FAQ: What is the difference between green, eco-, and sustainable tourism?

Have you ever heard the term “green hotel”? How about “sustainable resort” or “eco-friendly tours”? The green travel market can be difficult to navigate with so many terms being thrown around. Businesses sometimes use these terms dishonestly in an effort to appeal to a growing movement of conscientious travelers without actually having any environmentally or socially responsible policies in place. Here, we hope to shed some light on what these terms really mean.

Green tourism was used by researchers in the 1980s in a study that described the hotel industry’s practice of placing green placards in each room that encouraged guests to reuse their towels. The study found that many hotels ultimately made little to no effort to actually conserve resources or reduce waste; they just wanted to appear to be environmentally friendly, or “green.” It’s important that travelers dig a little deeper into hotels’ green claims when researching before booking. Fortunately, most environmentally-friendly hotels have information on their websites about their green initiatives that make it easier to learn about the concrete measures they are taking to conserve natural resources, protect plants and wildlife, and contribute to the well-being of local communities.

Ecotourism is defined by the International Ecotourism Society as: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.” The key principles of ecotourism include minimizing impact, protecting biodiversity, building environmental awareness, and respecting local culture. Typically, the primary attractions for ecotourists are flora, fauna, and cultural heritage.

Sustainable tourism businesses support environmental conservation, social development, and local economies. Examples of sustainable business practices include conserving water and energy, supporting community conservation projects, recycling and treating wastes, hiring staff from the local community, paying them just wages and providing training, and sourcing locally-produced products for restaurants and gift shops. Sustainable tourism businesses take concrete actions to enhance the well-being of local communities and make positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. In doing so, they often cut down on their own costs and preserve the longevity of their businesses in addition to attracting responsible travelers. In order for sustainable tourism to thrive, it has to be profitable for business owners.

Sustainable tourism and ecotourism are similar concepts and share many of the same principles, but sustainable tourism is broader; it covers all types of travel and destinations, from luxury to backpacking and bustling cities to remote rainforests.

The Rainforest Alliance works in sustainable tourism, which encompasses all three pillars of sustainability—environmental, social, and economic. We work with tourism businesses to train and audit them on standards that have been recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) for their commitment to sustainable practices.

Check out our list of Rainforest Alliance Certified tourism businesses, where you can go to see sustainable tourism first-hand.

For a more information on sustainable tourism, see our list of articles on the topic.

People collecting dirty river water

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