What is responsible tourism?

What is responsible tourism and why does it matter?

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(Last updated on: 24/05/2022)

Responsible tourism is a term we hear thrown about a lot these days, but what does it actually mean to be a responsible tourist? Who needs to be ‘responsible’ and why does responsible tourism matter?

What Is Responsible Tourism? x
What Is Responsible Tourism?

There is no denying the increased recognition amongst tourism industry stakeholders and tourists when it comes to social and corporate responsibility, but the reality is that whilst most of us are familiar with the term ‘responsible tourism’, many of us do not know exactly what this entails…. so in this article I will explain all.

What is responsible tourism?

What is responsible tourism?

In recent years there has been a clear shift away from the desire to embark on a traditional package holiday, which focusses on the concept of sun, sea and sand towards more experiential travel. Nowadays, many consumers are in search of holidays that provide them with more than two weeks on the beach, and instead are seeking deeper immersive experiences, where there is a greater focus on sustainability. This is coupled with a general trend towards more sustainable living and a greater awareness of the impacts of our actions on society and the natural environment.


In essence, responsible tourism is tourism that exhibits responsible behaviour, both in terms of the tourist and their individual actions, but also in terms of the industry and how the tourism provision is managed. Responsible tourism has become an established area of tourism research and practice and a household term, however the term is somewhat subjective and poorly understood in some contexts.

Responsible tourism definition

The definition of responsible tourism, both in theory and practice, has been the subject of debate for many years. The problem lies with the inherent subjectivity surrounding the term responsible- what one person may think is ‘responsible behaviour’, another may not.

What is responsible tourism?

Whilst many academics and industry practitioners have attempted to define the term responsible tourism, the most referenced source when it comes to defining the term remains to be the Cape Town Declaration. The 2002 Cape Town Declaration characterises responsible tourism in terms of the following:

  • minimising impacts
  • generating economic benefits for host communities
  • involving local people in decision making
  • conserving natural and cultural heritage
  • providing meaningful connections between tourists and local people
  • being accessible and culturally sensitive

In other words, tourism should encompass aspects of the above in order to be considered ‘responsible’.

Harold Goodwin is one of the key authors who has written about responsible tourism. If you are studying responsible tourism I highly recommend that you cite him in your work! You can find his most recent book here.

What is the difference between responsible tourism and sustainable tourism?

Although the term responsible tourism does share much in common with sustainable tourism, ecotourism, ethical tourism and other related forms of socially-conscious tourism, it is NOT the same. This can be quite confusing because oftentimes the terms sustainable tourism and responsible tourism are used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be.

What is responsible tourism?

As I explain in detail in my article on sustainable tourism, there are three pillars to sustainable tourism- the environment, society and the economy. The World Tourism Organisation prescribes that sustainable tourism should:

  1. Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
  2. Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.
  3. Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation. 

Whilst there are clear aims of sustainable tourism, when it comes to responsible tourism the definition is a bit more loose, without such transparent prerequisites and instead relying on the premise of simply ‘being responsible’. In other words, responsible tourism will often encompass the elements noted above, but these are not essential.

What is responsible tourism?
This infographic was created by one of my travel and tourism work experience students.

The growth of responsible tourism

The concept of responsible tourism may be in the public mind more now than ever before, but it isn’t new. The vision of a more responsible form of tourism was discussed at length back in the 1980s and became an important element within the fast emerging concept of sustainable tourism. More than twenty five years ago it was noted that the industry would have to adopt more environmentally orientated and socially responsible practices, yet this has only really become prominent in the past decade.

According to a study undertaken by Booking.com in 2020, over half (53%) of tourists around the world want to travel more sustainably in the future. The company, along with many other industry professionals-myself included- expects to see a more eco-conscious mindset in future years. Whilst there was a general shift towards a more sustainable mindset anyway, this was amplified by the COVID pandemic, as coronavirus amped people’s awareness of their impact on the environment and local communities.

What is responsible tourism?

Nowadays, the label of ‘responsible tourism’ is by far the most well-used sustainability-focussed term throughout the travel and tourism industry. In fact, a study undertaken in 2009 by SNV suggests that tour operators are almost five times as likely to use the term ‘responsible tourism’ than any other similar label (e.g. ecotourism, sustainable tourism, ethical tourism). Sadly, the subjectivity of the term does allow room for the term itself to be used exploited and for greenwashing to occur, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Why is responsible tourism important?

The UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili stated, quite rightly, that:

Sustainability must no longer be a niche part of tourism but the new norm for every part of our sector. That means an opportunity to build back better and create and industry that is more resilient and aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The tourism industry is arguably the biggest industry in the world and it has been growing at a rapid rate over the past few decades. Unfortunately, as the industry has grown around the world, so have the negative impacts that it causes. Whilst the pandemic has been a disaster for the tourism industry and those whose livelihoods depend on it, it has also presented us with a unique opportunity to fix what was/is broken.

Source: UNWTO

From the depths of the Amazon jungle to the Australian outback, there are few places in the world that have escaped the burgeoning growth of the travel and tourism industry. Unfortunately, in many cases, this has come at the expense of natural resources, local economies and indigenous populations. Responsible tourism is all about minimising these negative impacts (think erosion, littering, rises in crime, deterioration of authenticity, economic leakage and so on) and capitalising on the good stuff- the economic benefits, the preservation of natural areas and the promotion of culture and heritage, amongst other positive impacts of tourism.

Ultimately, if we want to preserve the very things that it is we are going to see (the beach, the mountain, the wildlife etc) for future generations, then we need to behave responsibly and sustainably- that’s why responsible tourism isn’t just important- it’s imperative.

How can we be responsible tourists?

