What the ‘Buzz Words’ Really Mean

Ecotourism Terms and Definitions

As the negative impacts resulting from years of unfettered use of the earth’s natural resources have compounded and grown visible to the general public, the call for a more hands-on sustainable approach to resource management and preservation has emerged.

Tourism, as one of the world’s dominant economic sectors, has enormous natural, cultural, and social impacts on a global scale. The potential for these impacts to do harm is ever present, but there is equal potential for the impacts of the industry to be positive. Ecotourism, a sustainable alternative to conventional tourism, refers to the notion of balancing tourism development with the protection of the developed area’s natural and cultural resources. When practiced correctly, ecotourism serves to not only minimise potential negative impacts but also to promote education and conservation of our world’s precious biodiversity.

Unfortunately, as terms such as ‘eco’ and ‘green’ have become buzzwords, many unscrupulous tourism operators are exploiting the ‘eco’ label in order to boost marketing potential for the sole purpose of economic gain. This process, referred to as greenwashing (the act of misleading consumers in regard to a business’s environmental practices, products, and services and adherence to accepted standards) is a growing problem for ecotourism. True ecotourism operations suffer as false ecotourism practitioners damage the credibility of the industry as a whole.

What is it?

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.”  Though various definitions exist, the underlying principles of ecotourism remain the same.


  • Minimises impact
  • Uses environmental education (interpretation) to build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
  • Uses ecologically sustainable operations and management
  • Provides positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
  • Provides direct support and financial benefits for nature conservation
  • Provides economic benefits and empowerment for local people

CONservation: unscrupulous ecotourism operations (“con men”) that practice the act of greenwashing, or falsely claiming that their businesses or attractions contribute to conservation and adhere to the principles of ecotourism.

What you should know

In order to avoid falling victim to CONservation, it is important to first understand that different classifications of ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ tourism exist, and how to differentiate between them. For example:

  • Green tourism: A general term for environmentally friendly tourism intended to reduce costs and maximise benefits.
  • Nature-based tourism: A general term for a tourism activity or experience that occurs in natural areas.
  • Ecotourism: A type of nature-based tourism consisting of responsible travel in natural areas that promotes conservation and education.

Ecotourism experiences should:

  • Incorporate environmental learning (knowledge, understanding)
  • Facilitate changes in environmental attitudes and behaviours
  • Move ecotourists from a passive role (nature-based recreation) to a more active role, where the activities of ecotourists (both on and off-site) contribute to the health & viability of the environment

What you can do

When planning your next eco-adventure, use the checklist below to ensure that you are receiving a genuine ecotourism experience and not falling victim to CONservation!

Does your ecotourism experience:

  • Minimise impact?
  • Use environmental education (interpretation)?
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect?
  • Use ecologically sustainable operations and management?
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts?
  • Provide direct support and financial benefits for nature conservation?
  • Provide economic benefits and empowerment for local people?

Don’t be afraid to ask your ecotourism provider:

  • Do they have a written policy, or certification from a reputable ecotourism certification scheme?
  • What, specifically, have they done to help protect the environment and support conservation?
  • How do they measure their contribution to conservation and local communities?
  • How many local people do they employ?
  • Do they provide information to tourists on local cultures and customs?
  • Do they educate tourists on local fauna and flora?
  • How can you get involved with local conservation efforts during your stay?

Where is this applicable?

Ecotourism is a global industry. Most  countries offer a wide variety of ecotourism experiences.

Links to organisations for further information