Terms and definitions

We often wonder what the words ecotourism, rural tourism, agritourism, nature based travel, adventure travel, alternative tourism mean. In this section we intend to help you understand these notions.

Alternative tourism

New kinds of tourism which can be included under alternative tourism have gained momentum in the last few years. The name arises from the fact that this kind of traveling offers an alternative to the typical sun and beach or city sightseeing tourism. Thus, we nowadays hear terms such as ecotourism, rural tourism, agritourism, sports or adventure travel, wine tourism/travel, etc. All of these kinds of traveling share the characteristic that they take place in non urban areas and they cater for people's wish to enjoy nature to the fullest.

Alternative tourism offers excitement and experiences for visitors through its natural (rivers, waterfalls, lagoons, springs, beaches, native flora and fauna, grottos, caves, canyons, valleys) and cultural attractions (museums, holidays and markets, folklore, language, crafts, archaeological remains) in these regions.

America's main strength to develop this kind of tourism is the amazing beauty of its nature and the great number of diverse cultures.

Alternative tourism's basic premise is cooperating with sustainable development, promoting sustainable tourism.

The concept of "sustainable" first appeared in the Bruntland Report (1987), entitled "Our Common Future", submitted before United Nations General Assembly by the World Commission on Environment and Development, defined as "the process that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The World Conservation Union, IUCN (WTO, 1993), provides the following definition for Sustainable Development: "Sustainable Development is a process which allows for development to happen without damaging and depleting the resources that make it possible. This goal is usually achieved by managing resources so that they can be replenished at the same rate at which they are used, or changing from one resource which slowly regenerates to one with a faster rate of replenishment. Thus, resources can support present and future generations". Developing of sustainable tourism that focuses on natural environment requires action from all parties involved in this kind of action, as the WTO (1993) notes "... sustainable tourism, is one that meets the needs of present tourists and of today's hosting destinations, but which also protects and improves the chances of future tourism ... sustainable tourism cannot only work at the expense of public administration's impositions; it is also necessary for the private tourism sector to take this notion and cooperate in its execution, and for local communities and tourists themselves to cooperate in the process".


One of the first definitions of ecotourism was made in 1983 by the Mexican architect Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin, who defined it as follows: "That form of environmentally responsible tourism that involves travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas with the object of enjoying, admiring, and studying the nature (the scenery, wild plants and animals), as well as any cultural aspect (both past and present) found in these areas, through a process which promotes conservation, has a low impact on the environment and on culture and favors the active and socioeconomically beneficial involvement of local communities".

However, a universal consensus is yet to be reached about a single definition of ecotourism. Experts on the field, government agencies, tourism operators and environment conservationist organizations, have attempted to define ecotourism, thus producing the various existing definitions. Given that this concept comprises an activity, a philosophy and a development model, it is difficult to accurately define it. Nevertheless, most of the definitions share the following elements:

  • It's travel to natural, relatively unchanged areas, where natural beauties are the main attraction. It's a low-impact and small-scale form of travel aimed at avoiding the alteration of each place's ecosystem.
  • It is a sustainable kind of travel since according to its premises, it contributes to sustainable development. Sustainable development is the one which seeks to optimize the present social and economic benefits, without compromising the potential to obtain similar benefits in the future. It is also referred to as ethical tourism because it seeks the wellbeing of local communities without leaving the appreciation and conservation of the environment aside. The terms ecological tourism and nature based travel are synonyms for ecotourism.
  • It seeks to promote and support the understanding, appreciation and conservation of the environment and culture, raising awareness and producing a feeling of appreciation for biodiversity (emphasizing on the conservation of diverse plant and animal species) and for local cultures (emphasizing on preserving their indigenous features). It is also a suitable means to obtaining economic resources for the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage, supporting local efforts to this end.
  • It seeks to improve local communities' welfare, by boosting their economic and social development, creating economic opportunities which in turn will produce sustainable benefits in time. Therefore, it is an activity which promotes employment as well as economic and social development, acting as an alternative income source for social sectors living in hard economic situations.
  • It seeks to educate travelers on conservation of the environment and respect for different cultures. It also pursues the creation of an ecological conscience, encouraging more activism among visitors so that they become enthusiastic and effective conservation agents.

Ecoutourists seek to enjoy and learn from the nature and culture they visit while maintaining a responsible attitude. Some of the activities in ecotourism are:

  • Animal watching (mainly birds).
  • Plant observation.
  • Fossil observation.
  • Stargazing.
  • Flora and fauna rescue programs.
  • Mountain trekking.
  • Photographic safari.

Rural tourism

Giving a definition of rural tourism is not easy, because it involves different activities in different countries (each with its own environment and culture). However, we can say that rural tourism enables tourists to reunite with nature and the culture of the destinations, and that it contributes to the economic and social recovery of the rural areas, as well as to the conservation of the environment and the spreading of local cultures.