What is responsible tourism?

We all need to think about the impacts that our actions have on the world around us. Yes, it is extremely difficult (if possible at all) to be 100% responsible for 100% of the time. BUT, there are many things that we CAN do to help to protect and preserve the environment, society and the economy. You can read a detailed account of how to be an ethical tourist here, but for now I will list a few subtle changes that you can make to help be a more responsible tourist when you travel:

  • Don’t buy animal souvenirs
  • Avoid unethical wildlife tourism
  • Don’t drop litter
  • Don’t touch coral
  • Try slow tourism 
  • Opt for eco-friendly transportation options 
  • Turn off the lights
  • Try ecotourism
  • Avoid plastic
  • Recycle 
  • Don’t waste water
  • Stick to main paths
  • Shop local
  • Limit economic leakage where you can
  • Haggle fairly
  • Learn the local language 
  • Be respectful of local customs and traditions 
  • Don’t give to beggars
  • Treat people fairly 
  • Avoid sex tourism 
  • Don’t take photos of people without their permission 

How can the tourism industry be more responsible?

What is responsible tourism?

A key aspect to ensuring sustainable tourism is achieved is through careful planning and management. Tourism industry stakeholders at all levels, ranging from the taxi driver and hotel staff at grass roots level, through to international organisations and national Government, have an obligation to facilitate responsible tourism. There are many examples of what responsible behaviour from the tourism industry might look like in practice, but here are a few to give you an idea:

  • Hire local staff
  • Use local products and services to minimise economic leakage
  • Use ethical marketing and promotion
  • Involve the local community in decision making
  • Recycle
  • Have a strong sense of corporate social responsibility
  • Use environmentally friendly products and services
  • Limited economic leakage
  • Educate workers
  • Offer training and development opportunities for staff
  • Work together with other industry stakeholders

Examples of responsible tourism

There are examples of responsible tourism from all over the world! However, to give you an idea of what responsible tourism looks like in practice, I have given a few examples for you below. (Note- these can also be classified as examples of sustainable tourism.)

Footsteps Ecolodge, The Gambia

My first example of sustainable tourism is Footsteps Ecolodge, which I visited back in 2010.

David, the Founder of Footsteps Ecolodge expresses how when he took a relatively cheap trip to The Gambia, he discovered that the staff at his booked hotel were only earning on average £1 per day. David felt guilty for enjoying a holiday knowing that the locals were receiving little or no economic benefits at all from hosting him.

David went on to develop Footsteps Ecolodge, with a mission to improve The Gambia’s trade through responsible tourism and therefore encourages sustainable development. In fact, one of his goals has led footsteps to employ only from the local village and buy only local produce.

I loved visiting this ecolodge. It has many environmentally friendly initiatives, ranging from solar powered electricity to composting toilets. It is based far away from the main tourist areas, providing a unique and authentic holiday experience. After spending a few days in the main tourist resort of Kotu, I was happy to exchange the evening chatter in the restaurants for the humming of grasshoppers and the beach bar music for the gentle sounds of waves.

sustainable tourism

You can book a stay at Footsteps Ecolodge here.

Eden Project, Cornwall

The Eden Project is another great example of sustainable tourism.

It was built to demonstrate the importance of plants to people and to promote the understanding of vital relationships between plants and people. It is a huge complex that welcomes a wide range of tourists from the UK and overseas. In 2017, the project attracted more than one million visitors.

The project in fact has annual sustainability reports, monitoring its sustainable impact year on year.

You can find out more about the Eden Project in this video.

Reality Tours and Travel, India

Reality Tours and Travel’s mission is to provide authentic and thought-provoking local experiences through their tours and to use the profits to create change in Indian communities.

Reality Tours and Travel is a social catalyst and works towards profit sharing programs. 80% of their profits go directly to Reality Gives which runs high quality education programs in areas where their tours work.

Reality Tours and Travel now welcomes over 15,000 guests each year and employs over 50 members of staff. Here is a bit more information about the work that they do.

Dolphin Discovery Centre, Western Australia

The Dolphin Discovery Centre begun when Mrs Evelyn Smith begun to feed a group of dolphins near her home. Following her discovery of the dolphin grouping, specialists were brought in to monitor and study the local dolphins.

A few years later, the Dolphin Discovery Centre allowed tourists and community members to interact with the dolphins in hope they would understand and enjoy the marine mammals.

sustainable tourism
Source: Trip Advisor

In brief, the Dolphin Discovery Centre Adopt a Dolphin Program supports the conservation of dolphins and the broader marine environment.

To date, the Dolphin Discovery Centre not only conserves dolphins, the centre also conserves turtles too. Learn more on adopting a dolphin or turtle with the Dolphin Discovery Centre here.

Rancho Margot, Costa Rica

Ranch Margot is exactly what it sounds, a ranch located in Costa Rica. It all begun in 2004 when the founder of Rancho Margot, Juan Sostheim, purchased 400 acres of pasture. Despite the land being cleared of all vegetation, Juan Sostheim had a vision to grow sustainable food and raising animals.

Today, Rancho Margot focuses specifically on sustainable production and living, from the food they delivery to their energy production and the transportation used. Read more on Rancho Margot here.

Rancho Margot’s sustainable mission is in keeping with the Brundtland Report.

“To achieve and maintain sustainable operations, we work to find better ways to satisfy our needs without compromising future generations​”

Whilst I didn’t get a chance got visit Rancho Margot during our travels through Costa Rica, it does look like a fantastic place to go and a great example of sustainable tourism.

Responsible tourism: Further reading

If you want to learn more about responsible tourism there are some really great texts available to you, here are a few that I recommend-

And here are some more of my articles that may interest you too:

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