Alternative Travel: Let’s Try to Define It

Contemporary Alternative Travel emerged as a concept in the early 70s, in reaction to the negative economic, environmental, and social effects of mass tourism, accused of being unsustainable, inauthentic, and superficial.

alternative travel

The term is ambiguous, sometimes confusing, and many variations have been suggested, such as Responsible Travel or Soft-Tourism. The naming saga also includes Geotourism, “tourism that sustains or enhances the distinctive geographical character of a place…” (coined by National Geographic) and Slow Travel, “a way of slowing down your vacation” (a TM of Internet Brands). All perfectly legitimate and interesting, but we prefer to stick to the original.

To further help clarify and put some order into things, we have classified the following types of Alternative Travel: Ecotourism, Active & Adventure Travel, Cultural or Educational Travel, Voluntourism, and Post-Tourism.

Having said that, also some forms of the so-called Special Interest Tourism, if niche and unusual, may be a good way to escape mass tourism, which instead implies a “large-scale packaging of standardised leisure services” (Poon) that pushes people to do all the same things, at the same time, in the same places.

But beyond academic definitions and classifications, what have all these novel forms of travel in common? A quest for originality, the refusal to conform to ordinary tourists (pioneering & discovering) and the relationship with the local environment (being green). In short: travel differently! Or, as stated in a Chiang Mai Workshop in 1984: “alternative tourism promotes a just form of travel“.

Nowadays, we prefer the term “traveler” to define the alternative tourist. This brings us back to the epic trips of the self-styled explorers of the 19th century.

A traveler favors individual arrangement and spontaneous decisions towards standard package tours and fixed programs, often travels solo or in small groups, makes more trips than the average, and is far more curious, sensitive, and active, compared to the comfortable and passive tourist. They are also willing to accept a certain amount privation and the lack of familiar cues and habits.

Beside enjoying their journey, alternative travelers strive to minimize local negative impacts of their presence, preserving community stability and well-being, and often giving back to help, if deemed necessary. Interpretation and understanding are key to connect with a place and its people, as opposed to merely sightseeing and expecting to be entertained and fed all the time.

In practical terms, this means for instance: traveling in low season, choosing local operators and low density/moderately commercialized areas, preferring public or no-fuel transportation and traditional/small-scale accommodations.

All things that we strongly endorse, of course. We are not philosophers, but to better clarify on what principles a just form of travel should be based, we’ve prepared our own MANIFESTO. So, you have no excuses to stop reading.

Related Content: What Is Ecotourism All About?, Active and Adventure Travel, Cultural and Educational Travel, Voluntourism: Volunteer Travel Abroad, Post-Tourism: Traveling Without the Hassle, Special Interest Tourism.