Where will you head when the wild calls? We want to go where the best outdoors escapes and adventures offer phenomenal access to well-preserved wilderness areas and parks. We recognise, though, that wilderness integrity depends in large part on the level of responsibility and commitment of local tourism personnel. Given that, where should we look for tour operators eager to join forces to make a positive impact on their surroundings through community development and environmental conservation projects?
For inspiration, we turned to the Adventure Tourism Development Index (ATDI), a ranking system designed to spotlight and encourage adventure travel markets that are sensitive to the needs of communities and the environment. The admirable result of the combined efforts of our friends at the Adventure Travel Trade Association and Xola Consulting, as well as The George Washington University’s International Institute of Tourism Studies, the ATDI emphasises what most mainstream ranking systems overlook; it awards high marks for community and environmental development as much as hard infrastructure, all in keeping with 10 pillars of adventure tourism market competitiveness based on principles of sustainable adventure tourism.
Given the WHL Group’s commitment to working in off-the-beaten-path destinations, we were most interested in the 10 developing countries ranked highest for adventure travel competitiveness. The ATDI recommendations may surprise you, but we believe you should keep the winners on your radar.
#10 – Lithuania
Numerous conservation areas and abundant hiking trails make Lithuania an excellent choice for nature lovers. One particularly unique site is the Curonian Spit, a long thin peninsula stretching south from Klaipeda in western Lithuania to Russia and separating the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Curonian Spit is renowned for its white-sand beaches, picturesque dunes and secluded pine forests. Near the Russian border, the quaint settlement of Nida has attracted artists and creative types for centuries. With onshore and offshore sports opportunities made possible by The Beautiful Land of Nevermind, the whl.travel local connection, the area makes a great retreat from hectic city life.
#9 – Botswana
The vast sands of the Kalahari cover roughly 85 percent of Botswana, and the country’s wildlife reserves are some of the world’s premier safari destinations. To the north, at the Okavango Delta, the Moremi Game Reserve is best toured during dry season, with game watching at its peak from July through October. Nearby Chobe National Park has superb birding in the Savuti Marsh. In the east, the Tuli Game Reserve promises abundant wildlife, plus ruins of ancient Rhodesian settlements. Cube Safaris, a local tourism service based in Botswana, offers a range of tours to wilderness areas, including mokoro boat rides through the flood plains of the Okavango, elephant-back safaris and more.
#8 – Latvia
Dynamic Latvia is rich in natural wonders, with forests covering more than 40 percent of the country. Just north of the capital, Riga, hikers can explore the caves, rivers and dense woodlands within Gauja National Park. Elsewhere, the sprawling Kemeri National Park contains 427 square kilometres of preserved forests, bogs and lakes, in addition to a well-maintained network of nature trails. The whl.travel local connection in Riga, Blueberry Travel, offers guided excursions to historic towns and medieval castles and other longer trips exploring the scenic beauty of the countryside, the local culture and many other extraordinary architectural gems and palaces.
#7 – Bulgaria
Beyond the stunning landmarks and red army monuments of Sofia, the wide open terrain of mountainous Bulgaria will give even the most avid hikers a serious run for their money. In the heart of the country, Central Balkan National Park has excellent hiking trails and native residents that include bears, wild goats, wolves and over 200 species of birds. The popular ski area of Bankso makes a great base for outdoor pursuits in summer as well for hiking, cycling, horseback riding and even fishing in Pirin National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At night, head out to the local mehanas (traditional taverns) for live folk music and good local wine.
#6 – Chile
Chile has long been regarded as a must-see destination for adventure travellers. It’s no wonder why. From pristine Patagonia to the unearthly Valley of the Moon and harsh environment of the Atacama, this 4,300-kilometre-long country covers an extraordinary variety of climates and ecosystems. Torres del Paine is a solid choice for hikers and trekkers, while Pucón in the scenic Lakes District has both great winter skiing on Volcán Villarrica and an endless range of warm-weather activities like hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing and white-water rafting. Meanwhile, Chiloé Island is renowned for its birding, paddling and wildlife like Magellanic penguins, Chilote fox and rare pudú miniature deer.
#5 – Slovenia
From lush vineyards to remote forests and alpine peaks, the landscape of Slovenia is tailor-made for nature lovers and outdoor entusiasts of all abilities. For a serious trek, the 30-day Slovenian Mountain Trail is the oldest traverse in the country, crossing directly over the Julian Alps and ascending Triglav, Slovenia’s highest peak (2,864 metres). You can also catch a glimpse of the traditional herdsman’s life on a two-day countryside trek to the Alpine dairy settlement of Velika Planina or tour the Pokljuka plateau. After a long hike, unwind while sampling local vintages on a wine-tasting tour in cosmopolitan Ljubljana.
#4 – Estonia
It’s easy to escape the crowds in Estonia, with just 1.3 million people one of the least populous countries in the European Union. Natural wetlands cover more than one fifth of the country – and the parks are prime territory for canoeing, kayaking and bog-shoeing. For glorious outdoor indulgence, head to Soomaa National Park – its name translates literally to “land of the bogs.” From a base nearby, on the banks of the River Navesti, at Ritsu Talu Farm (cosy camping huts, saunas and rental canoes), explore the park on your own or venture off on a nighttime beaver safari for close encounters with the area’s infamous flat-tailed inhabitants.
#3 – Czech Republic
The culture-filled capital of Prague is reason alone to travel to the Czech Republic, but we strongly suggest veering off into the wilds of Bohemia’s natural forests, historic villages and scenic national parks. From the medieval town of Český Krumlov opportunities abound for kayaking along the Vltava – the upper reaches of the river near the Lipno Dam are best suited to white-water rafting. For heart-pounding downhill winter action, head to the snowcapped peaks of Rokytnice nad Jizerou, an ancient mining town in the western part of the Krkonoše – also known as the “Giant Mountains.” In summer, gorgeous waterfalls, caves, and forests make the area heaven for hikers.
#2 – Israel
Despite its small size, Israel boasts a spectacularly varied landscape that includes arid desert, towering cliffs and stunning coastline – terrain perfect for all sorts of outdoor pursuits. Underwater enthusiasts should head straight to Eilat on the Red Sea, where dives feature shallow coral gardens, wrecks and abundant fish life. By the Dead Sea, the 2,500-hectare Ein Gedi Nature Reserve has posted hiking trails and animals like ibex, hyrax and Egyptian vultures. Further north, Metzoke Dragot makes a great base for rock climbing, hiking and mountain biking. The village has guides for desert excursions – canyon hikes, abseiling courses, camel rides and more – just one hour’s drive east of Jerusalem.
#1 – Slovak Republic
Long viewed as a junior partner to the Czech Republic, Slovakia has emerged as a leading destination for adventure travellers, complete with plenty of well-marked mountain trails, challenging cycling routes, and numerous glacial lakes and rivers well suited to canoeing, rafting and fishing. Although prices have gone up slightly since the euro was adopted, the Tatras Mountains along the border with Poland still boast plenty of affordable hotels and quaint mountain huts. One popular trek is the Tatranska Magistrala, a red-blazed trail crossing the Tatras from east to west between Velke Biele pleso to the town of Podbanske. The hike takes about 16 hours, although trailside huts are available for multi-day undertakings.