Sustainable Tourism, Ecotourism, Responsible Travel, Conscious Tourism... What's the Difference?

There's Sustainable Tourism, Ecotourism, Responsible Travel, Conscious Tourism, Ethical Travel, Slow Tourism, Community-Based Tourism , Voluntourism, Geotourism, even Pro-Poor Tourism… But what is the Difference?!

In our last blog, we looked at the meaning of sustainable tourism and why the UN has declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

But aren’t they really all the same thing? If not, how do they differ? Is it all just academic and it’s just about tourism having #Purpose (aka Purposeful Tourism, Travel with Purpose!) and positive impact?

Let’s take a view. To recount,

Sustainable Tourism

is "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."(UNWTO).

As we say at the end of The Earth Changers Manifesto,

Aspire to Inspire, Strive to Sustain. Love our Wonderful World


Historically, the definition of ecotourism in itself has evolved.

In 1990, The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) define ecotourism as, “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."

Consideration of impacts on the environment and (economic and social) well-being of local people is certainly in-keeping with the ‘triple bottom line’ of sustainable tourism. But its focus on natural areas, conserves, differentiates it from sustainable tourism which might also include urban environments.

So ecotourism could be looked upon as a subset of sustainable tourism.

However, the ‘ecotourism’ word seems to have become over-used in recent years to denote any tourism to natural areas (including tourism which may not have a positive impact on them).

It was maybe for this reason that The International Ecotourism Society updated its definition to represent ‘authentic’ ecotourism, to:

"Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education" (TIES, 2015). 

The eagle-eyed will see the word “sustains” has replaced “improves” (‘the well-being of local people’) plus “and involves interpretation and education" has been added.

So its sustainable tourism principles remain the same, but ecotourism’s sustainability has been reinforced over improving (which may suggest minimising any negative impacts, rather than creating positive?) and its role in education highlighted (understanding which can certainly add to local well-being). Its details also note its role to ‘Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities’.

But TIES also do make an important point of noting creating a positive impact beyond sustaining local peoples’ well-being in the form of, ‘Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment’. (TIES, 2015).

In 2015, the entire advisory committee for TIES left and founded The Global Ecotourism Network (GEN), definining,

Ecotourism is 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 (including staff, travelers, and community residents)”

- adding a greater emphasis on active over passive involvement in creating knowledge and understanding - and for all stake holders.


Responsible Travel & Tourism

The Center from Responsible Travel says “Responsible tourism aims to minimize tourism's negative impacts on the environment and maximize the positive contributions tourism can make to local communities”.

This has its roots in the Cape Town Declaration, a widely-accepted definition of Responsible Tourism defined in Cape Town in 2002 alongside the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which is,

making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit” – in that order.

A key point of difference with sustainable tourism is obviously the use of the word “responsible”, focusing it on people taking responsibility for tourism – and for the impacts it creates. It puts the responsibility onto those who take the decisions in tourism which make the impacts. It makes it clear there are active choices with consequences, alternatives, and, by implication, opportunity costs, and that tourism isn’t a passive activity that just ‘happens’.

In doing so, it recognises the range of stakeholders in the tourism process, who all have a responsibility to what is created and how it is carried out: Responsible Tourism requires that operators, hoteliers, governments, local people and tourists take responsibility, take action to make tourism more sustainable. Behaviour, choice, and so tourism, can be more or less responsible. It is not easy with so many involved, but individual steps can make strides together.

In this way, ‘Responsible Tourism’ is seen as the dynamic process, the journey, to the more ‘sustainable tourism’ destination. Sustainability is the goal by all people involved working together on responsible tourism: People taking responsibility for making tourism sustainable.

In this way, The Cape Town Declaration also recognises that Responsible Tourism takes a variety of forms: All types of tourism (compared to say nature-based ecotourism) may be more or less responsible, including mass tourism, cruise, luxury, camping etc.

Responsible tourism is characterised by travel and tourism which:

  • minimises 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 changes;

  • 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;

  • provide access for people with disabilities and the disadvantaged;

  • is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence.

