Column: What is Responsible Tourism?

Published on: August 7th, 2017

Last modified: October 20th, 2023

How many times have you read the words ‘responsible travel’ or ‘sustainable tourism’, or ‘eco-hotels’ and ‘green travel’? Then there’s ethical travel, community tourism and conservation… As travellers, how do you know what it all means – or whether it means anything at all? It’s not surprising these terms blur; it’s a complicated business.

Canopy Bed Private Camp Wolwedans Namibrand Nature Reserve Namibia
Wolwedans, a sustainable, luxury camp in the Namibrand Nature Reserve, Namibia.

Put simply, if that’s possible, sustainable tourism is tourism which reduces negative impact and maximises benefits for communities, cultures and environments. It’s the umbrella term under which more specific initiatives exist.

However, as Xavier Font, Professor of Sustainability Marketing at the University of Surrey, points out, “Sustainable tourism is something of an oxymoron – 80% of CO2 from travel is from flights and cars; 20% what you do at the destination. Currently, we are geared to spending more on hotels and transport, and less at the destination. If we genuinely want to be sustainable, we need to reverse it.”

One initiative to encourage sustainable tourism is ecotourism. That means travelling in a way which minimises the impact of tourism on the environment and wildlife. Costa Rica, often billed as the ‘poster child’ of ecotourism, made concerted efforts to form tourism policies which protect nature. Within this are green or eco-hotels, so-named for their efforts to protect the environment, for example by conserving water or using solar energy.

Frog, Costa Rica
Costa Rica is one of the front-runners in sustainable tourism.

Another term is community tourism, when local people, often from poorer or marginalised areas, shape the visitor’s experience; this could be a homestay or a locally created tour. Encompassing this is ethical tourism; tourism which doesn’t exploit, but rather benefits local people and the environment. This concept covers anything from businesses paying better wages to local guides or hotel restaurants sourcing their ingredients locally.

It’s also in the approach – this might mean running sensitive and thoughtful township tours with genuine benefits to locals, rather than inviting busloads of visitors into undeveloped areas to peer at the inhabitants. That approach also extends to wildlife; good examples include not riding mistreated elephants or petting ‘calm’ (i.e. medicated) tigers.

Elephant riding
Elephant riding is one of the most discussed topics in responsible travel.

Of course, these issues are rarely black and white. “There are good and bad examples,” says Leah Carriere from Sustainable Travel International. “Take sea turtle tours. Some have conservation as a priority, others don’t. That’s where using a responsible tour operator and doing your research comes in.

Travelling responsibly simply means in a way which helps local economies, protects fragile cultures and habitats, and reduces negative effects. When destinations offer appealing, sustainable experiences, travellers play their part by choosing them. Using tour operators who’ve done the legwork helps, whether they’re offsetting carbon footprints or offering genuine eco-friendly experiences.

“Another way is to increase length of stay,” says Xavier Font. “For example, tourism boards shouldn’t be encouraging people to see seven cities in seven days. Amsterdam Tourism suggests exploring further afield; the same carbon footprint, but the impact and income goes to different places.”

Train travel
Slow travel – such as train journeys – is a planet-friendly way to explore.

There’s still an onus on the visitor to research. With no international regulation, certification programmes varying in standards and often expensive, some destinations and businesses are guilty of ‘greenwashing’ (making out they’re greener than they are). Conversely, others undersell their sustainable credentials.

While visitors play a role in ensuring sustainability, they’re just one part of the equation. “Everyone in the tourism industry, from tour operators and travellers to governments and residents, have a responsibility to make sure this goal is realised,” explains Sustainable Travel International’s Leah Carriere. “Destinations must be considering the environmental and social impacts, then making decisions to ensure the needs of visitors and the host community are met. In a nutshell, it’s not just about increasing tourist numbers.”

More information

Those who want to make better choices can join Sustainable Travel International’s Travel Better Club: Use the code ‘iTravelBetter’ for free registration.

Jacada Travel and responsible travel

“Jacada Travel endeavours to make sure we have a positive impact on the world,” says Alex Malcolm, founder and MD of Jacada Travel. “That’s why we committed in May this year to sponsor carbon positive community projects that help people and offset all the carbon emissions from all new bookings – we even include the international flights, whether booked with us or independently.

“We also look to support best practice in the industry and are happy to help and advise our clients on the most sustainable ways they can travel.”

Check The Explorer blog for more of Meera’s responsible travel columns.