Best hikes in the Netherlands

Hiking in the Netherlands, say what?! The flattest country ever, below sea level, and the highest ‘mountain’ only being 322 meters high… Moreover, the country is super crowded and there seem to be buildings everywhere. But don’t be fooled, even though it may be nothing like our European counterparts, there are still amazing natural parks to be found to enjoy all-day hiking. During (another) lockdown year I decided to try a Dutch hike every month to see how much hiking can be done in the Netherlands. I walked a total of ten of them varying between 13 and 22 km and I have to say: I have been surprised. I have thus listed my top 5 best hikes (or hiking areas) in the Netherlands for you below. Oh, and the best part is, all of these hikes can be reached via public transportation!

1. De Kampina
Choosing number one for this list was not a hard task; hiking in De Kampina it is! Situated in the province of Noord-Brabant this area is truly a hidden gem in the Netherlands. Not that many people know about it, including me until last year, which makes De Kampina a wonderful place to explore without the ‘crowds’ that can de found in some of the other more famous areas in the Netherlands. The first hike I did this year was in De Kampina and it definitely set the bar for all the other hikes yet to come. The NS-wandeling I did, starts at the train station Boxtel and runs all the way to the train station in Oisterwijk. The first ten to fifteen minutes covers an industrial area, but after that, it is nature only. De Kampina is beautiful, diverse, quiet, and magical. I loved how every few kilometers I was surprised again by how the landscape kept on changing. From coniferous forest to heath landscapes, moorland, fen, and deciduous forest. I loved it so much that during the summer when the heath was all purple, I went back for a second time. This time to walk the two-day hike from Boxtel to Tilburg by Nivon. With the completely changed landscape, it was a treat all over again and I still want to come back for more.

2. De Veluwezoom & Posbank
I think this hike was recommended to me most often when I asked for hiking advice in the Netherlands. A 15-kilometer hike stretching from Dieren to Velp, crossing the most famous natural area of the Netherlands: De Veluwe. This is also the largest nature reserve in the Netherlands and it is not hard to tell why it is so popular. Endless stretches of forest, sandy dunes, and again fields full of heath. The area is also famous for spotting wildlife like deer and boar. This NS-hike from Dieren to Velp, starts with some challenging first kilometers as it goes uphill and down a few times through an old deciduous forest. After leaving the forest you suddenly find yourself at the Posbank – beautiful sandy hills covered with heath. The hike continues right through this area to then finish again in a quiet forest where we even managed to spot boar! There is hardly any concrete on this route so it really feels like you are in the middle of nature all the time. It can get busy, especially on weekends and holidays, but the route is worth it nonetheless.

3. Utrechtse Heuvelrug
This is another famous area for people to spend time in nature, especially for those living in the ‘Randstad’. I went here because it is a relatively short and easy travel from Rotterdam. My expectations were not really high as I thought the proximity was the main reason for most people to visit. This assumption turned out to be completely untrue and already during the hike I knew this one would make the top three of the best hikes. What I loved about it? Again the diversity of the landscape was something that made me really enthusiastic about this 15km NS-hike from Driebergen-Zeist to Maarn. A mixture of dense evergreen forest, ponds, vast expanses of sand with a tree here and there, and sheep roaming freely in it. I was here on a foggy Wednesday morning so it was really quiet, but on other days it can get pretty busy. Although this is mostly the first part of the hike, the part that goes through Langoed Heidestein is much quieter as I understood from someone I ran into during this hike. He was even surprised to see me out there as usually there are no other people at all!

4. Kennemerduinen
In the pre-covid era, I think this area was mostly known to people living in the surrounding towns and cities. By now, I feel like most people living in the Western part of the country have discovered the Kennemerduinen. The area is beautifully located at the seaside with dunes, small lakes and a bit of forest as well. Scottish Highlanders walk around freely, and if you are lucky you can spot some deer as well. The area is indeed stunning and surprising, but a little too busy for my taste with many people from the cities of Haarlem and Amsterdam visiting during the weekend. I did a self-designed loop hike based on the information board at the entrance of the area. It started close to train station Santpoort-Zuid and the hike was about 19km. If you do not want to do a loop or want something pre-designed, there is also the 16km NS-wandeling from Sandpoort-Noord to Zandvoort, which appears to be very nice.

