What Is Sustainable Tourism? Examples of Ecotourism By Country, Organizations

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | January 8, 2024

Globe trotter using green energy and tree planting to go to sustainable tourism destinations, understanding ecotourism and responsible tourism after asking how does tourism effect the environment?

Have you ever considered the carbon footprint of traveling and wondered if sustainable tourism was possible?

Tourism is an important industry in the world and sustainable tourism establishes a balance among the cultural, economic, social and environmental aspects of the industry.

The goal of sustainable tourism is to reduce the impact of the industry on local culture and environment so that future generations can still access them.

At the same time, it seeks to contribute to the conservation of local ecosystems, generation of income and facilitation of employment.

Sustainable tourism increases the positive contributions of tourism to culture and biodiversity conservation,9 reduces poverty, and facilitates the common goals of sustainable development.

This guide explains the methods and ideals behind sustainable tourism, and provides examples of how that is happening around the world in various countries’ ecotourism initatives and being promoted by a number of organizations.

Sustainable Tourism by Country: Best Ecotourism Destinations

As mentioned previously, ecotourism enhances awareness by encouraging people to learn about and conserve diverse cultures, wildlife, and landscapes. Sustainable tourism on the other hand is a way of life meaning you make eco-conscious decisions when traveling.

Graphic representation of the best ecotourism destinations such as Costa Rica, Iceland, Bhutan, Slovenia, Kenya, Palau, and Galapagos Islands.

Here are 7 examples of sustainable tourism by country and some of the best ecotourism destinations.

#1 Costa Rica

Costa Rica is famous for its ecotourism. It’s a tropical destination that boasts of mountains, volcanoes, beaches, cloud forests, and rainforests.

This means that nature is the heart of Costa Rica with over 25% of the country made up of national parks, protected lands, and wildlife reserves.

An example of ecotourism is the Corcovado National Park. It’s considered one of the most biodiverse places globally.

The local government protects this park by limiting the daily number of visitors. You must also employ a local guide to visit the park.

Costa Rica also allows ecotourism volunteers to visit the country.

#2 Iceland

The number of tourists that visit Iceland increases every year and the country is considering ways to keep tourism responsible and sustainable. The country offers many eco-friendly accommodation options on top of large chain restaurants.

You can also choose green transport means such as horses, bikes, or hiking.

A tourist standing on the river bank looking at a river with strong current during a hike in the mountain.

(Image: Mirka23)

Iceland uses renewable geothermal energy to heat water in hotels and houses, as well as being a source of electricity. Most spas do not use external heat sources, rather the geothermal energy has been used to create natural spas such as the Blue Lagoon.

#3 Palau

Palau is a small island in the Pacific Ocean that has revolutionized ecotourism. It rewards sustainable and responsible tourists.

You earn points every time you make a conscious decision to protect the fragile ecosystem.

Some things that might earn you points include:

  • Signing a Palau Pledge which is presented on arrival
  • Learning Palau’s culture
  • Eating local food that is sources sustainable
  • Wearing reef-safe sunscreen

Anytime you earn points, you are rewarded with exclusive activities such as diving. All in all, the main reward is knowing that you are contributing to this magnificent place.

#4 Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Islands form a significant part of human history because this is where Charles Darwin came up with the Theory of Evolution. Education and research is still a major part of Galapagos Island today.

Since these islands off the Ecuador coast are invaluable, several steps have been taken to preserve it. These steps include a $100 conservation fee, limited number of visitors, planned boat routes to reduce the number of people in one place.

#5 Kenya

Kenya among the best ecotourism destinations in Africa. First, the government has created an organization called Ecotourism Kenya that promotes sustainable tourism practices.

This organization focuses on conserving the natural environment and improving the livelihood of local communities.

Kenya is home to 54 national parks and has over 1 million tourists every year. The main attraction is the ‘Big 5’ wildlife.

The government has made conscious efforts to:

  • Ban single use plastic and plastic bags
  • Stop illegal poaching15
  • Promote sustainable travel and tourism

#6 Bhutan

Bhutan is a great ecotourism destination albeit an expensive one. Since 1991, the nation has charged visitors a daily sustainable development fee. It’s approximately $200 a day.

This money has been used to create extraordinary outcomes such as:

  • Supporting education of the local community
  • Facilitating organic farming
  • Upskilling workers in the tourism industry
  • Offsetting the nation’s carbon footprint as a result of tourism

In 2017, Bhutan became the first carbon negative country in the world.8,16 This means it takes in more carbon dioxide than it produces.

