The Southeast Asian region of the world consists of eleven mainland and island countries that reach from eastern India to China. Known for their rugged, vast landscapes, rich cultural and spiritual spaces, urban adventures, and flavorful cuisine. The authenticity and beauty of Southeast Asia has made it one of the most popular tourist regions. In fact, in 2020 alone, the travel and tourism industry contributed about US$180 billion to the GDP; in comparison to over US$393 billion in 2019.
Typically, sustainable tourism aims to protect and conserve the natural environment, uplift the social and cultural landscape of the destination, and keep money within local economies. When traveling, it is important for tourists to spend their tourism dollars where it will make the most impact; typically local businesses with a mission-driven statement in place. Below you can find 10 recommendations of top ecotourism destinations in various countries across Southeast Asia.
Indonesia - Hike and Sail around Komodo National Park
Named after the native Indonesian lizard, Komodo national park comprises three islands and 26 smaller islets. Located within the Lesser Sunda Islands, the volcanic islands that make up Komodo National Park consist of rugged hillsides of dry savannah and green vegetation, as well as white sandy beaches and blue waters. While exploring, travelers can choose to get as close as safely possible to Komodo dragons, hike the beautiful island landscape, or go underwater to view breathtaking coral reefs.
Philippines - Try Surfing in Siargao
Siargao is a small, teardrop-shaped island located at the northeastern coast of Mindanao, and is known for being the ‘surfing capital of the Philippines’. In fact, Cloud 9, one of the famous surfing spots on the island with barreling waves, is one of the main reasons that the destination has become so popular for international travelers.
Even for those who choose not to surf, the island is still a great destination for that much-needed island getaway. The white sand beaches, crystal blue waters, waterfalls, lagoons, and caves are a clear indicator as to why Siargao was named the Best Island in the World by Condé Nast Traveler.
Thailand - Get Up Close and Personal with Rehabilitated Elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai
Elephant Nature Park first opened in Chiang Mai during the 1990s, and is one of the only genuine elephant sanctuaries and rescue centers for mistreated elephants in all of Thailand. Unfortunately, due to tourist demand, elephants have overtime been widely exploited – forcing the gentle creatures to work for long hours and endure endless hours or elephant rides, which can injure the animals and shorten their lifespan. At the Elephant Nature Park, guests are invited to get up close and personal with these gentle giants and interact with them in a responsible way.
*With the overwhelming success of their organization, franchise locations have now been opened in Phuket, Koh Samui, and Cambodia.
Malaysia - Summit Mount Kinabalu on the Malaysian side of Borneo Island
For the adventurous traveler, one of the most popular tourist attractions is summiting Mount Kinabalu on the Malaysian side of Borneo island. Standing at 4,095 meters tall, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain on the island, and the 20th most prominent peak in the world. The trek requires a local guide and takes 2 days and 1 night, typically reaching the peak during sunrise.
For those who would rather view the mountain from afar, Mount Kinabalu sits in Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in December 2000 for being one of the most important biological sites in the world. Here visitors can experience four climatic zones, view some of the 4,500 species of flora and fauna – including 326 bird species, an estimated 100 mammal species, and over 110 land snail species. Thousands of travelers each year flock to the park to bask in the beauty of the gorgeous peak.
Vietnam - Take a Cooking Class in the Preserved Ancient Town of Hội An
Hội An is a city on Vietnam’s central coast that is known for its well-preserved Ancient Town, French colonial buildings, canals, temples and Chinese shophouses, as well as the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge. As the city was once a busy international commercial port in the 16th and 17th centuries, the melting-pot history can be reflected in its architecture; Hội An was even declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for the preservation of the trading ports.
One of the most popular activities for travelers is to attend a cooking class, as this is a great way to learn more about Vietnamese culture. On these tours, a local guide will bring a small group throughout the colorful streets and into the bustling local market to shop. Once the ingredients are bought, the guide will bring you to a kitchen where visitors can learn how to make classic Vietnamese food, eat, and bring home the recipes.
Cambodia - Watch the Sunrise and Sunset at Angkor Wat Archaeological Park
More than one million tourists travel to visit the Angkor Wat Archaeological Site in Cambodia each year. The world’s largest religious site can be accessed from Siem Reap and allows visitors to explore hundreds of temples throughout the World Heritage-listed spot. One of the most popular times to visit is during sunrise or sunset, as gorgeous reflections and colors can be seen. Some of the most popular spots to gather during dusk and dawn include Phnom Bakheng, Bayon Temple, Pre Rup, Sarah Srang, Angkor Wat Moat, and Angkor Thom Moat.
Sri Lanka - Take the World’s Most Beautiful Train Ride from Kandy to Ella
Travelers can find one of the world’s most scenic train trips in the heart of Sri Lanka by taking the journey from the town of Kandy to Ella. The 7-hour train ride brings locals and travelers through lush tea plantations, rolling rice fields, and vast mountain views – all for about 73 cents. The tracks were originally built by the colonial British in 1864 in order to transport tea from the hills to the capital city, and has since become a way to get around the country. Sri Lanka provides optimal growing conditions as tea needs a warm climate and sloping terrain to grow. Therefore, while on the journey, travelers will see a sea of green, what many describe as “one big tea plantation”.
Singapore - Explore Modern Day Urban Gardens at Supertree Grove
During a visit to Singapore, travelers should not miss witnessing the 12 Supertrees up close at Supertree Grove, a part of Gardens by the Bay. Standing at 50 metres above the ground, the solar-powered iconic giants come alive at night with a light and musical show. During the day, the trees act as an observatory where visitors can view the city skyline and a bird’s eye view of Marina Bay. While a more urban and futuristic experience than the rest, visiting the Supertrees is a must-do when visiting the island nation!
Maldives - Dive off the Local Island Fulidhoo
Located just over an hour away from Male International Airport by speedboat, Fulidhoo is a local island in the Maldives that sits at the heart of channel diving territory. In peak diving season (November to April), travelers can view unique underwater wildlife and colorful reefs for miles. Highlights include reef sharks, tuna fish, groupers, nurse sharks, and various other species.
Opting for a local island grants visitors a more genuine experience that leaves a more positive impact – connecting with local culture and contributing to the local economy.
Laos - Pretend You’re a Gibbon Monkey and Sleep in the Tallest Treehouses in the World at The Gibbon Experience
Located in Northern Laos, the Gibbon Experience is one of the most unique tourism conservation projects in the world. Travelers can take a 2-3 day trekking tour, zip-line through forest canopies, sleeping in the world’s highest tree houses, and keep an eye out to spot the endangered gibbon monkey. Since the start of the Gibbon Experience, the awareness for conservation of the forest and animals within has heightened. Hundreds of forest people now participate in their conservation projects, saving the native biodiversity and sustaining the livelihoods of surrounding communities.
Whichever activity chosen from above, travelers can be ensured that they will be supporting environmental conservation, community development, cultural preservation, and/or keeping money within the local economy. This way, visitors can have a much more authentic and genuine experience that also contributes positively to the local community and destination.
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