It encompasses all the activities which may be carried out in a rural environment and which attract visitors because of their traditional features and because they are different from their usual lifestyle. Visitors may interact with nature practicing various activities, such as horseback riding, sightseeing, fishing, hunting, mountaineering, agritourism, cultural tourism, wine tourism/travel, health tourism, etc. Such activities take place in a context of respect for the environment and local culture. Accommodation is provided in establishments which have been especially prepared to accommodate visitors.

Tourists also enjoy the obliging service of the communities in the rural world (friendliness, typical cuisine, crafts, etc.). In fact, a major attraction of a rural vacation is the rapport with rural locals with whom you can exchange experiences and ideas. Tourists' choice may not be driven by the agrarian lifestyle, but they spend time in a rural area and interact with the locals who derive benefits from the activity, this is why we call it rural tourism. A ski resort located in a rural area is not rural tourism because interaction with locals in such place is not significant. Staying at an all inclusive hotel is not rural tourism either for that same reason.

In short, the distinctive feature of rural tourism is the desire to offer visitors a personalized treatment, giving them the opportunity to enjoy the physical and human environment of rural areas and, as far as possible, take part in the activities, traditions and lifestyles of local communities.

It has a positive effect on:

  • The economy. It is an extra activity, aside from traditional rural labors, carried out on a small scale by local entrepreneurs, which renders an income and creates job opportunities. This in turn helps prevent the population drift and invigorate the rural areas. It is a valuable tool for encouraging the development of rural economies in crisis. It provides an incentive (and part of the required funding) for infrastructure development, which boosts growth in other sectors of the economy in rural areas.
  • The environment. Given the fact that the conservation of the natural environment is a key element of rural tourism, environmental conservation and protection are one of its central pillars. Therefore, it is an environmentally sustainable activity.
  • The society. The income derived from the arrival of tourists, can help maintain and improve local infrastructure and services (public transportation, shops, medical services, etc.). Thus, rural tourism helps improve the lifestyle of local communities. On the other hand, rural tourism creates job opportunities for groups which have historically been at a disadvantage, such as young people, women and the elderly. Another consequence for locals, which usually live in isolation in farming communities, is that they gain access to a different social interaction, increasing their chances of learning about other cultures.
  • The culture. Given the fact that local culture and traditions are very important tourist attractions to visitors, rural tourism promotes the preservation and revival of such customs, traditional activities, crafts, cuisine, etc.

Rural tourism has countless variants, however, whenever visitors spend time on leisure activities or education in a rural environment and local communities are involved, that can be referred to as rural tourism.


Agritourism consists of traveling to farming establishments in order to enjoy their natural, cultural and productive values. This service is provided in typical rural buildings which have been especially equipped to accommodate tourists, but which also are a home to farming families. These buildings are called tourist ranches or farmhouses. They provide accomodation, meals (local cuisine), activities connected to farming in which tourists can actively take part (food production, milking, harvesting, cattle rounding up, fishing, etc.) as well as other additional services. It is a form of traveling which allows tourists to enjoy a relaxing vacation in a homely environment. It is an attractive option for all kinds of travelers who have spare time, need some peace away from the city wish to get to know the rural environment and nature in depth.

Agritourism is also known as "farm tourism". Its surge is connected with the times in which farming activities have had a low profitability together with the beautiful natural and cultural characteristics of certain rural areas. Farm producers sought to diversify the source of their income and also to supplement the revenue derived from farming production.

Agritourism is usually confused with rural tourism. Agritourism arises from very specific problems (the economic crisis of rural areas, especially the most isolated ones) and has particular business management parameters (small family-owned businesses) which have specific effects on its running and development.

Rural tourism, on the other hand, is a general model in which agritourism plays only a small part. In other words, agritourism is a particular offer of rural tourism.

Sports or adventure travel

Consists of practicing any sports or adventure activity in a rural environment. But it often refers to traveling with the goal of practicing sports activities which require a great effort and an excellent physical condition. These activities are usually risky, but they reward tourists with many experiences filled with excitement, adventure and adrenaline in a direct contact with nature, taking the responsibility to preserve natural resources. Some adventure tourism activities are:

  • Horseback riding
  • Hiking
  • Moutain biking
  • Mountaineering
  • Rappel
  • Scuba diving
  • Snorkeling
  • Rafting
  • Recreational fishing
  • Sport hunting
  • Kayaking
  • Skydiving
  • Hang gliding
  • Gliding
  • Hot-air ballooning

Health travel

For instance, traveling to rural areas or resorts where thermal and/or healing waters can be found.

Cultural travel

Employs natural, historic and traditional resources among others, taking care of its conservation towards acquiring a better knowledge of such resources (native cultures study, historic trails, visits to architecturally signifcant places). At first it only implied visits to historic sites, museums, and attending shows such as opera or ballet. Nowadays it has a broader meaning, since almost every tourist destination is deemed to have a special culture. The key element of cultural travel is that it is basically educational in nature and that it is food for thought.

Wine tourism

Visits to winerys in order to see how wine is made and enjoy wine tastings. Many wineries offer wine museums, restaurants and gift shops where you can buy exclusive products.