#7 Slovenia

60% of the nation of Slovenia is covered in forest and the country protects 54% of its land. The natural beauty has attracted many tourists who want to row across Lake Blend or hike in the spectacular mountains.

A boatman paddles through a body of water to give a tour to a group of tourist in Slovenia.

(Image: ateles7624)

The local government has given tourists sustainable options. If a tourism service or accommodation has a Slovenia Green Label you know that you are helping protect the environment and preserving local traditions.

The country also supports green camping.

How Does Tourism Affect the Environment?

Tourism is among the fastest growing industries globally. Tourism is a significant contributor to the environment and economic condition of a tourist destination and has great power to affect the area’s future development.

Tourism can aid communities, instigate positive environmental change and create long-term sustainability for the local areas. However, at the moment, tourism is negatively impacting the environment and this has given birth to the concepts of sustainable tourism and ecotourism.

Two tourists on a dock with hotel rooms built on clear blue ocean in the background.

(Image: Asad Photo Maldives17)

How does tourism affect the environment? In most cases, tourism benefits destinations by providing sufficient income to sustain the environment, lifestyle and traditions of the local community.

However, it has some negative environmental impacts that are often overlooked. They include:

#1 Depletion of Natural Resources

In areas with scarce resources, depletion of natural resources is a huge concern. Water in particular, is the most critically misused resource in the tourism sector.

Water overuse: In some popular tourist destinations, tourists over use water in hotels for luxurious wellness areas and breathtaking swimming pools.

Most travelers on vacations tend to use more water than what they normally use at home. This results in the creation of large quantities of wastewater and it creates water shortages which impact the local residents.

High tourism seasons often affect a destination’s water cycle. This season does not factor in insufficient rainfall which has become a problem due to climate change.

In some areas, their driest months are when demands for water from resorts and other areas of special tourist interest are at their peak. The crowding in these destinations cause low water supply to locals because tourists demand unlimited accessibility to clean water.

Many locals, especially those in poorer countries may lack enough water for their basic needs. The groundwater is often overdrawn and redirected by large hotels and this results in drying wells for small communities.

It may also increase salinity of the remaining water table as a result of dissolved minerals in the soil. Sometimes, farmers may lack water to grow crops particularly, in drier areas when it has not rained for months.

Other resources: The tourism industry consumes non-renewable and renewable resources that are available at any given location.

This includes a variety of biomass, metals, and mineral resources. The industry consumes high amounts of fossil fuels creating greenhouse gasses that affect the health of fertile soils which then impacts food production.1

The gasses also hurt whole ecosystems such as biodiverse wetlands and forests. This affects the local wildlife.

As the industry builds more recreational facilities, natural habitats get destroyed, pushing wild animals especially tropical rainforest animals away from natural areas decreasing their population.

Forests and other land resources are affected when trees are harvested for fuel or building materials. Tourist accommodations rely heavily on local energy for electricity, heating, and production of hot water.

Just like water consumption, the energy demand depletes the local resources.

Related Reading: Why is Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Important? (Full Answer)

#2 Waste Production and Overconsumption

Most tourists are on vacation and they want to forget their problems. They want to forget their daily responsibilities such as meal planning or having a refillable water bottle or have long-term use items such as reusable shopping bags.

Most tourists rely on single use plastic items that can be disposed of easily. Tourists usually create twice as much waste in a day compared to local residents.

A floating market in Bangkok, Thailand showing river full of boats with both local and foreign tourists.

(Image: Dean Moriarty18)

In the Mediterranean, marine litter increases by 40% during peak season. Waste production is a major Impact of tourism on the environment.10

Additionally, tourists are very reckless with food contributing significantly to food wasting. You must know that most of the waste from the industry does not come directly from tourists, rather it comes from popular destinations.

Huge portions of solid waste originate from background services in the tourism industry from wellness, restaurants, laundries, accommodations, and entertainment. This litter and solid waste degrades the local ecosystem affecting the landscape’s physical appearance.

For example, marine litter often destroys marine life and degrades the unique and sensitive yet vital ecosystems.

Furthermore, the building of tourist facilities also increases sewage pollution. You will be shocked to know that most tourist destinations do not respect local sewage laws especially in developing countries.

The sewage runs off into lakes, rivers, and seas damaging the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. This pollution can also facilitate the growth of algae causing eutrophication (altering of salinity in water).

Disturbing the growth of nature, and different types of birds, animals and plants.

