Ecotourism – what it really means

I have been reflecting for some time on the concept of Ecotourism. This is a word that started to be used some twenty years ago, and over the years I have been following the way in which tourism providers and vacation centres around the world have been adopting the word in their promotional material. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the use of the term Ecotourism has been more as a hook to attract clients, rather than as a definitive statement as to the policies, attitudes and competencies of the supplying companies.
In the past few weeks I have asked a wide range of people, including successive clients taking a cruise with us on the Saint Louis, the same question. “What do you understand by Ecotourism? The answers have been revealing. Many people happily used the word without understanding what it meant, and the majority of people associated Ecotourism with safaris in Africa and with tours in Asia.
In order to research the subject further, I have spent some time on the internet. My findings have been interesting. There is a body called The International Ecotourism Society, and their definition of Ecotourism is “Responsible holidays to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.
So far so good. It is also stated that Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism are virtually the same thing, and that an essential dimension of Ecotourism is that it is of low impact and small scale.
It is also made clear that the “natural areas” may be remote wildernesses or urban centres – to comply with the term one essential criterion is that the infrastructure must be pre-existing, as distinct from being made solely for the tourist.
Having established in my mind what the outside world means by Ecotourism, I then reviewed the members of Slow Travel Tours, and what we each provide. It seems to me that without exception we each are providers of Ecotourism. We are all of us small scale, we all operate within the pre-existing infrastructure, we all provide services in ways that are respectful of the environment, and we all enhance the well-being of the local population in the areas in which we operate. I would urge the reader to review the services of each member of this group – you will find a great diversity of “products” – all operating within the framework of Ecotourism. Members of the group are involved in hiking in Provence, in archaeology tours, courses in local cooking in Italy, courses in creative art, music speciality weeks, and a range of guided tours to local markets and other local places of interest.
Take, for example, the cruises that we provide on the Saint Louis. We operate on a canal system that was built for the transport of freight 160 years ago (and it was dug by human effort, no machinery involved) The barge was built more than 80 years ago, and had a full career as a bulk carrier before it became redundant and was converted into a hotel barge. The water in the canal is not pumped, it flows by gravity from the Black Mountains and from the Pyrenees. As a result of the slow speed that we travel at, and the very efficient engine we have, our fuel burn is tiny – I only ever fill up with fuel twice in a year. We do not in the least disturb the environment that we travel in, indeed many of our guests revel in the unspoiled countryside and the wealth of wildlife that we pass by. We carry out excursions to a wide range of local enterprises – wine makers, farmers, potters, barrel makers, jewellery makers , distillers – who each are pleased to benefit from the visits that we pay them. And the local suppliers tradesmen and artisans are equally pleased to have our business.
The next time you think of Ecotourism – think of Slow Travel Tours!


Alasdair and Barbara have lived full-time in France for some ten years, and they are now in their eighth season of operation with their Hotel Barge the Saint Louis. They come from the west coast of Scotland, and they each have wide-ranging hospitality experience.

The Saint Louis is a 30-metre converted Dutch barge, providing luxurious accommodation for up to six guests. Cruises are by the week, in the Garonne valley between Toulouse and Bordeaux.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.

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