What Is Ecotourism? Here’s A Breakdown

By Holly Riddle

Ecotourism has been getting more and more attention from travelers lately, but it’s not a new concept. In fact, it has been around for decades and is often, mistakenly, used interchangeably with sustainable tourism. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council reiterates that the two concepts are not the same thing. They serve as the international accreditation body for sustainable tourism certification, so they should know. So what is ecotourism at its core?

ecotourism and hiking
Hiking in small groups one of the best ways to explore nature responsibly | FOUNDRY CO

Ecotourism defined

According to The International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

Pretty straightforward, right?

Furthermore, the United Nations World Tourism Organization has its own, more in-depth definition that provides a little more color. Ecotourism is educational, economically beneficial to local communities and nature-based with an emphasis on conservation. In addition, it supports the maintenance of natural areas while also minimizing the negative impacts.  

Basically, it is all about taking action when you travel. And truly leaving a place better than you found it.

So, what does it look like then? 

Picture this: a small group trip arranged by a local travel provider. It could be a trip to a biodiverse destination such as the rainforests of Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands or Madagascar. 

what is ecotourism boat
Tourists with a local guide on a boat tour | AREK SOCHA

While in a destination, travelers would make use of locally-owned, sustainable accommodations, restaurants and activities. The goal being to benefit the local community. Activities would be heavily nature-based and educational and might include animal observation or hiking. To give you specific examples, see our Ecotourism Guide To Costa Rica.

When planning a trip, however, make sure you thoroughly check a travel provider’s practices before booking. Because the word ecotourism has become a bit of a buzzword, be wary of any greenwashing. Make sure your trip aligns with the definitions mentioned above and you will know exactly what kind of an impact you will have.