hut in Elephant Valley, Moldulkiri, Cambodia

‘Eco’, ‘Sustainable’, ‘Ethical’…the many names for responsible tourism

Labels are difficult things. They provide shortcuts to understanding, but we tie ourselves up in knots over choosing which to apply to what. Cynthia Ord, managing editor of The Travel Word newsletter, attempted to define the NINE labels she had discovered that are applied to ‘ethical travel’. Some you’ve no doubt heard of, and use, others attempt to better define a complex concept – all prove that describing ‘ethical travel’ is not simple!

hut in Elephant Valley, Moldulkiri, Cambodia

‘Ecotourism’ – a term coined as early as 1965 and widely defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. Its common usage means it’s a good one to use, but the flipside means it is also vulnerable to misuse – used as a lifestyle definition for holidays full of ‘feel good’ gloss but offering little in the way of real, positive impacts for local people.

‘Green tourism’ – another overly misused label and often at odds with trips that involve long-haul flights (the greenest holidays could mean staying at home in the back garden!) ‘green tourism’ is often used to describe holidays that meet stringent environmental/eco standards. As an extension, the ‘slow travel’ movement, appreciating the journey not just the destination, is growing in popularity and aims to encourage greater appreciation and connections with local people and environments.

‘Voluntourism’ – a slightly embarrassing blended word but the best way to describe holidays based on volunteering projects, especially as many projects are realising that there is a huge market out there of people who have only two-weeks’ holiday but want to volunteer their time. Travellers have to be sure that the projects they choose really are making a useful, positive impact and are not glorified package holidays of little real benefit to local environments and communities.

‘Community-based tourism’ and ‘pro-poor tourism’ both define travel that improves local communities economically. Many people extoll the benefits of visiting struggling tourist spots: tourists simply spending their holiday money in local restaurants, hotels and shops in disaster-hit areas (such as tourism-dependent towns hit by the 2004 tsunami in SE Asia) is important, but ‘community-based tourism’ and ‘pro-poor tourism’ more accurately describe how travellers can spend their time and money on micro-tourism enterprises such as staying in homestays or eating in community cafes, often in developing countries.

As Cynthia Ord points out, there are plenty of critics of ‘ethical’ or ‘responsible tourism’ – conjuring up images of patronising First World do-gooders participating in a kind of ‘poverty voyeurism’ – but tourists who want to make travel choices to be greener, more ethical and more responsible, need a steer or two on what to choose. More travellers sharing their experiences of hotels and resorts, tour operators and volunteering projects using these labels, both good and bad, can help us sift the real responsible travel options from the ‘greenwash’.



Published by

Kerry Law

Kerry Law (Founding Editor, Goodtrippers): I'm a PR and writer living in London. Since taking my first trip aged 2yrs (all the way from from NZ to the UK) I've loved travel. As a keen advocate of ecotourism and responsible travel, I decided to start Goodtrippers...

8 thoughts on “‘Eco’, ‘Sustainable’, ‘Ethical’…the many names for responsible tourism”

  1. There are a lot of tours we use as travelers to visit another location. For locals, they’re seeking visitors, preferably of the ‘responsible’ kind eager to connect with the locality. To be interested, attentive, compassionate, passionate, empathic, curious or at the very least not exploitative.

    BTW, when I look at definitions — — I see a lot of room to explore these niches that can benefit visitors and locals by a variety of names.

    1. Indeed! Good points there Ron and a very useful definitions page you have on your site. Many thanks for sharing the link!

  2. I am the founder of Sumak Travel ( We focus our work on community-based eco-tourism. Personally, I dont like the concept of pro-poor tourism because it might imply that tourists are helping poor people through a top-down and old-fashion approach. Responsible tourists are actually paying a fair price for high quality and authentical products and services, such as traditional gastronomy, cultural and eco-tourism activities, handicrafts, etc. It is an egalitarian way of getting in touch with local people and cultures! And I fully agree with Cynthia Ord, many tour operators brand themselves as ethical or responsible, but they are simply doing business as usual.

    1. Thanks for your insights Felipe! Yes, fair exchange (of money, goods, services and experiences) is the best way to approach any tourism. We look forward to a time when there’s more regulation in the sector and tour operators can’t use those terms if they’re not genuine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

sixteen − eleven =