5. Soesterduinen and Hoge/Lage Vuursche
In this area I did two hikes, first NS-wandeling from Amersfoort to Hollandsche Rading (22km) and second NS-wandeling from Baarn to Hollandsche Rading (13km). Both are nice and have relatively diverse landscapes, however, to my taste, they are a bit too organised. What I mean by that, is that you often cross highways or walk through built environments for example. This is because there are several smaller natural areas in this region but it’s not one continuous area. So compared to the hikes above this one feels less like you are right in the middle of nature away from everything else. Especially the first part of the second hike, passing Paleis Soestdijk was not really appealing to me for those reasons. However, later on in both hikes, there are beautiful areas that you walk through, such as the Soesterduinen or the Lage Vuursche. Both hikes end with the forest at HollandscheRading, which in my opinion is the best part of the hike.

Ps. small disclaimer: these hikes were made departing from my hometown in Rotterdam, so they are more or less centered around that city. In the case of the Kennemerduinen and Posbank I stayed overnight. I am of course aware that there are many more hikes that could and should make this list, but as I traveled with public transportation, some of them were just too far away for me to do in one day (especially during short winter days – and even more so because I’m not a morning person ;)). Just so you know.

More impressions? Check out my highlight ‘Hiking NL’ on Instagram for a detailed photo and video report of each hike!

Sustainable travel: flying, driving, or taking the train?

What is the most sustainable transportation option? The answer to this question seems obvious. We all know that travelling by airplane is the worst option and travelling by train the best option, right? It is however a bit more nuanced than that. To my own surprise, travelling by car in some cases produces more CO2 than travelling by airplane! And did you know that taking the ferry is even more sustainable than hopping on a train? In this blog post, I give clear insights into which travel option to choose for your next sustainable travel adventure.

Flying
Since the term ‘flight shame’ was introduced in 2018, originating in Sweden, more people started to become aware of their personal impact on the environment by flying to multiple destinations per year. As a result, people committed themselves to fly less or even declare a whole year flight free. Annually, the aviation industry produces around 2% of the global CO2 output. Looking at the CO2 production from flying per capita, especially in higher-income countries, the individual contribution can be quite high. For example, in most Western European Countries, the United States and Canada, the average person is responsible for a CO2 output between 500 and 800 kg per year.

However, to my surprise, a little investigation showed that flying is not always the worst option when it comes to CO2 output. In some cases travelling by car produces more CO2 for the same destination. For example, if I were to travel by myself from Amsterdam, the Netherlands to Valencia, Spain, travelling via air would produce 311 kg of CO2 per person. Travelling by car on the other hand would lead to a CO2 output of 410 kg of C02 per person. While it is not very likely that you will drive almost 2000 km by yourself,  for destinations that are relatively close,  the impact of flying and driving is almost equal. For example, if we look at destinations that are around 500 km away, which is only a 5-hour drive (for example Amsterdam – Paris), it shows the CO2 impact of flying and car hardly differ with around 120-130kg of CO2. This shows that air travel is not the only ‘bad guy’ and that we should be careful to assume that travelling by car is always the more sustainable option.

Driving by car
Despite car travel not always being the most sustainable option, in most cases it does lead to the least C02 production per person. In the first place because by choosing car travel as your mode of transportation, you automatically opt for destinations that are closer to home. You most likely won’t travel to the other side of the world by car, so if you are choosing between destinations based on what is possible by car, you will automatically end up with the more sustainable option. If you have already picked your destination and are deciding between car or air travel, when travelling by yourself, it might not be the most sustainable option to choose for the car. However, all of this changes quickly when you add more passengers (and more fun!) to the trip. Travelling with a party of two or more per car always leads to a lower carbon footprint per person. With only two people the difference is not that big, especially not for destinations that are between 1500 – 2000 km away but starting from three people per car you really make a difference! Short on travel pals? Take a look at initiatives such as BlaBlaCar and see if you can add some travellers to your trip. By doing so, you reduce that carbon footprint of your trip even more while receiving some money for petrol while you are at it.

