Navigating Ecotourism Certification

A guest post by Ryan Davila

Ecotourism is commonly defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). Simplifying this definition, ecotourism exists at the intersection of conservation efforts and sustainable development. While the idea of ecotourism sounds promising, there are many instances of ecotourism operators not delivering on the stated goals of the industry, creating concern that ecotourism is doing more harm than good on both conservation and sustainable development fronts.

(c) ABR 2016
(c) ABR 2016

In order to combat these potential negative impacts and identify those businesses that are living up to the promises of the industry, many international organizations, national governments, and non-governmental organizations have implemented ecotourism certification programs. Certification programs are defined as “a voluntary procedure that assesses, audits and gives written assurance that a facility, product, process or service meets specific standards. It awards a marketable logo to those that meet or exceed baseline standards set by the certification program” (definition by Martha Honey). The key word that I want to emphasize in this definition is the word “voluntary.” Explaining further, only the ecotourism operators that want to go through the certification process will be assessed.

(c) ABR 2016
(c) ABR 2016

The first programs were developed in 1985 and most focused on the environmental impacts. Many of these initial programs existed at the international level, meaning that these certification programs certified ecotourism operators all over the world. Fast forward to the present day, there are now roughly 200 ecotourism certification programs in existence. These programs are very diverse and, as mentioned, exist at virtually all geographic scales, ranging from international to local, and can include a variety of criteria and standards used to evaluate ecotourism operators. Although most, now include criteria that assess the socioeconomic impacts in addition to the environmental impacts of ecotourism.

(c) ABR 2016
(c) ABR 2016

Today, certification programs and certified ecotourism operators can be found all over the world in virtually every country (and to make is easy on you, you can find information on most online).  Some of the most common certification programs to look for include, but are not limited to: Green Globe, Green Key, Rainforest Alliance, Green Leaf, and TravelLife. If there are multiple certification programs available in a specific destination (which there usually are since an operator can apply for as many certification programs as desired as long as the operator is within the geographic scope of the project), it’s a good idea to see which operators are certified by multiple certification programs. This is not to say that these highly certified operators are the best in the destination, just that they are more likely to be dedicated to accomplishing the goals of ecotourism.

(c) ABR 2016
(c) ABR 2016

As ecotourism continues to grow and become more and more popular, it is important that we, as ecotourists, begin paying more attention to the impact that we have on both the communities and the natural areas that we visit during our expeditions. If we research certification programs and choose ecotourism operators that are certified at our destinations, we starting on the right path to becoming more conscious travelers.
*If you desire more information on ecotourism certification, please visit The International Ecotourism Society website ( or the DESTINET website (*


20 thoughts on “Navigating Ecotourism Certification

  1. Very informative article. Thanks for sharing. Hopefully this certification will become mandatory as ecotourism is becoming more popular . But will take your advice and choose the ones that are certified for now. 🙂

  2. Wow! This is a really insightful article. I never considered that some eco tours or companies may not be living up to it. I will make sure to do lots of research when booking an eco tour in the future.

    1. Yeah, it is unfortunate, but true. Greenwashing is the term for it, and lots of companies do it, because they know that that is what we want, but it is hard to tell if they are being honest to their customers.

  3. It’s definitely important to do our due diligence as responsible travelers. I know you say it varies from program to program, but are there even a few examples of specific criteria travelers can look for?

    1. This is something that I would like to develop more, because I think our knowledge is key more than anything else. Companies don’t want us calling them out, for sure. What I look for are several key things. (1) Involvement of local people at all levels- your tour guide, as well as management, etc. (2) An obvious effort at educating visitors. Are their informational signs? Do the guides explain rules of conduct to you that are meant to protect wildlife, etc? (3) Environmental support is harder. But there are a few key things in my mind- visitors shouldn’t be able to do whatever they want, distance should be kept from wildlife unless that wildlife approaches on its own, trails and developed paths should be used. Renewable energy use, and a percentage of profits going to conservation efforts are also important.

  4. I think that another aspect of ecotourism that we have to be considering is the low carbon print of any touristic activity. This is as important as the sustainability. Unfortunately, in many areas tourism had absolutely spoiled the nature and in long term would even have an adverse effect on society. I am happy that this also becomes a topic of the bloggers’ community.

    1. Agreed. This is something we need to be alot more active about. For instance, I fly alot, but planes are very bad for greenhouse gases. I’m still trying to figure out who to deal with that. 😦

  5. This is a complex issue. I’ve seen hundreds of “eco tourism” companies that have nothing to do with eco tourism. It has become such a trend! Now I have a better idea of what to look for. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for this informative article. Many tourists don’t realize the major effect we have on ecosystems when we travel. Definitely will be more conscious about my footprints in the future.

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