(Cape Town Declaration, 2002; Goodwin )

We make a point of this in the Earth Changers manifesto,

Take-Responsibility-for-your-Choices-Be the Change-Transform-Nothing-worth-doing-is-easy-Resistance-requires-Persistence

Conscious Travel / Conscious Tourism

Conscious business (also called ‘conscious capitalism’) chooses to follow a business strategy which seeks to benefit both human beings and the environment. Born of Corporate Social Responsibility, it pushes a "values-based" approach where values represent social and environmental concerns at global and local scales, subscribing to a triple bottom line model of people, planet and profit, and influencing conscious consumerism and socially responsible investing (Wikipedia).

Organisations can be highly sustainable, but still run in an unconscious way. A conscious business, however, will not maintain unsustainable business practices, because it’s an on-going focused awareness of purpose, practical choices and relationships.

So like Responsible tourism, Conscious Travel looks to all those involved to make their choices in travel and tourism consciously, conscious of the impacts and alternatives, and so bring benefit to the world through that heightened awareness. It is the way business is done, its core ethos. Which is not just about external impacts, but can also be a slightly more spiritual or philosophical approach relating to humans’ inner thoughts, attitude and behaviour.

The Conscious Travel goal is “to create an environmentally sustainable, socially just and spiritually fulfilling travel economy that does not cost the earth”.

The focus on places, guests and hosts puts people at the centre: As humans shift in their values and understanding of the world and systems around them, and the industrial model on which tourism is based is collapsing (‘traditional’ capitalism, volume growth), the increasing cost and diminishing returns of over-tourism and negative impacts will force tourism to a whole new way of conscious business to survive and prosper, based on 9 Ps: A new Perspective, with Purpose, about People and Places where Power shifts to the community , motivated to Protect the ecosystem, at a slower Pace and a closer Proximity, all resulting in a Pull to a destination as its attraction consequently flourishes.


(The Earth Changers Manifesto)

Ethical Travel

Perhaps similar to Responsible and Conscious travel, though less academically or philosophically defined, ethical tourism is about being mindful of our travel choices, based on an awareness of our moral values and judgements of the impacts caused as we travel: Where should we go, with whom should we spend our money, in what way?


‘Ethical’ being, ethically, how it pertains locally to the destination, rather than the traveller, again concerned with the impact on the local environment, culture and people being positive rather than negative.

(The Earth Changers Manifesto)

Slow Tourism

Like Conscious business and tourism, the Slow movement is present in many parts of everyday life with the adjective added to address the issue of 'time poverty' and appreciation of the moment. In our ever-faster consuming technological world, we lose connection to the real world around us and our providence, so to ‘slow’ represents a cultural shift to bring back a ‘connectedness’ we are missing.

Slow travel offers the opportunity to connect to a place and its people, to become part of local life. It is also thus about connection to culture: One of the tenets of the Slow Movement is to preserve cultural heritage. And, by 'living' as opposed to ‘staying’ at a destination, and a more leisurely way to enjoy the travel experience, you experience more deeply authentically, akin to many other ‘local benefits focus’ tourism.

The Earth Changers Manifesto certainly advocates,


Community-Based Tourism (CBT)

Although a ‘community’ has come to virtually mean a group of people with certain interests in common, its more traditional definition as ‘a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common’, possibly including a collective responsibility, is at the root of Community Based Tourism (CBT), “tourism owned and/or managed by communities and intended to deliver wider community benefit”.

Both a ‘type’ of tourism coupled with an ethos, Community-Based Tourism sees visitors hosted by locals – accommodation, tours and travel. It offers the tourist a deeper experiential, participatory, cross-culturally interactive insight into local people, culture and the environment than they would otherwise get, and the community as key stakeholders can exercise greater control and accrue more benefits than they would otherwise receive. 


