Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    

Defining Ecotourism and Responsible Tourism

Responsible travel and ecotourism definitions

2008 was the 25th anniversary of ecotourism, a word first coined by Mexican architect Hector Ceballos-Lascurain in July 1983. 25 years later and ecotourism is being developed in practically every country around the world, albeit at different levels and with varying degrees of success. One of the chief obstacles is that ecotourism is simply not defined or interpreted the same way. What Europeans call “a walk in the country” is interpreted as “ecotourism” in Latin America. Far too often the terms used to define tourism are blunt instruments which undermine diversity. Ron Mader shows how travelers can distinguish style and substance and find the trip that creates a mutually beneficial experience for you and the people and places you visit.

While the details vary, most definitions of ecotourism meet three criteria:

  1. Ecotourism provides for conservation measures;
  2. Ecotourism includes meaningful community participation;
  3. Ecotourism is profitable and can sustain itself.

These three components of ecotourism are difficult to accomplish individually, let alone as a package. Moreover, they are difficult to measure or quantify.

Responsible tourism asks visitors to make choices about their vacations so that negative impacts are minimized. It is fundamentally defined in the 2002 Capetown Declaration as tourism which… 

  • minimizes negative economic, environmental, and social impacts;
  • generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities, improves 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, 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, social and environmental issues;
  • provides access for physically challenged people; and
  • is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence. 

Assuming you wanted to know which are the “best” places to go or guides to hire, the question remains—how is one to judge and who can one ask for advice? As Victor Paul Borg points out in a piece for, The Practical Eco Traveler, green credentials are easy enough to purchase and even guidebook publishers are on the bandwagon for energy-intensive travel that exacerbates global warming. 

Shades of Green

Author Paul Waddington tracks several dozen products on a sliding scale from deep green to not even a little bit green in Shades of Green: A (mostly) practical A-Z for the reluctant environmentalist (Eden Project Books, 2008). The book is aimed squarely at a U.K. audience, so it may not be that relevant if you are not from that corner of the world. Nevertheless, it offers a clever approach that sheds light on re-imagining and reshaping the definitions we use in our travels.

Each entry has a short introduction followed by as many shades of green as he deems appropriate. For example, Deep Green coffee is fair-trade, organic, and shade-grown or made from dandelion roots. Not Even a Little Bit Green is decaffeinated instant coffee. In between are witty and insightful explorations of sustainable practices. Deep Green flying is not flying. Not Even a Little Bit Green is flying in your personal airliner. Odds are you will discover that the choices you make are closer to the center.


While we tend to think about “ecotourism” or “responsible travel” as someTHING that can be defined, perhaps a better model would be a mobile hanging from a ceiling. The fluid motion and interdependence of the pieces reflects relationships among the players. If there is consensus about items of shared interest and a willingness to collaborate toward the goals, then tourism reaches toward its maximum potential of delivering quality experiences that benefit locals and visitors without taxing the environment or culture.

Tags reflect the components better from the point of view of the user and will likely transform the way we have tended to brand niche tourism. I believe that instead of defining precisely what is ecotourism, we ought to reframe the discussion as who are the ecotourism players?  In so doing, we develop some productive codes of conduct and ways to create meaningful engagement, using both earth-grounded and social media tools.

Defining the Terms conducted a Travel Definitions Survey to ask readers, friends, and colleagues to reflect on the definitions used while traveling or preparing for a trip. The survey demonstrates a clear division when it comes to using or avoiding specific terms. One of the chief conclusions that can be drawn is that policy-makers and academics are using a different language than travelers.

There have always been naysayers about specific tourism definitions are a very thorough page which. What we found in the survey is that more narrow the niche, the more confusion it generates amongst the greater public. The lowest ratings were given to “civic tourism” and “geotourism,” while high marks went to “responsible tourism” and “sustainable tourism.” We can deduce from this that while the ideas behind “civic tourism” are valuable, few people understand the term. Likewise what is considered “geotourism” in the U.S.A. is a world away from what is considered “geotourism” in Australia; same word, but “geotourism” has as much in common as cheese and chalk.

The survey illuminates the road ahead, and I offer two recommendations based upon an interpretation of the survey responses:

1) Visitors need to be open-minded and understand that what they desire might need to be articulated in different terms. The best bet is to be as specific as possible about your interests and abilities and then conduct your research accordingly.

2) Tour guides and government officials need to understand that visitors will be increasingly divergent in their backgrounds, interests and expectations. Tourism development requires the longtail perspective—providing relevant and deep information for a broader reach of services and places where travelers might want to go.

A final thought to keep in mind—while the tourism industry has long touted destinations, the fact is that we are simply entering someone else's home when we travel. The notion of reciprocity is intrinsic to responsible tourism: be generous with your hosts and you will learn to see travel in a whole new light.

For More Information
Please see Ron Mader's detailed section on his website and associated wiki where he explores tourism definitions. Ron provides a further breakdown and discussion of the many definitions referred to in this article. He also expands upon related definitions, as this area of his interest and activism is related to the critical issue of climate change. —Gregory Hubbs, Editor in Chief

Ron Mader is the Transitions Abroad Responsible Travel editor and Latin America correspondent. Ron is the host of the award-winning website.

Related Topics
Responsible Travel and Ecotourism

  About Us Privacy
  Contact Us Cookie Policy
    Terms and Conditions
  © 1997-2023 Transitions Abroad Publishing, Inc.