The Meaning of Responsible Tourism

As an educator in the field of responsible tourism, I am frequently asked to explain and discuss the principles, goals, and practices of the industry. Through my experiences educating travellers, operators, and the general public, I found that many of the qualities that make tourism “responsible” remain largely misunderstood. In part, this is due to the complex and interwoven nature of the tourism industry and the many diverse initiatives available for a positive impact within it.  For travellers, continued education and informed participation is the best way to stay up to date on changes in the responsible tourism movement. Most importantly, understanding the foundational principles of responsible tourism provides a lens for which to engage and analyze future tourism experiences. In this spirit, I have developed a guide below to help explain responsible tourism and provide relevant examples for increased understanding. 

What is Responsible Tourism? 

Responsible tourism is broadly defined as touristic activities that “make places better for people to live in and visit”. In particular, responsible tourism accomplishes this through three primary activities;  promoting environmental stewardship, producing inclusive economic growth, and providing greater social wellbeing for host communities.

What Are the Principles of Responsible Tourism? 

The principles of responsible tourism were established by the Cape Town Declaration of 2002, a related event preceding the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The 2002 Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism characterizes the movement as one that:

• Minimizes the negative economic, social and environmental impact of tourism; 

• Generates greater economic benefits for the local people and improves the welfare of the host communities; 

• Involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and opportunities; 

• Makes positive contributions to the conservation of the cultural and natural heritage and to the maintenance of the diversity of the world; 

• Provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through meaningful connections with local people, and a broader understanding of the local culture and its environmental and social problems; 

• Provides access for physically challenged people; and

 • Is culturally sensitive, fostering respect among tourists and hosts, building pride and confidence in the local community.

What Does This Look Like in Practice? 

The following organizations are examples of responsible tourism initiatives that exist at different scales from local tour operators to national conservation efforts. Introducing at least one form of responsible tourism- from participating on a tour to selecting a destination- can make a considerable difference on environmental, economic, and social footprints. For those new to responsible tourism, combining responsible experiences with regular travel plans can be a great place to start incorporating and promoting sustainability. 

Tour: Explora Vallarta

 Every winter in Bahia de Banderas, Mexico a variety of whales migrate to the warm Pacific Ocean to feed, mate, or give birth. Due to the proximity of migrant whale populations, whale watching tours have become increasingly common in the region. Unfortunately, many of the tour operators drive their boats too close to the whales, injuring and killing the mammals with their propellers. As a responsible tourism alternative, Explora Vallarta provides whale watching tours run by professional biologists, naturalists, and certified boat captains. The Explora Vallarta boats stay a safe distance from the whales, while providing tour guests with informed explanations regarding whale behaviour. Explora Vallarta has also been integral to the local government enforcing stricter conservation policies regarding the whale watching industry.

Accommodation: Wickaninnish Inn, Tofino

The Wickaninnish Inn is an eco conscious and sustainably- built hotel located in Tofino on Canada’s Pacific coast. The construction of the Inn was planned around the natural environment, with a long-term plan to support the natural re-growth of vegetation. Meals are locally sourced from Vancouver Island and greater British Columbia. The Inn is also part of the Clean the World initiative, a global organization that re-purposes soaps and shampoos to support underprivileged communities.

Community Commitment: Llaguepulli

Llaguepulli the Mapuche community of Lake Budi, Chile opens the door to intercultural relations offering visitors not only accommodation and food, but the unique opportunity to meet and share the daily lives of the Mapuche through recreational, cultural, and artistic activities. Tour programs encompass a wide range of topics including kayaking, farming practices, traditional medicine, gastronomy, and weaving.  Members of the Mapuche community work together to provide these tourism services, and in turn have been able to increase their economic benefit and cultural teachings as a cohesive organization.

National Policy: Palau

Palau may be a small archipelago in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, but in terms of responsible tourism they are making major strides. The main achievement for Palau has been its attention towards marine conservation. The government of Palau created a sanctuary that contains nearly 80% of the country’s waters, protecting the ecosystem from commercial fishing expeditions. When first arriving into Palau, visitors to the islands need to pay a sustainability fee as part of their visa entrance. Tourists also need to sign the Palau Pledge, a commitment to being mindful about the environment.


Tourism is a way to see the world, meet new people, and create more experiences. Through education and mindful participation, actors in the responsible tourism movement believe that tourism can be carried out in a more informed and enriching manner. Learning the goals, principles, and practices of responsible tourism is a great way to increase personal understanding of responsible tourism and exercise this knowledge during future travel.

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