As environmental awareness grows, so does the number of phrases used to describe ‘green’ consumer choices. With everything from ‘biodegradable’ to ‘biodynamic’, the sheer amount of jargon can get more than a little confusing.
This is particularly true of the travel industry, where ‘ecotourism’ and ‘sustainable tourism’ are often used interchangeably. But is this accurate?
Travel is a fairly big deal. Billions of people travel internationally every year, and the industry is only predicted to grow in years to come. What’s encouraging is to see that as we become increasingly environmentally conscious, we’re moving towards a global landscape where more and more people make green travel choices. But with so many different environmentally friendly travel options available, and a lot of terminology to sift through, things can get a little muddled.
Specifically, the terms ‘ecotourism’ and ‘sustainable tourism’ seem to make the rounds fairly often, and tend to be used interchangeably. But are they actually the same thing? Are there differences between ecotourism and sustainable tourism, and if so, what on Earth (pun intended) are they, and how can we decide which matters most to us? It might not be quite as simple as ABC, but there are a few key similarities and differences between the two:
While there are a few nuances uniquely specific to ‘eco’ and ‘sustainable’ tourism, they are essentially cut from the same cloth. Both phrases refer to tourism that cares about the impact it has on our world and our environment.
As our understanding of our impact on the environment deepens, the days of widespread greenwashing are (thankfully) being left behind, as consumers make the effort to travel in a more environmentally-friendly and impactful way.
However, the two phrases aren’t exactly interchangeable. While they may have a common creed, they do each have a specific meaning, and refer to unique models of travel.
In recent years, ‘ecotourism’ is increasingly a popular mode of travel for the modern – and particularly millennial – explorer. In short, this is no longer a niche or ‘hipster’ way of travelling. It’s becoming not only widely respected in the industry for the positive impact it has, but also immensely popular. So what exactly is it?
The key thing about ecotourism is it isn’t a catch-all term that refers to green travel; it’s a word that refers to a specific type of travel experience. Ecotourism is focussed on travel that is uniquely geared to the conservation and preservation of local ecologies, economies, and communities. When it comes to keeping the natural world unspoiled, it’s a type of travel that gets stuff done.
The International Ecotourism Society (who we reckon probably know what they’re talking about) define ecotourism as
“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.
From this, the crux of ecotourism is clear – it’s all about taking action. Ecotourism centres around preserving the natural world in all its splendour: by ensuring that ecosystems, biodiversity, and local communities and environments are preserved, stimulated, and unspoiled.
With this also comes a very positive push towards education. Eco-tourists often become actively involved with the preservation of a local area, contributing to local communities, and getting hands-on to make a difference. The result is that people adopting these practices become highly informed about issues affecting the environments they visit. This is one of the biggest benefits of ecotourism – it teaches travellers about what really matters.
Related Post: Is Ecotourism Really Environmentally Friendly?
Ecotourism in action
The sharp rise in popularity of ecotourism (in 2015, Booking.com found that more than half of travellers would choose a destination based on its social or environmental impact) has made organising an eco-adventure easier and more accessible than ever. There are now an abundance of eco-resorts, and it’s possible to book an eco-holiday safe in the knowledge that your accommodation is helping to conserve the environment, and not harming it.
When it comes to ecotourism, it’s not just where you stay on your travels, but what you do. Many traditional holiday activities harm natural environments – even things like amateur hiking can cause damage.
Ecotourism focuses on activities that minimize impact, and build cultural awareness and respect. From guided local tours to coastal ecotourism experiences, this type of travel gives explorers the opportunity to not only have an incredible experience, but to contribute – in a multitude of ways – to the places they visit, learning and absorbing culture as they do so.
Related Post: 6 Ecotourism Holiday Destinations to Check Out in 2017
Sustainability is a phrase that’s been used in countless different industries and situations, and the wide scope of its usage gives a big clue to what ‘sustainable travel’ actually is: not so much a specific model of travel as a broad set of guidelines. Applying to all aspects of the travel industry (both from the consumer and the provider), sustainable travel tends to put the ball more in the court of the businesses that offer travel opportunities, rather than the people who travel.
Sustainable travel is essentially about applying the overall concepts of sustainability to travel and tourism. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) offers a set of criteria to help define the key areas that need to be addressed for tourism and travel to be deemed sustainable; these include sustainable management, socioeconomic impacts, cultural impacts, and environmental impacts.
While these might sound like fairly generic terms, the key concept of sustainable travel lies in making decisions that, in the long term, help to maintain these four basic concepts. The central focus is ensuring that every decision a traveller makes, from where they stay to how they get there, can be achieved in a way that is environmentally sustainable.
This might seem a tad vague, but this is because sustainable travel is essentially a very broad church. It can apply to both rural and urban destinations, and focuses on improving a broad number of things about the travel industry.
Sustainable Travel in action
When it comes to sustainable travel, both the traveller and the travel provider can take steps to ensure they make a positive contribution.
The days of sticking a green placard on a mirror, asking visitors to reuse their towels, and then claiming you were a ‘green’ establishment are (nearly) history, with hotels and transport providers finding innovative ways to increase their sustainability. This can take the form of actively recycling or treating waste, employing members of the local community as staff, and sourcing ingredients and produce locally.
Similarly, as a traveller, there are ways to apply the principles of sustainable travel to your own explorations. Choosing to enlist the services of businesses that apply sustainable practice is a simple but effective way to do your part, and even small things like saving water or energy during your stay, and using reusable shopping bags all contribute to the sustainability of your travels.
The emergence of carbon offset schemes also make it possible to achieve a more sustainable model of air travel, or other carbon-heavy activities associated with travel. The schemes, offered by many airlines and large travel providers, give consumers the opportunity to pay a small amount of money on top of their fare, which the business then reinvests in an ethical and sustainable project elsewhere.
This might all seem like a lot of very similar information, and you could be forgiven for still not quite understanding how ecotourism and sustainable travel differ. After all, as sustainability and environmental concerns increase as priorities in the modern world, it’s inevitable that more and more catchphrases, jargon and buzzwords will appear.
If we were to try and simplify it as much as possible: ecotourism involves travelling to a specific ecological environment, with the goal of making an active difference when you’re there. It is more tied into nature, fauna, wildlife, and local cultures, and eco tourists are often travelling deliberately to make a difference.
Sustainable travel, on the other hand, can be applied to any type of travel – it’s more about applying the best practices of sustainability to the different aspects of travelling, and ensuring that as you go about your global adventures, you aren’t contributing to the demise of the planet.
While sometimes it’s important to get into semantics, it’s certainly not something to be too pedantic over when it comes to your pursuits as an eco warrior (princess or otherwise). At the end of the day, any individual or business that is making the effort to take steps towards a greener future for our society and planet should be commended. Happy travels!
Travel comes with a huge environmental cost. We encourage you to offset the greenhouse gas emissions generated by your travel. Check out this post the provides comprehensive details about carbon offsets and how they can help to mitigate your impact.