Difference between sustainable tourism and ecotourism explained

What is the difference between sustainable tourism and ecotourism? When you start planning your next eco-friendly holiday, chances are you might get overwhelmed with all the information now available for the modern, eco-smart, discerning city traveler. In particular, you might wonder what terms such as sustainable tourism and ecotourism – actually mean and how they differ from each other. Here a short overview.

Sustainable tourism

Sustainable tourism is a term which is used for many issues linked to economic viability, sociocultural sensitivity and environmental conservation of tourist destinations and businesses. The overall objective of initiatives aimed at making tourism more sustainable is to reduce the negative impacts of travel activities.

In our view, sustainable tourism is a term best suited to describe business strategies and management plans for businesses and destinations. Think of tourism sustainability as synonymous with authentic, quality travel experiences and healthy (work) environments.

As environmentally conscious, smart traveler, you can contribute to a more sustainable tourism by choosing hotels and activities that actively minimize the negative impact of their operations, reducing their environmental footprint. Or you can travel less and less far, trying to avoid flights where possible. At the destination you can skip imported souvenirs and instead buy from local craftsmen and sellers.

Sometimes hotels or destinations advertise their “sustainable tourism” credentials. Usually they refer to certification schemes they are involved in. Be careful with such messages, they are often marketing hype.

Being “sustainability certified” means that a hotel or destination has a plan, a strategy in place. While eco-labels and certifications guarantee minimum standards, they don’t necessarily mean that a business or destination has actually achieved sustainability (which is very difficult).


How does sustainable tourism differ from ecotourism? Simply, ecotourism refers to tourism activities which are focused on wildlife and wilderness, rather than events or business trips, for instance.

Ecotourism businesses and destinations deal with often very knowledgeable, demanding travelers, and are located in delicate environments, which means that the pressure to follow best practice in sustainability is high.

Most ecotourism businesses are dedicated to wildlife conservation and many of them actively support local communities. A good example is Echidna Walkabout Tours in Melbourne, Australia.

Ironically, ecotourism as travel activity can be much less sustainable than a “normal” city trip, for example. Because eco-lodges and parks are often located in remote areas, getting there and back can leave a much larger environmental footprint. If this is the case, see if you can at least offset the greenhouse gas emissions caused by your flight, for example through programs like Atmosfair in Germany (their website is in English and German).

Tip: If interested in behind-the-scenes information on tourism sustainability and sustainable tourism strategies and examples, we recommend you to visit the Sustainability Leaders Project.

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What is the Difference Between Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism?
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