From programmes supporting female entrepreneurs in Colombia to impressive conservation efforts of Costa Rica’s exotic birds, these are the Central and South American destinations inspiring us with their positive impact initiatives...

Spider monkey in Belize's rainforests (Alamy)

Spider monkey in Belize's rainforests (Alamy)

More than 10,000 women have been supported by the Tu Mujer programme (Shutterstock)

More than 10,000 women have been supported by the Tu Mujer programme (Shutterstock)

Napo River in Ecuador (Alamy)

Napo River in Ecuador (Alamy)

Scarlet macaws in Costa Rica (Alamy)

Scarlet macaws in Costa Rica (Alamy)

Brazil's Amazon (Alamy)

Brazil's Amazon (Alamy)

Panama is home to jaguars (Sebastian Kennerknecht/Minden/naturepl.com)

Panama is home to jaguars (Sebastian Kennerknecht/Minden/naturepl.com)

Belize

Forest covers perhaps 60% of Belize’s land area, so nature tourism represents an important way to help safeguard the future of its ecosystems. And conservation work is already being undertaken on a large scale – such as efforts to secure the Maya Forest Corridor. This is a swathe of jungle in central Belize that, when acquired, would link the biodiverse Maya Mountains with the vast Maya Forest straddling the borders with Mexico and Guatemala – creating the largest stretch of contiguous forest in Central America.

Also important are smaller projects such as the NGO-run ecolodge La Milpa in the north-west, which channels profits into combatting illegal logging in the area. Another encouraging trend is the growth of community-based tourism, which is helping to spread the impacts of visitors as well as bringing tourism income to communities who previously received little. Examples include the Garifuna Cultural Trail, introducing that community around Dangriga and Hopkins, and the Living Maya Experience, through which guests can experience life in Big Falls village, discovering the traditions of an ancient culture at risk of disappearing.

Colombia

In a country where women’s involvement in the economy is still largely limited, the Tú Mujer (You Woman) programme is challenging traditional gender roles by lending support to female entrepreneurs in tourism.

This support is both unique and essential. Since it launched in 2022, the initiative has provided training and resources to more than 10,000 women. Education, career advancement and family planning for women and girls are important tools in the fight against climate change, so this provides not only social benefits to Colombian families but also environmental benefits for the world. This strategic approach from the Colombian government demonstrates a refreshing commitment to promoting female leadership and creating new economic opportunities in communities.

Ecuador

Understandably, the wildlife wonderland of the Galápagos represents the most alluring destination for most tourists visiting Ecuador, and the mainland remains under-appreciated. Now a renewed focus on community tourism aims to open up a range of experiences across the country, many involving its 14 Indigenous peoples. Already, more than 400 communities are represented by the Multinational Federation of Community Tourism in Ecuador, providing not only a source of income but also the chance to tell their own stories. Sinchi Warmi, for example, was established by female Kichwa artisans who’d been denied work opportunities. After ten years’ dedicated effort, they opened a lodge and community tourism centre at Misahuallí on the Napo River in the Amazon, offering stays, volunteer opportunities and workshops.

Costa Rica

This recognised leader in sustainability and ecotourism makes its second appearance on our Green List this year. Home to over 5% of the world’s biodiversity, it continues to push new ways of protecting these species.

In 2023, researchers counted 2,121 scarlet macaws in La Cangreja National Park – a promising rise from 978 in 2020. Though this spectacular bird is not endangered, conservation authorities say that efforts to help the macaw indirectly protect numerous other species sharing the same habitat.

Over the next three years, Costa Rica will invest $4.5 million (around £3.6 million) in improving infrastructure and tourism facilities at seven of the most visited national parks – including new trails, conservation initiatives, improved visitor centres and the promotion of sustainable tourism practices.

In late 2023, the maximum stay for visitors on the tourist visa waiver scheme doubled to 180 days – boosting Costa Rica's appeal to digital nomads, retirees and those looking to experience truly slow travel.

Brazil

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon decreased by 22% in the year ending July 2023 – a big drop from the previous 12-month period. It's a relatively small win in a big battle – but one in which tourism is starting to play a significant role, particularly through community tourism. In offering alternative sources of income to Indigenous communities and to people who otherwise engage in habitat-damaging activities in an effort to survive, this model offers a way to empower locals and engage visitors in the struggle. Pousada do Garrido, a community enterprise lodge on the banks of the Rio Negro, was cited at last year’s World Economic Forum as a shining example of the impacts of small-scale projects, creating 18 jobs in an area where the logging industry is a major employer. Another paragon is tour operator Vivalá, which offers stays and visits to communities such as a Kariri-Xocó village on the edge of the Atlantic Forest and a Shanenawa community deep in the Amazon. Such tours help preserve ancient traditions and knowledge that has long helped protect these forests.

Panama

Often overshadowed by its much-lauded neighbour to the west, Costa Rica, Panama has been making quiet strides in sustainable tourism. A big boost came with the launch a couple of years back of the SOSTUR network, connecting travellers with rural and community-based tourism experiences often in remote, little-visited corners of the country. These channel money into small and Indigenous communities, as well as focusing attention on conservation efforts.

In mountainous Chiriquí Province, for example, the Jurutungo community offers opportunities to join a local environmental organisation on guided hikes and tours of UNESCO-listed La Amistad International Park – a trans-boundary tropical forest that's home to jaguars, tapirs and 600-plus bird species. Or visit Mata Oscura in Veraguas province to assist a turtle-release project and participate in local workshops, cookery classes and day-to-day life in the village.