Green Travel Explained: The Difference between “Sustainable,” “Eco,” and “Green” Tourism

Photo by Joshua Simas.

Photo by Joshua Simas

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.

Going further than “green”

What does “green” really mean? Usually, nothing! Unfortunately, the word “green” has been used so often and loosely in recent years that it has become diluted. Some have used the term “greenwashing” to describe a PR tactic in which a business deceptively promotes the perception that their policies are environmentally friendly. The term was first coined 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 the hotels ultimately made little to no effort to actually conserve resources or reduce waste; they just wanted to appear green in order to increase profits.

To be clear, not every hotel that uses the word “green” is automatically guilty of greenwashing–the responsible traveler just has to dig a little deeper, and the Rainforest Alliance is here to help. We work with tourism businesses to help them conserve natural resources and support local communities, and those that comply with our rigorous standards earn the right to use the Rainforest Alliance Verified mark.

So go further than green! Most environmentally-friendly hotels have information on their website about their “green” initiatives, so you can easily 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.

Putting the “eco” in ecotourism

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.

Photo by Condor Travel

Photo by Condor Travel

Sustainable tourism: the total package

Sustainable tourism businesses support environmental conservation, social development, and local economies. 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. A sustainable tourism business must also be financially sustainable—in order for sustainable tourism to thrive, it has to be profitable for business owners.

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 cut down on their own costs and preserve the longevity of their operation in addition to attracting responsible travelers.Finch Bay 01

What’s a traveler to do?

Even though “sustainable tourism” and “ecotourism” are more meaningful terms than “green tourism,” the responsible traveler shouldn’t just take these claims at face value. No matter what a hotel or tour operator says about their green credentials, always investigate further. Be sure to ask, “What is this business doing to preserve the environment and support the local community?” If you want to be 100 percent sure that a tourism business is doing what it claims, opt for those that have been certified or verified for sustainability by an independent, third-party organization.

If you’re heading to Latin America or the Caribbean and looking for a sustainable hotel or tour operator, we’ve already done the legwork for you. All of the businesses featured on have been thoroughly vetted to ensure that they are truly sustainable–and each business has a “Making a Difference” section on their profile so you can read all about their sustainability initiatives.

Do you have your own thoughts on green, eco-, or sustainable tourism? Share them with us in the comments!

22 thoughts on “Green Travel Explained: The Difference between “Sustainable,” “Eco,” and “Green” Tourism

  1. Would love to see more information on Central American tour operators/accommodations. If you need an employee to research destinations, I am here!

  2. Hi and thanks for these semantic precisions.

    In France, we also use the term “responsible” and obviously the “nature”.

    We founded via-sapiens in order to list all gree, eco and sustainable hosts and activites in France. And, we worked a lot about the different of definitions.

    Maybe you’ll have a look.

    Explanations about terms and labels :
    The guide (only in Provence and Alpes) at this time.

  3. As the founder of Green Global Travel (the top independently-owned “Green Travel” blog in the world), I prefer the term Ecotourism because I think it’s the easiest to explain. Ecotourism is travel that seeks to improve the local ECOlogy *AND* the local ECOnomy.

    If conservation initiatives do not benefit the local people in some tangible way, they’re ultimately doomed to fail. And I believe it is only through emphasizing the economic benefits of sustainably-managed ecotourism– putting a price on how much money can be made from selling tours to see a live rhino as opposed to selling body parts from a dead one– that we can turn the current tide of poaching, deforestation, etc.

  4. Any thoughts on responsible travel? The trouble with ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco’ operations often comes about with problems with local labor practices, such as not paying employees.

  5. Thanks for the distinctions. The most important impact may well be the getting there part. Long haul international flights are very carbon costly!

  6. Pingback: Green Travel Explained: The Difference between “Sustainable,” “Eco,” and “Green” Tourism | TurTIC

  7. Muy válido y apropiado este artículo que deja una herramienta para conocer las diferencias y similitudes entre sostenible; “eco” y turismo “verde”

  8. Hi!

    I just loved your post! Really needed nowadays! There’s a lot of fuzz going on with “green”, “eco”, “sustainbale” AND “responsible tourism”. This concept could round up the actual confusion on the different terms.
    Thank you!

  9. I think this is a great way for tourists to understand the differences between the different types of environmentally friendly travel. I think ‘eco tourism’ is a kind of vacation that is taken specifically to interact with the local ecology.
    We at Green Hotelier have worked with the Rainforest Foundation to raise awareness about issues surrounding sustainability in the hospitality industry.
    Whilst our magazine is business-facing and therefore a great resource for all hoteliers seeking to improve their sustainability practices, we’re also a great way for travellers to discover hotels that are serious about reducing their carbon footprint, their waste, their water use and about having a positive impact on their local communities – even if they offer the guest a luxury experience. If you want more information on the ways hotels are doing this, please visit and read more.
    This month, with an eye on the upcoming holiday season, we are running a series of Talking Point features looking at ways that hotels can engage with guests on these issues. Please feel free to come and have a look, vote in our poll and share your own ideas.

    • I agree with this assessment. You can have a sustainable tourism operation that is not an ecotourism product. I prepared the Green, Green plus and Ecotourism Certification Program for Botswana…we made a clear distinction between Green and Ecotourism.

  10. Interesting article let down because you completely ignored the carbon and worse lifecycle costs of the unsustainable flights needed to get to most green, eco, and sustainable resorts or hotels!

  11. Pingback: What is ecotourism? « Spend Life Traveling

  12. Good article ! i’am student in Ecotoursime and sustainable developement , and this new philosophy of traveling is the key of conserving our environement also minimize the impact of global warming by using the alternative type of tourisme who participate in preservin biodiversity flore and faune , and respect the local people and culture
    I’m from morocco and i can show you many destinations of ecotourisme ! if you need any informations ; Maps , circuits i can be useful
    Hicham peace from Morocco

  13. Thanks for the explanations of each term, very informative. As a meaningful traveler, my goal is to always consider my impact on the environment as much as possible. This article has provided ideas of more ways in which I can achieve that. When I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru I chose a tour operator that hires locals, gives them adequate clothing and wages and took all waste with them from each camping site.

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