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Defining Ecotourism and Responsible Tourism

Responsible travel and ecotourism definitions.
Ecotourism was a word first coined by Mexican architect Hector Ceballos-Lascurain in July 1983. 40 years later, ecotourism is being practiced in some form in nearly every country worldwide, albeit at different levels and with varying degrees of success. One of the chief obstacles is that ecotourism is not defined or interpreted the same way in various parts of the world. 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 that undermine diversity. Ron Mader, who has hosted an ecotourism site for decades, shows how travelers can distinguish between style and substance and enjoy a form of respectful travel that creates a mutually beneficial experience for them and the people and places they 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 challenging 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
  • is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence. 

Assuming you want 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. The book is aimed squarely at a U.K. audience, so it may only be relevant if you are 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. The odds are that you will discover that your choices are closer to the center.

Reflections on Ecotourism and Responsible Travel

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 reflect relationships among the players. Suppose there is consensus about items of shared interest and a willingness to collaborate toward the goals. In that case, tourism reaches its maximum potential of delivering quality experiences that benefit locals and visitors without taxing the environment or culture.

Tags better reflect the components from the user's point of view and will likely transform how we have tended to brand niche tourism. Instead of defining precisely what ecotourism is, should we perhaps reframe the discussion as who are the actual ecotourism players? In so doing, we develop some productive codes of conduct and ways to create meaningful engagement using 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 regarding 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, which can now result in long articles, lengthy resources or wikis, and even large databases. We found in the survey that the 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 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; it is the 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 on an interpretation of the survey responses:

1) Visitors might be wise to be as open-minded as possible and understand that what they desire might need to be articulated in different terms. You may want to be specific about your interests and abilities and conduct research accordingly.

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

A final thought — 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.

Ron Mader is the Transitions Abroad Responsible Travel editor and Latin America correspondent. He also hosts the award-winning website.

Related Topics
Responsible Travel and Ecotourism

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