The absolute winners: bus, train and… ferry!
Probably you already know this: taking the bus or train is the most sustainable option no matter where you are travelling (given that not every destination can be travelled to by train of course). But did you already know that taking the ferry is an even more sustainable option when available? (Not to be confused with a cruise which is the worst polluter of all!). By choosing either of these transportation options you will reduce your carbon footprint with up to 90% (!) per trip. Unsure about which option is best for your trip? Have a look at EcoPassenger (for EU destinations) for a personalised calculation. Of course, the availability of these transportation options is highly dependent on your geographic location. Trains are generally more common at European destinations but buses can be found almost anywhere. It sometimes takes longer than flying, but not always – especially if you also calculate waiting time and transportation to and from the airport. It sometimes costs more, but there are times when taking the train or bus is actually cheaper. So why not explore your options and take some responsibility for your impact on the environment?

To some it up, as a rule of thumb: choose destinations that you can travel to by bus, train or ferry. If these options are not available to you, choose to travel by car, preferably with two or more people to destinations that are between 500 and 1500 km. If you decide to travel to a destination that cannot be reached via ground travel, avoid layovers (each one adds approximately 100kg of CO2), fly economy class and, consider offsetting your carbon footprint.

CO2 output per km per travel mode. Sources can be found here and here, via EcoReizen

Be a responsible traveller and do not visit… Amsterdam

In an era of overtourism, many destinations are suffering from selfie-taking crowds waiting in line for that one insta-worthy shot. Even though these destinations cannot bear any more visitors, the posts on social media keep on drawing more crowds. At the same time, there are many places on earth that remain relatively unvisited but are equally (or even more) beautiful. Pre-covid times, Amsterdam used to be full of tourists. So full that most residents would actually advise you to visit other places in the Netherlands. Dutch people may have discovered the hidden gems of the country, but international travellers certainly have a lot left to explore. A year of travelling in my own country made me discover all the amazing places in the Netherlands. Once international travel is possible again: be a responsible traveller and do NOT visit Amsterdam. Read here where to go instead!

Zeeland
Crowded in summer, however, Zeeland remains beautifully unspoiled and is way less visited during other times of the year. Even though the Germans (Dutch people will know) come mostly for the beaches, which are indeed stunning, Zeeland is so much more than that. This province, for example, is home to my favorite area for ‘hiking’ in the Netherlands: Boswachterij Westenschouwen. There is a forest, dunes, beach, ponds, and with some luck, you can even spot deer!

Boswachterij Westenschouwen

The capital of Zeeland, Middelburg is enchanting both in summer and winter. Almost this whole city can be considered historic city centre with traditional houses, narrow streets, canals, and bridges. Middelburg is the perfect destination for a lovely afternoon stroll without the crowds of Amsterdam.

What has been the biggest discovery for me in 2020, is that there are Flamingos in the Netherlands during winter! Apparently, food conditions are better here than in Germany (never knew there were flamingos in Germany either), so they hibernate in the Netherlands. Technically not in Zeeland, but only one ‘island’ above (Goeree-Overflakkee) so you can make an easy day-trip. Bring your binoculars though because otherwise, all you will see are pinkish dots in the distance…

Flamingos at Goeree-Overflakkee

Nijmegen
This is probably my favorite city in the Netherlands (I might be a bit biased though because I used to live here during my master’s program). With a history of almost 2000 years, Nijmegen claims to be the oldest city in the Netherlands. It’s also one of the few cities with hills in and surrounding the city in this otherwise flat country – need I say more?! What I love about Nijmegen is that it is compact and cozy and there are many local shops, cafés, and restaurants. My personal favorites: Philipse Koffie en Brocante for coffee and lunch, brewery and beer cafe/garden De Hemel, Afghan restaurant Hafiza and all-day-everyday cafe De Blonde Pater.

What I love even more about Nijmegen is that only a short bike ride brings you to all kinds of landscapes, ranging from grasslands, hills, forests, and the river Waal. Don’t forget to check out the Ooijpolder, Millingerwaard to spot some semi-wild Konik horses and the area around Berg and Dal for hills and forest.

Millingerwaard

Friesland
Craving some typical Dutch landscapes? Friesland is your place to be. In this province, you’ll find meadows, cows, flatness, windmills, water, the whole shebang. In my opinion, it does not get any Dutcher than this. As most rural areas, Friesland is dealing with considerable issues such as a mostly older population, braindrain, ecological issues, and therefore a relatively week image. They want to improve this by developing tourism, mostly in the northeastern part of the province and showcase the history, cultural heritage, and water of the area. Because few people visit this part of the province, responsible tourism is more than welcome.

