Sustainable, Eco, Responsible, Green: What does it all mean?

Confused by the difference between responsible travel, sustainable and eco-tourism? Not sure what makes a hotel ‘green’?

An increasing number of travel and tourism businesses use these trending buzzwords interchangeably in an effort to appeal to a growing movement of conscientious travelers, often without actually having any environmentally or socially responsible policies in place (hello greenwashing!).

Not sure what makes a hotel ‘green’?
Not sure what makes a hotel ‘green’?

In a nutshell, the industry agrees ecotourism is more focused on being close to nature (e.g. through outdoor activities), ecological conservation and educating travelers on local resources, whereas sustainable tourism is a much more all-encompassing term that implies traveling with minimal impact on both the environment and local communities.

It is generally a much broader category, covering all types of travel and destinations, from luxury to backpacking and city breaks to retreats in remote rainforests.

Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process of finding consensus between all relevant stakeholders, constant monitoring of impacts, introducing the necessary measures and policies and encouraging responsible behaviors.

It’s probably the term that implies the highest level of advocacy and activism, especially in today’s atmosphere of ‘tourism phobia’ and ‘overtourism’.

Confusingly, green tourism tends to be synonymous with either eco- or sustainable tourism, depending on the context.

It goes without saying, sustainable tourism needn’t be dull — it should maintain a high level of tourist satisfaction or else it will end up, well, unsustainable.

The key is it should do so through a low-impact meaningful interaction of hosts and visitors, raising their awareness about local issues and promoting sustainable practices.

Confusingly, green travel , or green tourism, tends to be synonymous with both eco- and sustainable tourism, depending on the context.

It was initially used in the 1980s in a study that described the hotel industry’s practice of placing ‘green cards’ in each room that encouraged guests to reuse their towels. Sadly, the study found that many hotels ultimately made little to no effort to actually conserve resources or reduce waste; they just wanted to appear to be environmentally friendly, or “green.”

These days the pattern is changing and any seasoned traveler tends to reuse towels, even without being urged to do so. We’re slowly but steady moving way beyond that obvious practice. Both travelers and industry insiders are starting to understand that green luxury is still luxury.

Ecotourism focuses on being close to nature and conservation while sustainable tourism is a much broader term.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, improves the welfare of local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

Ecotourism typically provides direct financial benefits for conservation of cultural heritage and local people and is focused on the protection of — and interaction with — local natural resources, i.e. flora and fauna.

The key principles include:

  • conscientious, low-impact visitor behavior
  • building environmental awareness
  • sensitivity towards, and appreciation of, local culture and biodiversity
  • support for local ecosystems and conservation efforts
  • educational components for both the traveler and the host community

We are starting to understand that green luxury is still luxury.

The perception of eco-tourism is that it’s more costly and luxurious than ‘regular travel’. But, while it should be seen as an investment in the future, it doesn’t need to be prohibitive. Being smart while choosing the providers you travel with can mitigate some of those issues.

Responsible tourism, possibly the most vague of all, is any form of travel done in a more responsible and mindful way. According to the Cape Town Declaration (signed in 2002 and we still haven’t learned…), responsible tourism:

  • minimizes negative social, economic and environmental impact
  • generates 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 decision making
  • provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues
  • is culturally sensitive, encourages respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence
  • makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage
The emerging ‘eco’ travel market is increasingly confusing and difficult to navigate.

Clearly, the emerging ‘eco’ or ‘green’ travel market is increasingly difficult to navigate. Fortunately, most of the genuine environmentally-friendly and otherwise sustainable travel providers have all the information clearly laid out on their websites which makes it easier to learn about the concrete measures they are taking to conserve natural resources, protect plants and wildlife, and contribute to the well-being of local communities.

Do not be afraid to ask questions and raise objections — it is the most direct and effective way to let all agents involved know that we care!

Make sure you do your homework. Choose your travel agent/ airline/ accommodation wisely. And do not be afraid to ask questions and raise objections — it’s the most direct and effective way to let all agents involved know that we care!

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