The definition debate:

ecotourism, sustainable tourism and responsible tourism.

When we started our project about ecotourism, the first thing we did was to examine what ecotourism actually means. Little did we know that it was such an contested concept with many different definitions. Scientists, researchers, tourism corporations and NGOs all define ecotourism slightly differently, which makes it a difficult task to provide you with one definition that most agree on. Instead, what we will do in this article is to take a common understanding of ecotourism as our definition and consider the accuracy of it. By comparing this definition with others, we hope to clarify what ecotourism means to different stakeholders.

Ecotourism and its  characteristics

A common definition of ecotourism is the one formulated by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of ecotourism. The organization defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education". However, Fennell (1) contends that this kind of basic definition leaves too much space for interpretation. Such a definition does not really imply how ecotourism providers can translate this into their operations, nor does it explain  characteristics of an ecotourist. Consequently, TIES also formulates a collection of principles that those who implement, participate in and market ecotourism activities should adopt (see Box 1). Whereas this definitely clarifies the understanding of ecotourism, it also places many expectations and constraints on providers of ecotourism. It seems almost impossible for an ecotourism operator to include all these principles.

TIES' principles to ecotourism:

  1. Minimize physical, social, behavioural, and psychological impacts.

  2. Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.

  3. Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.

  4. Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.

  5. Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.

  6. Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climates.

  7. Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.

  8. Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the indigenous people in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.

From the Ecotourists' perspective

To acquire a complete impression of existing definitions of ecotourism, we tried to consider definitions from different sources. As an additional dimension, we examined the “ecotourism discourse” proposed by Robert Fletcher (2), a social scientist that did lots of research in Costa Rica, to understand ecotourism from the perspective of the ecotourists themselves. According to Fletcher, this discourse consists of several elements. He addresses the divide between nature and culture that a typical Western ecotourist would experience. Whereas this ecotourist would normally live a highly ‘cultured’ life, he would want to escape to a ‘natural’ environment that is, to the eye, free of human influence and could be experienced as wilderness. Here, to complete the inversion of one’s normal routine, the ecotourist maximises exposure to the outdoor environment and engages in activities that cause physical discomfort. In other words, according to Fletcher, ecotourism could be roughly defined as having an outdoor experience in a natural or wild area that causes physical discomfort and is opposite of the tourist’s normal daily life. Additionally, Fennell (1) suggests that the purpose of ecotourism from the tourist’s perspective includes participation, sensitivity and appreciation of the area. The ecotourist should practice a ‘non-consumptive’ use of wildlife and natural resources and should contribute to the visited area through labour or financial means, aimed at directly benefiting the conservation of the site and the economic well-being of the local residents. The visit should strengthen the ecotourist’s appreciation and dedication to conservation issues in general and to the specific needs of the local people.


Where Fennell (1) clearly struggled with the same issue as we do, he made an overview of main principles of definitions of ecotourism and checked if they were included within 15 different definitions, as shown in table 1. What can be derived from this table is rather interesting considering that, on the one hand, none of the definitions includes all of the main principles mentioned, and on the other hand, that one of the principles is included in all the examined definitions.

Differences between sustainable

and responsible tourism

However, it is not only the many different perspectives on ecotourism that make the concept difficult to define. It is also the multiplicity of different concepts that are used to describe tourism in natural areas, such as responsible or sustainable tourism, that creates confusion . Therefore we will also attempt to clarify the differences between ecotourism, responsible tourism and sustainable tourism.

Sustainable tourism

To compare sustainable tourism with ecotourism, we use the definition from the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). According to the UNWTO, sustainable tourism can be defined as 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. A clear difference with ecotourism is that UNWTO does not imply that sustainable tourism should be practiced only in natural or wild areas. Their guidelines therefore are applicable to all forms of tourism in all types of destinations, including mass tourism in urban areas. This also differs from what Fletcher (2) characterises as ecotourism, as it would not necessarily mean that tourists pursue wilderness and therefore experiences the inversion of their daily life.  The guidelines for sustainable tourism, however, do relate to those for ecotourism quite a bit. Both sets of guidelines are concerned with nature conservation, cultural authenticity and the economic benefits for the local residents. Additionally, sustainable tourism and ecotourism share the aim that the experience should be meaningful to tourists and that it should raise their awareness about sustainability issues as well as their knowledge about the local cultures and ecosystems.

Responsible tourism

What appears in the definitions of sustainable tourism and ecotourism is often present in the concept of responsible tourism as well. David Leslie (3) does a good job in explaining what this concept signifies. According to Leslie, responsible tourism represents a way of doing tourism planning, policy and development to ensure that benefits are optimally distributed among impacted populations, governments, tourists, and investors. In other words, it is not so much a product but encompasses a particular mode of behaviour. Therefore, it can be applied to all tourism contexts. To be responsible implies that a tourist should respect the locality and that the locals should also act responsibly in their own actions.


We would like to conclude here by re-emphasizing that it is hard to give one ecotourism definition. The definition debate is ongoing, which means that the meaning of ecotourism keeps evolving. Throughout all our magazine issues, we will refer to the aforementioned definitions of ecotourism. What is important to take away from this overview is that ecotourism encompasses many different elements. Of these, we will focus mostly on nature conservation and the well-being of local people, either through economic benefits and/or social involvement.

by Femke


  1. Fennell, D. A. (2015). Ecotourism (4e ed.). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

  2. Fletcher, R. (2009). Ecotourism discourse: challenging the stakeholders theory. Journal of Ecotourism, 8(3), 269-285.

  3. Leslie, D. (2012). Responsible Tourism: Concepts, Theory and Practices. Oxfordshire, United Kingdom: CABI.