Sunrise in Frisian landscape

Highly recommended is staying at natural and small-scale campsite It Dreamlân, run by a local family with amazing views on the surrounding fields all day long. Worth a visit are some of the small villages or the charming capital Leeuwarden. The best thing to do in Friesland however is enjoying its water. Albeit sailing, canoeing, or my personal favorite: wadlopen. As Friesland borders the Wadden Sea, you can make wonderful excursions walking the sea when the water is low, varying in length and intensity. Don’t forget to bring your old trainers as you might have to wade through gullies filled with water and mud!

Campsite It Dreamlân


Limburg
Limburg is the most southern province of the Netherlands and is mostly famed for its hills which are much loved by Dutch cyclists. This province is also home to the highest point in the Netherlands, we call it a mountain (Vaalserberg) but it is actually only 322,5 meters high. No less than three national parks can be found in Limburg as well as many other green areas spread out over the province.

The whole province is known for its Burgundian atmosphere which means loads of good food and wine. Especially Maastricht is a winner in this department if you ask me, with a lot of variety in the types of food (and also great options for vegetarians/vegans!). There has been some feud with Nijmegen about the title ‘Oldest city of the Netherlands’. Maastricht lost the battle, but fact remains that this is an old city as well, full of its own character. Go for a walk through the historic city centre or take a stroll along the Maas river. Two unexpected places that I love in Maastricht are Lage Fronten – old fortifications where nature has taken over and awesome views on the city are guaranteed – and the Dominicanen church which houses the most amazing bookstore these days.

A year of travelling in the Netherlands has made me discover some lovely places in my own country and confirmed what I already knew: there are so many places worth visiting beyond Amsterdam with destinations that are actually happy with some more tourists. There is certainly more to discover, yet this is my list for now. So, for those of you not residing in the Netherlands, next time you visit my country: be a responsible traveller and do not visit Amsterdam but do enjoy everything else the Netherlands has to offer! Have you been to one of those places? Or are you missing one of your favorites in this list? Let me know in the comments below!

Be a responsible traveller and visit… rural Spain

visit rural Spain

In an era of overtourism, many destinations are suffering from selfie-taking crowds waiting in line for that one insta-worthy shot. Even though these destinations cannot bear any more visitors, the posts on social media keep on drawing more crowds. At the same time, there are many places on earth that remain relatively unvisited but are equally (or even more) beautiful. An example of this is rural Spain, where many inhabitants have left in search of better economic and job opportunities. If you want to be a responsible traveller and discover something new, instead of visiting the best known-destinations, this time visit… rural Spain. Read here why!

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The real stories behind the best neighbourhoods of Valencia

El Carme Valencia

A quick Google search into the best neighbourhoods of Valencia will soon lead you to the most popular areas of the city: Russafa, El Carme and El Cabanyal. Not coincidentally, these are also the neighbourhoods that struggle the most with gentrification processes ánd are home to most Airbnb apartments in the whole city. These neighbourhoods are described as hip and trendy but what is the real story behind them?

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Why it is a privilege to pledge for ‘Flight Free 2020’

travel privilege

After many articles about flight shame, the flight free movement has gained momentum in 2020, especially in the Netherlands with around 23.000 people pledging to not fly this year. And I’m all for it. Air travel is one of the biggest polluters of the travel industry and I support the idea of reducing it 100%. But at the same time, we need to realize that being able to pledge for a flight free 2020 is partially because we are in a privileged enough position to do so, here’s why…

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Be a responsible traveller and visit… Swedish Lapland

ecotourism swedish lapland

In an era of overtourism, many destinations are suffering from selfie-taking crowds waiting in line for that one insta-worthy shot. Even though these destinations cannot bear any more visitors, the posts on social media keep on drawing more crowds. At the same time, there are many places on earth that remain relatively unvisited and are desperately seeking to develop tourism (in a sustainable way) as part of their economic model. One of them is Swedish Lapland, a rather sparsely populated area with little job opportunities. If you want to be a responsible traveller and discover something new, instead of visiting the best known-destinations, this time visit… Swedish Lapland. Read here why!

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Offsetting your carbon footprint, what’s the deal?