(The Earth Changers Manifesto)


Voluntourism is the blend of volunteering and tourism, also called “volunteer tourism” or “volunteer travel”. It’s a working holiday for social and environmental causes, whilst experiencing a deeper integration with community, culture and conservation, paid-for to at least cover expenses (rather than being paid a stipend, as is the case with international development volunteering such as VSO or Peace Corp.).

Unfortunately, getting your hands dirty has come to be a somewhat dirty word of late, with middle-men taking advantage, highly profiting from locals’ misfortune and/or volunteers’ desires to make a difference. Earth Changers strongly recommends researching any volunteer tourism meticulously, looking for projects where needs assessments are completed and published, skills are required and recruited, benefits are created for the local community, reviews are public, past volunteers contactable and organisations accountable financially and respond constructively to questions.

Rest assured that any volunteer-related opportunities Earth Changers feature are proven highly sustainable in the development they offer.


(The Earth Changers Manifesto, 2016)


Geotourism adds to ecotourism’s principal focus on flora (plants) and fauna (animals) by adding a third dimension of the abiotic (devoid of life) environment. Two definitions exist (Wikipedia):

The first, more in the UK and rest of the world, ascertains geo-tourism is, “Purely geological and geomorphologically-focused Sustainable Tourism as abiotic nature-based tourism”.

The second, US-based, is “Geographically Sustainable Tourism”, a name created by National Geographic senior editor Jonathan B. Tourtellot and his wife Sally Bensusen in 1997 in response to requests for a term and concept more encompassing than ecotourism and sustainable tourism.

It emphasises preserving, sustaining and even enhancing the geographical character and sense of a place, beyond geological and geomorphological features and including its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, local cuisine and agriculture,and the well-being of its residents.

Like many of the other tourism names, it has a ‘do-no-harm’ ethic but the idea of enhancement allows for development based on sense and integrity of a place too, and that being “Synergistic - bringing together all elements of geographical character to create a travel experience that is richer than the sum of its parts and appealing to visitors with diverse interests” (National Geographic).


Pro-Poor Tourism

The 1999 meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development urged governments to “maximise the potential of tourism for eradicating poverty by developing appropriate strategies in co-operation with all major groups, indigenous and local communities.”

Pro-poor tourism (PPT), defined as “tourism that generates net benefits for the poor”, attempts to do this, putting poor people and poverty at the centre of the sustainability debate, although possibly now seen as a little old fashioned in its language and top-down approach.

The Pro-Poor tourism approach (again not a tourism ‘type’), offers poverty alleviation benefits that may be economic, social or environmental, as with triple bottom line sustainability. Strategies specifically focus on unlocking opportunities for enrichment through tourism but tend to be top-down and policy-related:

  • Increasing access of the poor to economic benefits (eg. business, employment and training)

  • Addressing tourism-associated negative social and environmental impacts on the poor (eg. lost access to land, coast, social disruption or exploitation)

  • Policy/process reform for the poor (removing barriers, promoting participation in tourism planning and decision-making, and encouraging private sector partnerships and product development ).


(The Earth Changers Manifesto, 2016)

The language of PPT was from the UN and the Millennium Development Goals, which have now evolved into the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030:

Sustainable Development Goal #1: “End Poverty in all its forms everywhere”.

Tourism is well positioned to foster economic growth, job creation and esteem for the employed. Sustainable tourism, with its focus on local positive impact, empowerment, equality and respect, can support communities and nations out of poverty.  More on our next blog

Which brings us neatly back to where we started.

What Tourism does Earth Changers feature?

Earth Changers encapsulates all these tourism types and ethos, as represented in sections of our manifesto throughout the above, focusing on the positive impacts of sustainable tourism for development Purpose, at life-changing Places created by world-changing People. This is the power of transformative tourism, tourism which empowers positive experience through sustainable development, for hosts, guests and destinations.

Life is too short to not explore. Pioneer. Follow your heart and adventure with passion. Experience the World, its extraordinary People and awe-inspiring Places. Travel with Purpose, to give back and have a true positive impact