Monday, 13 February 2012

What do we mean by responsible tourism?

The discussion around responsible tourism has been ongoing for a number of years. People also refer to sustainable tourism, eco-tourism, green tourism and ethical tourism (to name but a few) and often this terminology is used interchangeably. When we refer to these concepts are we actually referring to the same thing? My response would be yes... and no. Each term has a different definition when used on its own merit, however arguably ‘responsible tourism’ embodies many of these.
The momentum surrounding responsible tourism is increasing: it was a focal point of 2011’s London World Travel Market (WTM); a new seminal book by Harold Goodwin entitled ‘Taking Responsibility for Tourism’ was published in 2011, and this week (13th – 19th February) is responsible tourism week 2012. However, at the London WTM in 2011, Leo Hickman made the point that still only a small part of the industry is concerned with responsible tourism.
A key question for me is whether interchangeable terminology and multiple definitions have led to confusion not only within the industry itself but for tourists/travellers? I undertook a study in 2001 on the perceptions of ethical tourism. This study found that respondents saw ethical tourism as a tourism product[1] in its own right, and I have also experienced the same response more recently when discussing responsible tourism. Is there a risk that these terms have become buzzwords, clich├ęs, and that the more serious message of responsible tourism has become diluted? A fellow tweeter[2] recently said that ‘sustainability is just a buzzword that is too sexy for its own good’.
So......responsible tourism, what do we actually mean?
According to the Collins English Dictionary, responsible is defined as ‘being accountable for one’s actions and decisions[3].’
Tourism is defined as ‘tourist travel and the services connected with it...[4].’
On this basis one could offer the following definition of responsible tourism ‘tourist travel where the tourist and industry are accountable for their actions and decisions’; literally taking responsibility for tourism. However there are a number of definitions; the most widely accepted came out from a side event[5] of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 and was adopted by the World Travel Market in 2007. It defines responsible tourism as tourism that:
  • minimises negative economic, environmental and social impacts;
  • generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the wellbeing of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry;
  • involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life changes;
  • makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world's diversity;
  • provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues;
  • provides access for physically challenged people;
  • is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence.
Cape Town Declaration 2002[6]
But in essence, and as highlighted beautifully in Harold Goodwin’s book, responsible tourism is a movement towards tourism which is more responsible; ‘about how we can make, and enjoy, real holidays. It is about how we can make better holidays for ourselves and for others, how we make better places for people to live in and for us, as travellers and tourists to visit[7].’ Personally, I see an industry where (amongst other things) products are more sustainable, both environmentally and socially, and processes are ethical, and where consumers also take responsibility for their impacts and actions in choosing holidays and whilst travelling in destinations.  
As someone who is passionate about responsible tourism, the next question I tend to get asked is why the industry and tourists/travellers should aim to embody and promote responsible tourism.....but that is another blog!

For further information on responsible tourism, including definitions you can visit the following: And to get involved in Responsible Tourism Week 2012, visit:
There is a wealth of expertise and a number of experts who communicate via Twitter, in fact too many to mention! But as a starting point I would recommended following: @haroldgoodwin, @ronmader, @catherinemack, @leohickman, @tourismplan, @traveltf, and @tourismconcern. 
There are also a number of useful publications and websites (in addition to those included in my endnotes) including,
  • Explore Worldwide (UD) ‘Responsible Travel and Tourism’ [Online] Available from:
  • (UD) Responsible Travel and Responsible Tourism [Online] Available from:
  • Intrepid Travel (UD) ‘Responsible Travel’ [Online] Available from:
  • Transitions Abroad (2006) Responsible Tourism Handbook [Online] Available from:
  • Tearfund (2000) ‘A Tearfund Guide to Tourism: Don’t forget your ethics’ London: Tearfund
  • Tearfund (2001) ‘Tourism: Putting Ethics into Practice’ [Online] Available from:
  • Tearfund (2002) ‘Worlds Apart: A call to responsible global tourism’ [Online] Available from:
  • United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UD) ‘Global Code of Ethics for Tourism’ [Online] Available from:

[1] Such as adventure or cultural tourism
[2] @ethicsblogger
[5] Cape Town Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations 2002, organised by the Responsible Tourism Partnership and Western Cape Tourism.
[7] Goodwin, H. (2011:x) Taking Responsibility for Tourism, Goodfellow Publishers Limited: Oxford