Offsetting carbon footprint

Many conscious travellers are currently turning towards offsetting their carbon footprint while travelling by airplane. But can you truly compensate for your flight or is it just a way to offset your guilt? The answer is not as easy as it may seem. There are many different ways to offset your carbon footprint and some are definitely better than others. Find out more below.

Offsetting schemes of airline companies
It turns out that the offsetting schemes of airline companies are actually far from the best option. Even though it is easy to book, this hardly compensates for the true impact of your flight. It has been revealed that those prices for ‘offsetting’ are based on the consumer’s willingness to pay for it and have nothing to do with actual compensation. This also explains why offsetting via the airline company can be as cheap as 11 euros for a flight from Amsterdam to Bangkok. We think we did a good job, the airline makes some extra money (we do not really know what happens with the money) and nothing changes really. 

Calculate the impact yourself
So how can we then offset the impact of our flight? The Social Reporter explains that the best way to offset your carbon footprint is to calculate the impact per trip yourself and then donate to a project that compensates an equivalent of that. There are several good places to calculate the impact, for example via Ecopassenger.org for European destinations. By inserting the place you are travelling from and to, Eco Passenger calculates the carbon footprints for travelling by train, car, and airplane. Another good option is Klimaatwijs op Reis, from Milieucentraal.nl, a Dutch website that calculates the whole impact of your trip, including accommodation and activities. It takes a bit longer to answer all the questions but in addition to showing the carbon footprint, it also gives you advise on how to make the trip more sustainable. An example of a very basic calculator that covers all destinations worldwide is Carbonfootprint.com. Entering the same flight from Amsterdam to Bangkok shows that this equals 2.54 tons of CO2*.

*Calculations on the amount of CO2 differ amongst websites as it largely depends on the type of aircraft, airline company, fuel efficiency, etc.

Good compensation projects
The only question that remains now, is where and how to compensate for your flights. Online you can find many different projects that claim to offset your footprint, but again, some options are better than others. As a rule of thumb, you can look at the type of certification the projects have. There are a few of those and I learned that in general verification tends to be higher in Europe based institutes, hence I can recommend Plan Vivo. This organisation invests in projects in Africa, Asia, and South America to reduce carbon emissions. Other projects where you can directly buy trees (1 tree takes up 7kg of CO2 per year) that are planted on your behalf are for example Trees For All and Forests Without Frontiers. If you are looking for an easy way to offset without any calculations, Atmosfair is a reliable place to go to. Entering the flight from Amsterdam to Bangkok now shows that it costs 143 euros to compensate. According to Forest without Frontiers, we would need to plant 36 trees to compensate for this trip, which equals around 84 euros. Compared to the eleven euros of the airline company, this is then turning out to be the true and fair price of compensating for your flight.

Can we really fly sustainably?
The first argument against offsetting is that it is always in the future and the actual impact of the flight is not negated. Trees need time to grow, projects need to be developed and implemented and so it takes a while before your flight is compensated for. Moreover, we cannot ever plant as many trees as would be needed to compensate for all flights.  
Looking at other types of compensation projects, technically we are moving compensation to other countries rather than changing our own behaviour.  This is what feels a bit strange to me when investing in projects that try to reduce carbon emissions in developing countries. Because we want to keep on flying, the people over there need to start using different types of stoves (for example), even though they probably produce less carbon emissions altogether already. 

The third and final argument is that compensating your footprint is not enough because all of these things need to be done if we want to combat climate change. We need to plant those trees, we should develop those projects ánd we need to fly less. Compensating seems to be only a short-term solution for something that has long-term impacts. But then again, doing something is better than nothing.  I understand that it is not likely that we will all stop flying completely soon. And neither will I. What we can do, however, is to try and fly less. And when we do fly, choose for a certified offsetting program that actually does compensate your carbon footprint in an honest and transparent way. In the meantime, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for advanced technology solutions that will enable us to travel sustainable no matter the distance or our choice of transportation.

How to responsibly book an Airbnb rental

Why should you have to consider being responsible when booking an Airbnb? Isn’t this the company that supports local families by letting them rent out rooms, and spread tourism to hidden corners of a city? Well, that is the myth Airbnb has been busting for years now. In reality, however, most Airbnb listings do not belong to local families, are located in the most popular and gentrifying neighbourhoods, and take off houses of the market for actual residents. It is still possible though to stay in an Airbnb and be a responsible traveller. In this article, I will tell you how you can find those Airbnb’s that are actually local (and therefore responsible) and usually more fun as well. 