#3 Pollution

In the tourism industry, pollution comes in many forms such as:

  • High amounts of emissions that results from higher energy needs and transport
  • Increased solid waste production
  • Sewage, oil, and chemical spills
  • Noise pollution
  • Light pollution

For example, artificial lights installed along the coastlines usually confuse newly hatched sea turtle babies making them head in the opposite direction of the water. This is because the instinct of the baby turtle is to follow the light that leads them to the sea.

In nature, the light of the moon will reflect on the water which will then be the brightest point of the beach. However, these days, the artificial lights confuse the hatchlings leading them to their death.

Transportation and recreational vehicles also generate noise pollution. Using jet skis and snowmobiles generate a lot of noise.

These noisy thoroughfares and noisy tourist destinations can distress and disturb wildlife particularly, in sensitive ecosystems.

Cruise ships are among the world’s largest polluters. The noise from these ‘floating cities’ disturb the deep waters and affect the migration routes of aquatic mammals.

The cruises also release high amounts of waste and raw sewage from the passengers which affects the aquatic life of people.

These are some of the examples of pollution that the tourism industry creates. Most tourist facilities such as cruise ships do not abide by waste disposal laws ruining ecosystems and creating a lot of pollution.

Sustainable Travel: What Is Sustainable Tourism Defined?

You may have heard of sustainable travel as green tourism has become popular over the years.11 While travel is eye-opening and very enjoyable, it can harm both the local population and the environment in the area where you are visiting.

While most people traveling have good intentions, they may not make well-informed decisions that have the best interest of the destination in mind.

Wide shot of elephants going through a forest showing tourists sitting on chairs on the elephants' backs.

(Image: Jessica19)

As a result, sustainable tourism is more of an afterthought instead of the norm. Sustainable travel involves traveling in a way that reduces the negative impacts of the trip on the economy, society and the environment.

What is sustainable tourism defined? Similar to sustainable travel, sustainable tourism is traveling with the aim of creating a positive social, economic, and environmental impact.2

In this case, instead of enhancing negative impacts, you contribute to the overall conservation and development of your destination by protecting the geography and the welfare of those who depend on that environment.

Besides reducing the negative impact of the environment, the goal of sustainable tourism is to help create future employment for the local people and ensure they get a positive experience for the visit.

What Is Ecotourism: What Is Ecological Tourism?

Ecotourism and sustainable tourism are sometimes used interchangeably. However, there is a subtle difference.

First it’s important to know, what is ecotourism or what is ecological tourism? Ecological tourism or ecotourism involves visiting natural places and attractions and doing so in a sustainable and responsible manner.

Here you travel to natural areas with the focus being environmental conservation. The aim here is to educate tourists about conservation efforts and at the same time offering them an opportunity to explore nature.

Ecotourism benefits destinations such as Costa Rica, Kenya, Ecuador, and Madagascar, among others by providing economic growth in some of their impoverished communities.

With ecotourism, tourists visit relatively uncontaminated and undisturbed natural areas with the specific objective of enjoying, admiring, and studying the animals, wild plants and scenery, while also enjoying any existing cultural manifestation.3 During this visit, the tourists observe the local laws, preserve the environment, and respect the local customs, conserving the destination for the next person.

Sustainable Tourism vs Ecotourism

In many cases, sustainable tourism and ecotourism are used interchangeably.12 Even though both are important, they have slightly different meanings.

Sustainable tourism focuses on creating travel opportunities that have little impact and positively benefiting the local communities and the destinations. Ecotourism is about educating travelers or tourists on the environment and nature and letting them take part in cultural and conservation activities.

Ecotourism must always be sustainable, however, not all activities of sustainable tourism are ecotourism. For example, you might take a train, instead of a flight, to travel to a lodge that is powered sustainably.

Though this is sustainable tourism, you are not learning anything about nature and the environment therefore it’s not ecotourism.

Why Is Ecotourism Important?

The main objective of ecotourism is to teach tourists how to conserve the environment and improve the welfare of the local people. Ecotourism, also called nature tourism, reduces the impact of tourism on the environment.

The goal is to facilitate conservation, sustainable development and communities through means of travel.

A group of tourist in a jeep viewing wild animals in a safari.

(Image: Alex Strachan21)

Ecotourism has many environmental and social benefits such as:

  • It preserves natural areas and protects wildlife populations: Visitors are educated to take part in conservation efforts and contribute financially to research efforts.
  • It creates jobs and bolsters existing enterprises: Ecotourism helps the development of rural areas and areas around natural attractions boosting the economic growth.
  • It provides a more meaningful and genuine means of travel: You will not simply see museums, landmarks and other interesting sites.
    You will delve more into local communities and have a better awareness of the natural world.
  • It facilitates the exchange of cultures and traditions: The visitors and the locals learn about each other’s way of life.4
    Tourists broaden their experience and admire the world by immersing themselves into the traditions of the people and places they visit.

There are certain guidelines that people who engage in ecotourism abide by. Ecotourism is important because:

  1. Its main focus is to preserve the natural, pristine, and unadulterated environments.
  2. It builds environmental and cultural awareness.
  3. It encourages positive experiences for hosts and visitors.
  4. It reduces the effects of tourism on the environment.
  5. It protects conservation by creating financial benefits in its favor.

Benefits of Tourism: Why Is Sustainable Tourism Important?

Every industry in the world has its own negative impacts and tourism is no different. The best way to reduce the impact of tourism as a traveler is to make conscious choices that ensure the thriving of local communities and the environment.

If you practice responsible and eco-friendly travel, and understand the benefits of sustainable tourism, then you will leave a positive impact.

Why is sustainable tourism important? Here are a few reasons why:

Reduces the Industry’s Ecological Impact

If you are traveling for any reason, be it vacation or business, everything you do impacts your ecological footprint. This includes what you eat, what you do, where you stay, and how you move.

The aim of green tourism is to reduce this.

While traveling should be relaxing, it’s also important to do it in such a way that you protect the environment and local society concurrently. For example, if you eat local produce or food from local businesses, it already makes a huge difference.

Imported food, whether across the ocean or country comes at a huge economic and environmental cost.

Additionally, one goal of traveling to a new place is to learn the culture through food. Eating food saves a lot of emissions and may even introduce you to new cuisines that you end up loving.

Another way of reducing your carbon footprint is to avoid flying to destinations that are reachable by bus,13 train, and other travel methods that are eco-friendly.5 If you must travel by air, consider going for direct flights or purchasing carbon offsets.

You must remember to pack light as well.

Allows Wildlife To Stay Wild

One major part of responsible tourism is preserving wildlife. In many locations around the world, animals that are used to attract tourists are not often taken care of.

For example, the Amazon’s swimming with pink dolphins, or Thailand’s riding with elephants, though innocent practices, do a lot of damage to the animals.

There are many cases of early deaths for the elephants and they may suffer pain. The tourist providers attract the dolphins by frozen fish moments before tourists swim to retrain, touch, ride and carry them out of the water.

All the tourists want are photo opportunities at the expense of the animals.

A group of tourists riding a jeep while touring and looking at a lion in the wild.

(Image: Adrega20)

Some tourists go even further and take an animal part as a souvenir such as ivory, tiger fangs, and tortoise shells. This really affects the wildlife of the area.

Some cities allow tourists to feed animals. This makes the animals dependent on the tourists, and in cases such as the Coronavirus pandemic when there were no tourists, the animals died due to lack of food and skills to forage for themselves.

Sustainable tourism decisions will make you avoid destinations that do not consider the nest interest of the animals. Once the demand for this type of entertainment reduces, the attractions will be closed leaving animals to remain wild.

The local communities will also be empowered to protect wildlife, create sustainable travel jobs, and engage in ecotourism rather than resorting to exploitation.

While it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to view wildlife in its natural habitat, it would be great if you participated in a volunteering project that works in the conservation field. In this way, you will have an unforgettable experience while at the same time promote sustainable tourism.

Related Reading: Forest Ecosystem Guide: Boreal vs Deciduous vs Coniferous vs Temperate

Keeps the Environment Clean

The concept of keeping the environment clean often comes as an afterthought as travelers relax in their resorts or get lost in the local markets. This causes excessive waste from using high energy amounts in hotels to plastic pollution in local areas such as beaches.

As a green traveler, the first step, before going on a trip, is to research accommodations and consider issues such as wastewater and garbage disposal. You should try to spot greenwashing (making products sustainable that they really are) and terrible practices.

Some accommodations offer false eco claims. For example, a hotel may claim that they have banned single-use plastics while at the same time offer single use bath gel bottles, conditioners, and plastic shampoo for guests.

Sustainable tourism means looking at the alternatives to plastics such as food wraps that local businesses offer, and their sources of ingredients to food.

