Ecotourism: Definition & Is It Really Sustainable?

Ecotourism is being touted as a sustainable and responsible travel method. But... is it really?

Definition of Ecotourism
Definition of Ecotourism / Ecolife

What is ecotourism?

Ecotourism is a type of tourism that seeks to minimize its negative environmental and social impacts by fully considering its economic, social, and environmental impacts.

Called by many alternate names, such as ecological, responsible, sustainable, or green tourism, ecotourism is a relatively new concept in travel and one that is somewhat in dispute. Sometimes confused with adventure travel, ecotourism in its purest form is characterized by low-impact tourism, where travelers learn about the local ecology and how to preserve it, all the while benefiting the local community and economy.

Sustainability practices in hotels, resorts, and lodges

There are different ways in which hotels and resorts can become more sustainable and eco-friendly. Looking at hotel sustainability certification guidelines from certification organizations such as the EU Ecolabel and GSTC helps us to understand some of the most important sustainability measures.

These are some of the most common sustainability practices in hospitality:

  1. Creating a defined environmental action plan. Any successful journey toward sustainability begins with a well-built environmental action plan.
  2. Reducing energy and water consumption. The average American hotel room has an annual energy cost of around US$2,196, and there is always the potential for more savings here.
  3. Reducing the use of pesticides and chemicals in cleaning. From asbestos to mercury, eco-resorts need to have policies to prevent the use of hazardous materials in cleaning.
  4. Managing waste responsibly. There are many ways to handle waste sustainably, but preventing waste from developing in the first place is usually the best.
  5. Reducing all carbon emissions. Different hotels have different ways of reaching net zero, but they can include practices like reforestation schemes or buying carbon offsets.
  6. Stopping food waste. In the UK, 920,000 tons of food is wasted annually in the hospitality and food service sectors, 75% of which could be avoided.

Ecotourism vs. advdenture travel

Adventure travel, unlike ecotourism, is primarily concerned with exploring the natural world and is not concerned with directly improving or protecting the environment or local communities. It should therefore be considered a completely distinct form of travel compared to ecotourism.

Experiences that may fall into adventure travel but not into the ecotourism category could include energy, resource, and water-intensive cruise ship experiences to view icebergs and penguins in Antarctica or staying in a resort in the Amazon rainforest that has made no efforts to reduce deforestation or carbon emissions

Many would-be green tourism businesses try to sell themselves as eco-friendly by talking up natural encounters but failing to really improve the local environment. This form of greenwashing, like others, is both misleading and destructive.

Ultimately, all forms of travel, whether by boat or plane, contribute to climate change, so it’s important to consider the environmental implications of any vacation you plan. Don’t lose your mind over every emission, but try to minimize your impact wherever possible.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Ecotourism is a type of tourism that seeks to minimize its negative environmental and social impacts by fully considering its economic, social, and environmental impacts.

Examples of ecotourism include:

  • Responsible dolphin-watching on a carbon-neutral cruise.
  • Hiking in a nature preserve with an educated guide.
  • Practicing “Leave No Trace” camping principles.
  • Staying in resorts built using green building principles.

Ecotourism can have negative impacts if not managed properly, and potential issues include: