The Happy Planet Index as Travel Guide

Ethical tourism is not just about travel choices made on the road or steering clear of the over-capacity beaten path. It’s also about choosing destinations based on where tourism is most needed and deserved. In the past, calls for boycotts have tried to discourage travelers from visiting certain places, with mixed results. Perhaps a more effective approach is positive reinforcement – rewarding destinations that are making progress and doing things well.

The Ethical Traveler’s 10 Best Destinations

Each year, the Ethical Traveler comes out with a list of The Developing World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations. The organization, which hopes to “empower travelers to change the world,” uses three main criteria. They consider environmental protection, social welfare, and human rights in developing countries, paying close attention to how they have recently changed and improved.

The lineup for 2011 is: Argentina, Barbados, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Latvia, Lithuania, Palau, Poland, Uruguay.

In this rating, countries make the list by demonstrating growth in all three areas. For example Costa Rica returned to the list after being omitted last year because it took real steps in addressing human trafficking issues. Meanwhile, Belize did not make the cut because of a growing problem with child sex tourism.

The Ethical Traveler does a great job thinking about tourism as economic clout that can influence policy and planning in a destination. But for longer-term travelers who live abroad for awhile, impact reaches far beyond spending money.

The Three Components of the Happy Planet Index

The Ethical Traveler’s list is a blend of three important variables – the environment, social welfare, and human rights. Over the past decade, another index has emerged with a similar idea. The Happy Planet Index (HPI) ranks countries based on life expectancy, life satisfaction, and per capita ecological footprint. The reasoning is to identify places that offer long, happy lives that don’t cost the earth.

The second ranking from the HPI was released in 2009, with troubling results. No place on earth is able to provide long, happy lives for its people while staying within environmental limits of “one-planet living*.” To achieve one-planet living, a country must keep its ecological footprint below the level that corresponds to its fair share given the world’s current biocapacity and population.

*”If everyone in the world lived like an average European, we would need three planets to live on. If everyone in the world lived like an average North American, we would need five planet to live on.” (One Planet Living)

The countries that come closest to long, happy lives with one-planet environmental impact are often middle-income countries. Latin America, for example, does particularly well on the HPI. The latest top-ranking countries on the HPI: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guatemala, Vietnam, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador and Brazil.

The Happy Planet Index data on a World Map (

What does the HPI mean for travel? Travelers love to speculate about how happy the people of a destination are. It’s an important aspect of place. Looking at the ‘life satisfaction’ variable alone, good data exists to inform the speculation. Combining this with life expectancy as an approximation of health, “happy life years” can be quantified.

The usual winners emerge: Scandinavia, Western Europe, and Anglo-Saxon countries of Australia, Canada, and the US. If health and happiness are the only concerns, then maybe there’s no need to leave home. What sets these countries behind on the HPI is their disproportionate ecological footprint per capita. The longest, happiest lives are often the ones that are costing the planet the most.

Lowering Environmental Impact by Living Somewhere Else

Longer-term travel is a rising trend. Students from all over are following Britain’s example of a ‘gap year’ before university. Study abroad and volunteer tourism are also gaining popularity. International travel is occurring to more and more people as a way to spend a chapter of life rather than just a way to take a short break from it.

For an environmentally-minded long-term travelers who like to park their backpacks and call a place home for awhile, some important questions arise. Can living in a place with lower per capita ecological footprint decrease individual footprint? Are health and happiness compromised in the process?

Of course, individual carbon footprint is always a function of personal choices. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are if you’re driving a hummer, flying frequently, and eating imported meat for every meal.

What is it like to live in a country whose per capita ecological footprint is within the “one-planet” limit? The HPI could be seen as an atlas for those who want to find out. If a traveler lives like an average local resident for awhile, then theoretically their individual footprint will be similar to the local population’s. At that level, can high standards of health and happiness still be maintained? The HPI offers good insight about where in the world it is most possible to find the best of both worlds.

If you’re thinking about volunteering, studying, working, or just living abroad for awhile, check out Ethical Traveler’s list and the Happy Planet Index. They overlap in some interesting areas. Parts of Latin America are making a lot of progress that deserves tourism attention, and the region also does well in the HPI. Three small island countries appear in the top ten of both.

Find a destination where you can reinforce progress. If you stay long enough, your destination may even influence your own ecological footprint, health, and happiness.