Sustainable tourism means opting for sustainable attractions instead of overcrowded places suffering from negative effects of mass tourism.6 It also means packing eco-conscious items that help reduce waste while traveling such as:

  • Reusable backpacks and shopping bags
  • Menstrual cups
  • Travel towels
  • Toiletry bags that have reusable travel-sized containers
  • Cloth napkins that can be rewashed
  • Reusable water bottles and straws
  • Reusable food containers and cutlery

At the end of the day, conscious sustainable practices help reduce waste and benefit the tourism industry by keeping the attractions cleaner and preserving their beauty.

Empowers and Supports Local Community

One major contribution of sustainable tourism is that it empowers and supports local communities. Getting immersed in the local culture benefits both you and the people there.

Choosing to stay in homestays, guesthouses, and locally owned hotels stimulates the local economy and connects you with the local culture at a personal level. Similarly, using reputable local tour operators helps boost the community.

Homestays in Vietnam which can be used as accommodations for local and foreign tourists during their vacation.

(Image: Milan22)

The money you spend preserves the jobs for the local people while at the same time making your trip more memorable.

You won’t get a chance to sample local dishes when dining in restaurant chains. Even if you do, it’s most likely they are inauthentic and overpriced.

Local restaurants ensure that the food is reasonably priced, fresh and healthy since they are sourced locally.

Buying local souvenirs and products allows you to get items that you cannot find anywhere else. Additionally, local artisans get your money creating a sustainable income source.

Preserves Cultural Heritage

Tourism provides educational and insightful experiences to the visitors if done responsibly. The locals are encouraged to share their cultural heritage.

For example, traveling to see the local African communities encourage them to preserve, maintain and share their cultural heritage. The local communities also get money to sustain their way of life.

Creates a More Meaningful Experience

Here is an example, if one of your traveling agenda is cruising across a desert, then you are free to hire a vehicle that can travel across the dunes. You can finish the journey by having a picnic overlooking the desert leaving you with a great experience.

However, there’s an alternative. What if instead you decide to live with the nomadic tribes on your trip.

You will still travel across the desert but at the same time, you’ll glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of the nomadic dwellers. You’ll see how they adapt to such harsh landscapes, enjoy their hospitality, and listen to their poetry and music.

Green tourism adds more to your journey and broadens your horizons. You will get to walk away with the impression of beauty of the place as well as establish an important connection with the communities you meet.

This creates a more meaningful experience.

Creates More Conscious Travelers

Out of all the benefits of sustainable tourism, the biggest is that you become a more responsible traveler and make better choices. This could mean choosing eco-friendlier transportation or staying in accommodations that are more eco-conscious.

Sustainable tourism creates more conscious travelers.

You may discover that there are some locations that you should not go to if you want to preserve them. For example, some tiny islands cannot sustain large numbers of tourists and some communities have too poor infrastructure to accommodate tourism.7

In such cases, the best decision is to avoid these destinations altogether.

You will also search for ways to support important causes in the areas that you visit, contributing positively in your journey. Lastly, you reduce your carbon footprint by traveling with environmentally friendly products, using eco-friendly transport means, and avoiding excessive use of plastic that destroys the environment.

Sustainable Tourism Practices

Sustainable tourism can be practiced in many ways. Nine simple practices include:

  1. Choose to stay in eco-friendly accommodation14
  2. Make optimal use of environmental resources
  3. Take public transport and eco-friendlier transport means
  4. Respect the culture of local communities
  5. Buy from and support local businesses
  6. Travel slow
  7. Say NO to single-use plastic
  8. Eat local food
  9. Sponsor an animal

Responsible Tourism: Ecotourism Organizations

There are so many responsible travel and ecotourism organizations they include:

  1. The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST): This is a research institute based in Washington, D.C. that focuses on promoting responsible tourism practices and policies globally.
  2. Destination Stewardship Center (DSC): This organization helps protect specific places around the world by creating awareness and supporting sustainable tourism management
  3. Ethical Traveler: This is a project under the Earth Island Institute in San Francisco. It’s a platform for responsible travelers to voice their opinions.
  4. Global Ecotourism Network: Their mission is to create one body for all the ecotourism associations globally and provide a platform that promotes global ecotourism with regards to academics, operators, indigenous people, and destinations.

To summarize, sustainable tourism is a tourism activity level that can be maintained long term because it leads to a net benefit for the natural, social, economic, and cultural environment of the destination.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sustainable Tourism

What Are Some Sustainable Tourism Destinations?

Some sustainable tourist destinations include Costa Rica, Kenya, and Iceland.

Why Is Sustainable Tourism Important?

It helps conserve the environment, wildlife, and local culture.

How Does Tourism Affect the Environment?

Tourism causes pollution and overconsumption of natural resources.


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