What are the issues with Airbnb?
If there is one thing I learned from my research, is that Airbnb is not only the picture-perfect that they portray. Yes, Airbnb apartments are often cheaper and easy to book through the platform but there are also some issues that come along with it. The issues mostly lay with the Airbnb apartments that are being operated commercially. Airbnb advocates that their platform helps local families make some extra money, but actually the majority of houses on Airbnb are not based on the home-sharing principle. This is a problem because those apartments often do not have the right permits to become vacation apartments. With the set-up of Airbnb, many apartments are now operating illegally as a tourist flat. Because it is much more profitable to rent out an apartment to tourists than to regular tenants who stay for a longer period of time, many investors have started buying up houses to rent them out on Airbnb, making big money out of it. This takes houses off the market for people who are looking for housing and drives up rental prices making cities and towns more unaffordable for those who live there.

The fun of actual home sharing
Investors are most likely out there to make easy money. Finding a fun a nice looking Airbnb apartment is therefore not very likely with those players involved. Apartments will meet basic requirements but little extra efforts will be made to make the place look cozy. What is more is that it will not even be close to the promised home-sharing experience of Airbnb, since nobody ever lives there. But home-sharing can be so much fun. For example, In July I stayed in a house in Venice that belongs to an elderly woman. In the spare room of her house she’d been welcoming guests during the summer for three years now. This way she is making some extra income and meeting people from around the world while I felt as if I was visiting my Italian grandmother.

When is Airbnb based on actual home-sharing?
There are actually many more of these Airbnb’s, but the question is how to figure out if they are based on actual home-sharing. The local aspect of an Airbnb plays a big role in home-sharing. Actual home-sharing can be done by either renting out a private room while the owner is there or, if you prefer a bit more privacy, by renting out an entire home when the owner is away (on vacation for example). By using Airbnb this way your stay will be a lot more personal and you also know that you are not contributing to the issues related to many other Airbnb apartments. But how do you know which apartment is based on actual home-sharing and which is just another impersonal (and possibly illegal) tourist apartment?

Tips for choosing local and fun Airbnb’s
When it comes to choosing an Airbnb responsibly, there are numerous things that you can pay attention to, from simply taking a look at the pictures to investigating the host. Here are some tips to make your search a little easier:
1. Scroll through the pictures-  does the place look somewhat like what you would expect from a personal apartment? Are there any personal items like books and pictures? Are there plants (that need to be kept alive)? Is there a proper kitchen? Most people like to have a somewhat homy feel to their apartment so if these things are not present, chances are that nobody lives in the place.
2. Scan the reviews – 
did other people describe being in touch with the host like getting local recommendations or being served breakfast? If this is the case people will usually write something about that. How is check-in arranged? If you need to use a lock-box instead of being welcomed by an actual person, it is quite probable that your stay will be less personal.
3. Have a look at the type of advertisement – is the apartment listed as ‘instant book’? Personally, I would like to know who’s coming and when before accepting so this is probably another indicator that you will not stay in a local Airbnb. Another thing to take into account is the number of listings a host has. You can see this by clicking on the host’s profile. If there are multiple (and all look similar) you know you are most likely dealing with a commercial operator.

Add to the experience yourself – keep it personal
Hopefully, these tips will help you find cool and local home-sharing options when booking an Airbnb from now on as well. Keep in mind though, if you want a personal experience, make sure to contribute to this yourself as well. When you book, do not treat the owner as if it were a hotel service but write a personal message and respect the owner and the rules. Is home-sharing not for you? Sure, but then make sure to book your apartment through a website that offers legal tourist apartments so your preferences do not disrupt the lives of people living in cities and other destinations too much. No matter our choices and preferences, this way we can all be responsible travellers!

The impact of community-based tourism in Kyrgyzstan

CBT Kyrgyzstan

Almost three years have passed since I first heard about Kyrgyzstan and spent six weeks on promoting the country as a tourist destination. Ever since then, I have been in conflict about this. Because this country is beautiful and unspoiled, but what happens if we start promoting it? Can it then remain unspoiled? And would more tourists do any good to the local people? Basically,  I was and still am wondering, how can tourism develop sustainably and can you contribute to that as a traveller?

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