Eco-Travel, Responsible Travel, Sustainable Travel… making sense of all the lingo

Excerpts from Untamed Path, Eco-Travel, Eco-Lodges and just generally being “Eco” have become popular tourism sales pitches.  What is true ecotourism? What defines an ecolodge or an ecological company?  How is the surrounding community involved?  And finally, is ecotourism such a great thing anyways?


The goal of this page is neither to sell nor devalue ecotourism but rather to explore it as a concept and to help create informed travelers who ask lots of questions before, during and after their trip.

Well informed travelers choose their guides, travel companies and lodges from a position of knowledge. This purchasing power can be the driving force behind positive or negative impacts on the places you visit. 

There are almost as many terms to describe types of travel as there are travel companies.  A couple of buzzwords that you often hear these days are “Eco-Tourism” and “Adventure Travel” .  To further confuse the issue there is also “Sustainable Tourism”, “Responsible Tourism”, “Nature-Based Travel”, “Green Travel”, “Multi-Sport Adventures” and “Cultural Tourism”.  The following are definitions based on common usage.

Perhaps the most over-used and mis-used word in the travel industry. But what does it mean?  The Ecotourism Society defines it as “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people”.  A walk through the rainforest is not eco-tourism unless that particular walk somehow benefits that environment and the people who live there.  A rafting trip is only eco-tourism if it raises awareness and funds to help protect the watershed.  A loose interpretation of this definition allows many companies to promote themselves as something that they are not.  If true eco-tourism is important to you, ask plenty of questions to determine if your trip will help “conserve and improve” the places you visit.

Adventure Travel:
Another term which is heavily used by marketing departments.  While travel to another country is often adventurous it is not necessarily “Adventure Travel”.  Most dictionaries define adventure similarly: “an unusual experience including some level of risk and uncertainty”.  “Adventure Travel” includes this idea of risk and oftentimes some unconventional means of transport.  A dugout canoe journey deep into the Amazon basin with it’s attendant difficulties meets this definition.  While a city tour of Paris might have some level of uncertainty it is not by definition “Adventure Travel”.  If you love true adventure you probably already know this and can see through the hype to find the real thing for yourself.

There is sometimes a distinction made between “Soft” and  “Hard” adventures.  Soft adventures have a lower level of risk, greater comfort in accommodations and are less physically rigorous.  Hard adventures often have very basic facilities, higher risk factor and greater physical challenge (ie: mountain climbing, backpacking or river expeditions).

Sustainable Tourism:
Any form of tourism that does not reduce the availability of resources and does not inhibit future travelers from enjoying the same experience.  If the presence of large numbers of tourists disturbs an animal’s mating patterns so that there are fewer of that species in the future then that visit was not sustainable.  Kayaking shool on a free flowing river is an example of sustainable tourism.  Big game hunting in Alaska is not.

Responsible Tourism:
Tourism which operates in such a way as to minimize negative impacts on the environment.  A wilderness camping trip using “Leave No Trace” ethics would be considered responsible tourism while dune buggy tours would not.

Nature-Based Tourism:
A more generic term for any activity or travel experience with a focus on nature.  Large jungle lodges fall into this category as do cruise ships to view penguins in Antarctica.  These types of trips may or may not be environmentally sustainable or responsible. 

Green Tourism:
Often used inter-changeably with eco-tourism and sustainable tourism  but more accurately described as “any activity or facility operating in an environmentally friendly fashion”.  A lodge with composting toilets, gray water system, and solar powered lighting is probably “green”.   There are varying degrees of “greenness”; an awareness of where resources are coming from and where wastes are going is at the heart of the idea.

These trips have a focus on physical outdoor activities.  Rafting, mountain biking, climbing, surfing, diving, etc. all offered in the same package.  Not necessarily sustainable or eco but might be since many companies want to protect the areas where these activities take place.

Cultural Tourism:
Interacting with and observing unique cultures is the focus of this style of trip.  The concept of learning from other cultures to broaden ones perspective is usually a core value.  An artisan showing you how to weave a tapestry and learning from them about their traditional dress would be a form of cultural tourism.  Buying crafts in the market with no more interaction than the exchange of money does not provide the insight into another culture that is the central theme of cultural tourism.

Clearly all of these definitions are debatable. What one person or company calls “eco” another calls “sustainable” and so on. The main distinction between these terms is the motives and ethics behind them. Is the environment being cared for?  Is there genuine effort to help the local economies?  Are resources being left intact for future generations?  Is the local culture being honored and valued and not just photographed?  These questions will cut through the semantics and allow you to see what is really being offered.

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2 Responses to Eco-Travel, Responsible Travel, Sustainable Travel… making sense of all the lingo

  1. Emilie Hagedoorn says:

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    As a student studying for a MSc in Responsible Tourism Management at the ICRT at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK, I was disappointed to read what you consider to be Responsible Tourism. I would like to provide you with one provided by my professor Harold Goodwin on his blog (

    Responsible Tourism is about “making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit.”

    Responsible Tourism requires that operators, hoteliers, governments, local people and tourists take responsibility, take action to make tourism more sustainable. The Cape Town Declaration (2002) recognises that Responsible Tourism takes a variety of forms, it is characterised by travel and tourism which:

    “- minimises negative environmental, social and cultural impacts;

    – generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well being of host communities, by improving working conditions and access to the industry;

    – involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances;

    – makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage and to the maintenance of the world’s diversity;

    – provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural and environmental issues;

    – provides access for physically challenged people; and
    is culturally sensitive and engenders respect between tourists and hosts.”

    The best way Harold describes it is the short and sweet version: “Creating better places for people to live in and for people to visit.” It can’t get much simpler really and we all understand it.

    Best wishes,

    Emilie Hagedoorn

    • endangerededen says:

      Dear Emilie,
      I appreciate your input and feedback on my blog post. I’m a newbie and just recently joined the blogosphere. I’m intrigued and deeply interested “good tourism”, what I consider an umbrella for the travel industry’s positive role as a good corporate citizen. This includes all aspects under eco-tourism/travel, eco-hotels/resorts/lodges, responsible tourism/travel, sustainable tourism/travel, etc. I’m aware that what I consider as definitions may not be entirely correct, as eco-travel itself is defined in a myriad of different ways.
      You summarized it perfectly with the last statement: “Creating better places for people to live in and for people to visit”.
      ciao, dian

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