What’s in a name? Can you tell the difference between eco, sustainable, and responsible tourism?

By David Okul
July 14, 2019

Alternative tourism forms
Africa conservation mainly relies on ecotourism, which covid-19 has halted (Image from Pixabay)

A brief discussion of the forms of alternative tourism

Any ardent conservationist/traveler has come across the names of sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, and ecotourism. Differentiating the concepts of sustainable tourism, responsible tourism and ecotourism can be confusing. To make it worse, there are even more related concepts in alternative tourism that appear similar. We have outlined the definition of the three key terms and other related concepts of alternative tourism. Also, this article discusses the concept of the three terms.

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Tourism has adverse impacts to the environment as it consumes resources and produces wastes

Tourism has impacts on the people, the planet, and profits. Alternative forms of tourism seek to address some of the adverse impacts o tourism

Sustainable Tourism

The UNWTO (United Nation’s World Tourism Organization) is the authority on sustainable tourism. It defines the term as:


“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”


Many people believe that ecotourism is a subset of sustainable tourism as its niche is natural areas.  The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines the term as, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015).

According to UAE Ministry of Economics, ecotourism includes various types such as blue tourism (travel to beaches and seas), yellow tourism (travel to deserts), white tourism (travel to ice areas) and green tourism (travel to areas rich in fauna, and especially flora).

Responsible tourism

Some people claim that responsible tourism is synonymous with sustainable tourism. However, the Cape Town Declaration (2002) and the Center for Responsible Tourism defined responsible tourism as. “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.”

Tourists have always been vital in conservation (Image by Ron Porter from Pixabay

Other terms in Alternative Tourism Concept

Apart from the three terms, there are other terms that are concerned with the sustainable development of tourism. Let start with alternative tourism itself:

Alternative tourism: the opposite of mass tourism. Although mass tourism promoted economic development in terms of jobs, it also resulted in negative effects such as economic leakages, environmental, and social impacts. Alternative tourism aims at addressing the shortcomings of mass tourism.

Overtourism: concerned with the excessive number of visitors leading to negative effects on the host and the environment

Voluntourism: The central principle is that the visitors would give back (do charity events) for the communities in the destination.

Community-based tourism: CBT occurs where visitors are hosted by locals. Communities are the key stakeholders in this model where they exercise greater control and get more benefits that they would receive.

Conscious travel/tourism: it has its basis on the corporate social responsibility that favors values-based triple bottom line approach.

Ethical travel: It basically advocates for people to be mindful of travel choices based on moral values and judgments

Slow tourism: advocates for living as opposed to staying in a destination. That is, visitors need to connect to cultures.

Geo-Tourism: while ecotourism focuses on the flora and fauna, geo-tourism adds the dimensions of the abiotic environment.

Pro-poor tourism: Although controversial, pro-poor tourism seeks to put poverty of host communities at the center of the sustainability debate.

Farm tourism: Also called agrotourism and involves green tourism of farms.

Our Take: A discussion of ecotourism, sustainable and responsible tourism concepts

At Silvica, we deduce that the differences between ecotourism, sustainable and responsible tourism are academic. It is evident that all the definition seek to improve (or at least maintain) the hosts’ life, the natural environment, and the visitor experiences.  As such the three terms oppose the principles of mass tourism and are a form of alternative tourism.

Nevertheless, distinctions between the terms are also apparent. The focus of ecotourism is sustainability in natural areas. From the definition, tourism in ‘unnatural’ places such as cities and historical monuments may not fit the definition of ecotourism. The distinction between sustainable and responsible tourism is less apparent in terms of scope. However, we perceive that the major actors in sustainable tourism are the business people while the tourist bears more responsibility in responsible tourism. In other words, destination managers need to make their destination sustainable while tourists need to ensure that their travel is responsible.

Further, Harold Goldwin, an authority in sustainable and responsible tourism makes a distinction between the concepts. He claims that sustainability is a goal which can be achieved when people take responsibility.  In other words, responsible tourism includes all actions (mostly little) that individuals can take to make tourism more sustainable. In contrast, sustainable tourism is concerned with long-term changes in tourism that target at reducing the negative impacts of tourism while promoting the positive ones. Sustainable tourism targets global issues such as climate change.

In a nutshell, sustainable tourism, ecotourism, and responsible tourism share a similar goal. They are all types of alternative tourism based on the principles of the three-pillared approach to sustainability (environmental, social, and economic), although ecotourism has an intense focus on environmental aspects. Both travelers and operators need to ensure that they incorporate principles of ecotourism, sustainable, and responsible tourism to ensure that the travel and tourism industry is improved (or at least maintained) for the benefits of the future generations.

References and Resources

David Okul is a freelance writer, and a PhD student at a Kenyan university

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Peter

    You are right. Alternative tourism is the name that encompasses all the other terms against mass tourism

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