Sustainable Tourism vs. Ecotourism: What's the Difference?

Backpacker walking along a wooden bridge in Olympic National Park
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If you're starting to research more ways to become a more responsible traveler, you're bound to run across terms like "sustainable tourism,” "ecotourism," and "voluntourism,” sometimes even used interchangeably. But what do they all mean? In reality, ecotourism refers to the sector of low-impact tourism that includes natural areas, whereas sustainable tourism is a broader term describing sustainable practices within and performed by the tourism industry.

The environmental damages that can stem from irresponsible tourism have continued to come to light through complications from overtourism (when a destination or attraction suffers from overcrowding or an excess of tourists it isn’t designed to handle) and land degradation (when increased construction of tourism infrastructure negatively affects land resources and biodiversity). These terms are more than just travel industry buzzwords; sustainable travel is—hopefully—here to stay.

What Is Sustainable Tourism?

Sustainable tourism encompasses all forms of tourism that consider the long-term economic, social, and environmental impacts of tourism while addressing the needs of visitors, the environment, host communities, and the tourism industry itself. According to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)—an organization that sets global standards for sustainable travel and tourism—sustainable tourism doesn’t refer to a specific type of tourism but is rather an aspiration for the impacts of all forms of tourism.

Specifically, "sustainable tourism takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities." This includes conservation efforts, preserving cultural heritage and traditional values, and providing equitably distributed socio-economic benefits.

Destinations and industries may practice sustainable tourism by prioritizing the natural environment when developing activities and infrastructure, respecting the cultural practices of host communities, and ensuring long-term economic operations to support the destination, to name a few.

Adopting a few sustainable practices into your travel routine isn’t just a win for the people, environments, and wildlife of your destination, it can often create more educational, meaningful, and authentic tourism experiences at the same time. Individual travelers can do things like buy locally made souvenirs, opt for public transportation instead of rental cars, buy an admission ticket to a protected conservation area (like a national park), or go low-impact camping to show their support for sustainable tourism.

Young Caucasian woman walking near Morksie Oko lake in mountains in Poland
Oleh_Slobodeniuk / Getty Images

What Is Ecotourism?

Sustainable tourism as a whole considers the economic, social, and environmental impacts of the travel industry, ecotourism tends to lean deeper into the environmental. The most cited definition of ecological tourism (or “ecotourism”) comes straight from the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), a nonprofit organization that’s been dedicated to promoting ecotourism since 1990. TIES defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), ecotourism refers to nature-based forms of tourism where the observation and appreciation of nature and traditional culture in natural areas is the main motivation behind traveling. Specifically, ecotourism has the following characteristics:

  • Contains educational and interpretation features.
  • Generally speaking, tours are organized by specialized, small-group tour operators.
  • Destination partners are usually small, locally-owned businesses.
  • Minimizes negative impacts on the natural and cultural environment.
  • Supports the maintenance of areas used as ecotourism attractions.

This maintenance support is provided by the generation of income for communities, local organizations, and conservation management authorities as well as the availability of alternative employment opportunities and increased awareness of natural and culturally significant areas.

While ecotourism is just one of several different subsets of sustainable tourism, it tends to be the most widely recognized. Since it focuses primarily on experiencing and learning about nature, ecotourism should be managed in such a way that helps contribute to the conservation and preservation of those very areas. It goes farther than wildlife, and focuses on both environmental and cultural understanding of the natural places visited. For this reason, there are some communities and even entire habitats that completely rely on ecotourism as a means for survival.

For example, Palau in the South Pacific requires all visitors to sign an eco pledge before entering the country saying that they will act in a way that is both ecologically and culturally responsible for the sake of future generations of Palauans. Tourists can also look out for Palau Pledge Certified businesses to support companies that have made a commitment to sustainability. In Africa, many governments have safeguarded national parks and natural reserves that generate revenue for the local communities while keeping some of the world’s most iconic wildlife and ecosystems protected from extinction. In turn, nature-based tourism creates countless jobs and contributes funds to help manage these protected areas.

Other Types of Sustainable Tourism

Although ecotourism is a popular niche segment of sustainable tourism in natural areas, it's not the only one. Other forms of sustainable tourism highlight different priorities such as volunteer work, small businesses, and unique local experiences.

Voluntourism

Voluntourism involves tourists who travel for the specific purpose of volunteering, such as teaching English in a foreign country, working with a wildlife rescue center, or offering medical services to underdeveloped areas. Voluntourists can travel internationally or domestically, typically for a charity or non profit, participating in voluntourism programs that positively impact local communities and benefits destinations long-term.

Soft Tourism

Soft tourism (as opposed to hard tourism) is characterized by small-scale, locally owned and operated businesses that employ local community members, respect the local way of life and local traditions, and allow tourists to experience the truly unique aspects of a destination.

Hard tourism conversely focuses on large-scale mass tourism development, which often leads to negative impacts on the environment or keeps money out of the local economies. Soft tourism typically values experiences over checking off the most popular tourist attractions, taking a class over traveling without gaining any in-depth knowledge about the destination, and spending more time in one spot over hitting a new city every couple of days.

Community Tourism

Community-based tourism puts a region's tourism industry into the hands of its local residents, and it is often sponsored by its governments or non profits with expertise in tourism development. Community members will manage homestays where tourists can get an authentic experience of local culture, become tour guides, or provide other tourism services themselves rather than sourcing out to multinational or commercialized companies. This type of tourism is important because economic benefits usually go straight towards local families and stay within the community.

Article Sources
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  1. Global Sustainable Tourism Council. "GSTC Sustainable Tourism Glossary: Definitions of Important Terms." 2021.

  2. The International Ecotourism Society. "What Is Ecotourism." 2019.

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