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Top 10 Ecotourism Hotspots

Here's a list of the best in ecotourism destinations

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Ecotourism and sustainable tourism are the fastest-growing segment of the travel market. But where can fans of green travel go? The following (wholly subjective) list includes 10 of the most popular green tourism developments in the world.

1. The Blue Mountains

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Australia's Blue Mountains is a 550-square-mile area of parks and reserves. The region is named for the bluish cast that the native "blue gum" eucalyptus trees give the region's cliffs, meadows, wetlands and canyons. Just a 90-minute car ride from Sydney, the region is chockablock with wildlife, wildflowers and wild good times where you can indulge your love of rock climbing, canoeing, mountain biking and hiking (aka bushwalking). One of the rarest trees in the world, the Wollemi pine, was thought to be extinct since the time of the dinosaurs, but a few small populations can still be found here. Dotted with eco-lodges and cabins, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a must-see for nature lovers down under.

2. The Galapagos Islands

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Few sustainable tourism hotspots on Earth are infused with as much mystery and delight as the Galapagos Islands. Where else can you swim with penguins and sea lions that are utterly unafraid of humans? This constellation of islands and atolls some 620 miles off the coast of South America was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve because of its unparalleled menagerie of birds, reptiles and sea life, and over 95 percent of the area is protected from development. Be aware that the Galapagos are also among the places that are being "loved to death," so expect ecotourism operator to insist on minimal-impact travel to avoid stressing the islands' sensitive ecosystems.

3. The Fjords of Norway

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Their dramatic beauty and rugged isolation have thrilled travelers for centuries, making the Norwegian fjords one of the world's most popular sustainable travel destinations for hiking, biking and boating. Norway's strict environmental regulations (if you ignore their stubborn insistence on killing whales) ensure the area will stay wild and green for generations of eco-tourism fans. The wildlife here is unlike any in Europe, and tiny coastal villages preserve a way of life largely unchanged since the medieval era.

4. Botswana

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Sometimes called "the jewel of Africa" (just don't tell anyone in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, or Morocco), Botswana is becoming one of the worst-kept secrets in international green travel. The country's savannas, rivers and lakes are teeming with wildlife, and a growing number of eco-resorts are more than happy to show you the rhinos, zebras, lions and elephants that call Botswana home.

5. Alaska

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"North To The Future" is the motto of this vast ecotourism destination -- and if the future looks like Alaska, it won't be all that bad. The dazzling array of wildlife that populate a region of staggering natural beauty keep ecotourism-lovers coming back year after year. Whether you're a fan of rafting, mountaineering, hunting, fishing, whale-watching, dog-mushing (it's the state sport, naturally) or just hiking the backcountry, you'll find it here.

6. Costa Rica

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Nowhere else on the planet is as closely associated with sustainable tourism as Costa Rica. In fact, it's one of the mainstays of their economy, and for good reason. This Central American country is a wonderland of volcanoes, beaches, rain forests, whitewater rivers and savannas. In many ares, you can't go more than 20 yards without seeing a toucan, monkey or jewel-toned butterfly -- if you're lucky, you might spot a jaguar. A dizzying array of eco-resorts are available to help you unwind after a day of outdoor activity.

7. Kenya

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Like Costa Rica, Kenya has made itself into one of the world's most attractive sustainable tourism destinations by preserving their awe-inspiring natural wealth. If you think Kenya is just one big giraffe-studded savanna, you'll be surprised to learn that it also boasts tropical beaches, lush rain forests and towering mountains like the easy-to-climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Many tour operators are now putting an accent on sustainable luxury, though there are countless affordable options for green travel as well.

8. Belize

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A lush tropical playground like Costa Rica, but filled with ancient Mayan treasures, Belize is an ecotourism paradise for snorkelers, kayakers, scuba divers, or just plain folks who love lollygagging on the beach. Divers, who have called the water here "an underwater Serengeti," frequently rub elbows (fins?) with the world's largest fish, the whale shark. And significant investments in sustainable tourism development has created some stellar eco-resorts.

9. Dominica

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I hate to keep returning to lush, tropical places -- well, actually, that's a lie. I love returning to places like Dominica, touted as the "Nature Island of the Caribbean." Whales frolic offshore, while waterfalls cascade through verdant rain forests. The island of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) is also home to the second-largest boiling lake in the world, and has made ecotourism a key component of its economy. With stunning beaches, natural hot springs, and plant and animal species that are extinct everywhere else in the Caribbean, it's easy to understand why ecotourism fanatics flock here.

10. Your Local Park

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Sure, it's great to take an adventure trip to an exotic destination on the other side of the globe -- but it also costs a lot to get there, including environmental costs in terms of burning fossil fuels. One of the best options in sustainable tourism is right down the road from you. America's vast network of parks, including regional, state and national parks and preserves is the envy of the world, and too few of us take advantage of them. Instead of breaking the bank to jet to another continent, why not break out the cooler and plan a short road trip? Chances are, you're just a few hours away from the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Smoky Mountains, the Everglades, or a beautiful state park.
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