Definitions of Ecotourism, Nature Tourism, Sustainable Tourism, Responsible Tourism

What is the difference between ecotourism and responsible tourism? Is sustainable tourism interchangeable with responsible tourism? Often the term green travel is used loosely. Mallika Naguran of Gaia Discovery looks up the various tourism terms and definitions being floated and lists them here.

Singapore, 4 April 2017. 'Green travel' has been used very often but it is too generic a term and should be avoided at all cost. If you are describing some form of sustainability in travel, then try to be specific. There are differences in definition, principles and scope when it comes to terms such as ‘sustainable tourism’, ‘responsible tourism’, ‘nature tourism’, ‘ecotourism’ and more. Here are some definitions being offered by the tourism industry along with principles where applicable. Where there are multiple definitions, my preferred verion is marked by an asterisk. What do you think and do you have a definition to offer? Leave a comment below if you do.

Adventure tourism: Tourism that usually (but certainly not always) takes place in wilderness environments.  Often, the natural environment is a venue or backdrop for adventure activities and the focus is on the activities rather than the environment. (Source: ACS Distance Education)

Ecotourism: Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.(Source: The International Ecotourism Society)

Ecotourism: Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, socially and economically sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved. (Source: Global Ecotourism Network)*

Ecotourism refers to forms of tourism which have the following characteristics:

  1. All nature-based forms of tourism in which the main motivation of the tourists is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.
  2. It contains educational and interpretation features.
  3. It is generally, but not exclusively organised by specialised tour operators for small groups. Service provider partners at the destinations tend to be small, locally owned businesses.
  4. It minimises negative impacts upon the natural and socio-cultural environment.
  5. It supports the maintenance of natural areas which are used as ecotourism attractions by:
  • Generating economic benefits for host communities, organisations and authorities managing natural areas with conservation purposes;
  • Providing alternative employment and income opportunities for local communities;
  • Increasing awareness towards the conservation of natural and cultural assets, both among locals and tourists.

(Source: United Nations World Tourism Organisation or UNWTO)

Eco-tourism: Tourism that has minimal impact on fragile natural environments and which focuses on providing nature-based experiences. (Source: ACS Distance Education)

Ethical Tourism: Tourism in a destination where ethical issues are the key driver, e.g. social injustice, human rights, animal welfare, or the environment. (Source: Institute for Tourism)

Environmental tourism: Tourism that takes place in natural settings with an emphasis on understanding and conserving natural environments. (Source: ACS Distance Education)

Geotourism: Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place – its environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture and well-being of its residents. (Source: National Geographic)

Nature Tourism: Responsible travel to natural areas, which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people. (Source: Texas Parks & Wildlife)

Nature-based tourism: A broad term that covers all tourism experiences centered on wild or natural environments. (Source: ACS Distance Education)

Nature-based tourism includes all forms of tourism where relatively undisturbed natural environments form the primary attraction or setting (Buckley 2009; Newsome et al. 2002). It can include consumptive and adventurous as well as non-consumptive contemplative activities, which in turn can include ecotourism (Buckley, 2009; Fennell 2003; Weaver 2008) and conservation tourism (Buckley, 2010b). (Souce: Ralph Buckley in Nature-based Tourism in Breadth and Depth from "Critical Debates in Tourism").

Pro-poor Tourism: Tourism that results is in increased net benefit for the poor people in a destination.(Source: Pro-Poor Tourism) 

Responsible Tourism: Tourism that maximizes the benefits to local communities, minimizes negative social or environmental impacts, and helps local people conserve fragile cultures and habitats or species. (Source: City of Cape Town. Cape Town Declaration [2002])

Sustainable Tourism: Tourism that leads to the management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems. (Source: United Nations Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform)*

Sustainable Tourism: Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.(Source: UNWTO)

Wildlife tourism: Tourism that provides close contact with wildlife and nature in general. (Source: ACS Distance Education)


Principles of Ecotourism

Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement, participate in and market ecotourism activities should adopt the following ecotourism principles:

  • Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
  • Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climates.
  • Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
  • Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.

(Source: The International Ecotourism Society)


Conceptual definition of Sustainable Tourism by UNWTO

Sustainable tourism development guidelines and management practices are applicable to all forms of tourism in all types of destinations, including mass tourism and the various niche tourism segments. Sustainability principles refer to the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability.

Thus, sustainable tourism should:
1) Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.

2) Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.

3) Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.

Sustainable tourism development requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as strong political leadership to ensure wide participation and consensus building. Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process and it requires constant monitoring of impacts, introducing the necessary preventive and/or corrective measures whenever necessary.

Sustainable tourism should also maintain a high level of tourist satisfaction and ensure a meaningful experience to the tourists, raising their awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices amongst them. (Source: UNWTO)


Editor's Note

The definitions provided by ACS Distance Education are not backed by any authoritative source. 

*Gaia Discovery's preferred definition



 The Case for Responsible Travel – Trends & Statistics 2016. Center for Responsible Travel

 Making Tourism More Sustainable - A Guide for Policy Makers, UNEP and UNWTO, 2005, p.11-12