republic, Dominica has been nicknamed Nature Island of the Caribbean. As such, it’s only fitting that one of its many reputable eco-lodges in the tourism sector made the cut. Jungle Bay has won numerous awards, including the Top 25 Best Eco Resorts For a Sustainable and Luxurious Getaway by MSN and Forbes 10 Best Luxury Eco Resorts. Jungle Bay is owned by local Sam Raphael, who has been passionate about environmental conservation since a fifth-grade school trip. His life’s work has culminated in a stellar resort with purpose.
Jungle Bay’s values center around community participation, environmental protection and biodiversity conservation. Moreover, Jungle Bay supports the local economy by providing meaningful employment, supporting social programs and raising awareness about Dominica’s threatened natural environments. The resort is immaculate, surrounded by thick jungle-covered mountains and offers simply the best in yoga, wellness and cuisine.
EcoCamp Patagonia - Patagonia, Chile
Best for - Hiking the most extraordinary landscapes
We’ve covered some lodges in the most incredible natural areas around the world so it would be criminal not to include the extraordinary Patagonia region in Torres del Paine, Chile. For hiking enthusiasts, it’s hard to beat Patagonia with its diversity of landscape, colors and breathtaking scenery. As for sustainable development and lodging, you cannot go past EcoCamp Patagonia. You stay in their domes, premium tents or glamping, which come with all the comforts of home, such as heating and private bathrooms.
They have a range of outdoor adventure tours, the most popular being the world-famous 7-day W Trek. This challenging hike takes you through deserts, forests, lakes, wildlife and glaciers. It culminates in the Paine Towers, three gigantic and spectacular granite monoliths.
EcoCamp has several green tourism initiatives, especially their innovative design, which includes using solar energy, micro-hydro turbines and composting toilets. Their use of large skylights inside the domes preseveres the heat from the sun for the night when temperatures plunge. Everything about this lodge is a lesson in intelligent eco-design.