Thriving sex tourism cost Costa Rica its place on “World’s Most Ethical Destinations” list


When travel magazines and sites come out with top ten “eco” lists they’re usually the top ten places who did a good job marketing themselves as green. Okay, maybe that’s too harsh. They are usually places that are actually doing things responsibly because no editor wants to get a stack of hate mail or a bunch of crapy online comments from the eco crowd for assisting a resort or destination in “greenwashing.” Ethical Traveler’s list of the most ethical travel destinations, however, is rooted in research, cross-referenced to various credible sources and includes not just the environmental performance of various countries, but also their social and political actions.

You know how I can tell these guys did their homework? Costa Rica isn’t on the list. You read correctly, Costa “the capital of eco-tourism” Rica ain’t on the list … mostly because of its booming underage sex trade. “In 2008, we strongly encouraged travelers to bring their commerce to Costa Rica – a country top rated by many important indicators,” the report’s authors write.

“Unfortunately, World Vision now considers Costa Rica among the world’s most notorious destinations for sexual predators, with an unusually large number of sex tourism venues in operation. According to Casa Alianza, more than 3,000 girls and young women work in San Jose’s 300 brothels. Now rivaling Thailand and the Philippines as the world’s leading sex tourism destination, Costa Rica is credited with having the region’s largest child prostitution problem and has thus been flagged by INTERPOL, as the country is fast becoming the hemispheric capital of sex tourism. It is for this reason that we were unable to recommend Costa Rica as an Ethical Destination.”

Another surprisingly absent destination? Bhutan, the country best known for its measurement of Gross National Happiness. Surely it must be the most ethical place in the world, no? Not so much. “Despite its sublime natural beauty and extraordinary commitment to preserving the environment, the highly nationalistic kingdom is still plagued by human rights issues,” the report reads. “These concerns include the fate of more than 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepalese descent, who were expelled from country in the early 1990s and still live in refugee camps along the Bhutan/West Bengal/Nepal border.”

As for those that did make the list, there are some surprises there, too, but all come with detailed explanations. At first I thought Argentina was #1 on the list two years in a row, but then I realized they were listed alphabetically. Either way, it still made me raise an eyebrow and think, “Argentina, don’t they have a lot of corruption problems?” Yes, indeed they do. But the country also has committed to a goal of net-zero deforestation and is the world leader in voluntary greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

And Ghana, a new addition to the list, has, according to Ethical Traveler, “an impressive commitment to genuine democracy, as well as a growing culture of sustainability, environmental consciousness and grassroots efforts towards responsibly improving Ghana for Ghanaians and tourists alike.”

I’ve got to be honest, ethics aren’t the first thing I think of when I’m planning a trip. That said, having discovered this list, I will probably consult it next time I’ve got my options narrowed down. And frankly, Bhutan and Costa Rica just slid a few slots on my “where to go next” list.

The complete list of top ten:

1. Argentina
2. Belize
3. Chile
4. Ghana
5. Lithuania
6. Namibia
7. Poland
8. Seychelles
9. South Africa
10. Suriname