Ecolodge Types and Definitions

What Is An Ecolodge?

Many people are curious about what is meant by the word “ecolodge”. The word came into being in the 1990’s and was coined to describe a type of lodge that was distinguished from others by the way it was either constructed or operated, or both. Since then there have been many different notions and strongly defended opinions of what constitutes the right to use the “eco” word.

Villa blanca cloud forest lodge
Smaller Traditional Lodges Are Often Reimagined

The ecotourism concept is to operate the enterprise of tourism so that a fair share of the monetary benefits stick in the local host community while reducing the environmental impact and provide the visitor with an enhanced nature based experience. Ecotourism is strongly linked to conservation and interpretation of the natural world, so it is distinguished from the more general concept of sustainable tourism. An “Ecolodge” then is the lodging of choice for people wanting to experience nature and support ecotourism.

Many countries and regions have embarked on creating certifiable green or sustainable tourism standards, but only recently has there been any collective agreement on an international basis. This certification standard has been applied generally to all accommodation facilities in order to raise the level of environmental and social responsibility and so there is still a gap in defining and classifying an eco-lodge as opposed to simply a “green hotel”.  I have set out our criteria and have also categorized and described different types of ecolodges.

What To Look For In An Ecolodge

In general look for these types of attributes in an ecolodge:

  • It is located in a natural area, or in a rural area within a short distance to a natural area, and is not significantly impacted by a townsite, noise, traffic, smog or pollution.
  • It is small, usually less than 30 rooms.
    It employs systems that protect the environment from pollution and degradation. ( Also see Green Hotels below)
  • It often employs energy saving tactics and possibly renewable energy technology.
  • It employs, or has access to, interpretive nature guides who are either trained in biology or have significant local knowledge of the habitat.
  • It provides books, posters, maps, photographs, orientation talks or other ways to inform guests and visitors about the biology of the area.
  • It helps train and employ local people at fair wages.
  • It helps inform guests, staff and visitors on the importance and value of a healthy ecosystem and describes how to best enjoy the area without impacting it.
  • It contributes to the local economy and helps demonstrate that ecotourism is a more sustainable long term way to earn income than destroying or altering habitats for short term gains.

There are many variations in the types of ecolodges in terms of their purpose, history and expression of ecological values. This is a description of types of ecolodges that I have come up with.

Model Ecolodges:

model ecolodge photo
Model Ecolodge in Mindo Cloudforest

These are usually designed and built as an ecolodge and have well trained staff and professional guides used to dealing with guests from all backgrounds. They are located in pristine natural locations, often of significant ecological importance, and have strong programs of conservation. They have ethical employment practises and contribute to the local economy. They are also using best technologies to reduce energy and handle waste. Model Ecolodges are distinctive in these ways, as opposed to rural or community based ecolodges which have a slightly different purpose.


arenas del mar
Arenas del Mar, Costa Rica

These are often design built but differ slightly in their purpose and location from a model ecolodge. They are often based near the ocean and offer more recreational activities and other personal services (natural health spas, yoga classes, etc.) as opposed to natural history based ecolodges.

Nature Lodges and Camps:

Elizabeth parker hut photo
Alpine Huts of Canada

These small lodges or camps which are located in natural areas, often in beautiful areas, but were designed in earlier times or for other purposes. Many have been adapted and are maintained for accommodation purposes.  They are more or less unregulated or ungraded, but  many do adhere to most ecotourism principles. Services may be limited, for example they may have no onsite guides, or they may be simple alpine huts or camp sites.

Agriturismos, Retreats, Rural and Village Based Ecolodges,

xaraes rural ecolodge in Brazil photo
Rural Ecolodge in Brazil – part of ranch with 20,000 head of cattle

Rural ecolodges and agriturismos usually feature guest services while still operating as farms or ranches.

They are usually simple, privately owned accommodations located in rural areas often near nature reserves. Down to earth hospitality with staff and guides that are local people as opposed to trained career professionals.   You can often see exotic wildlife in tropical countries and have great photography opportunities.

In Italy, agriturismos are repurposed farms or country homes turned into accommodation facilities. They often feature organic foods, locally produced and traditionally prepared. They are located all over the country as well as in Sicily and Sardinia. The regulation for agriturismos is not the same as any ecolodges, but they do offer an alternative to staying in a village or city bed and breakfast. They have become very popular with European guests.

Some eco-reteats are located in small villages and are privately owned by people dedicated to ensuring tourism income is largely spent locally by hiring local people and by buying as many locally produced goods as possible. They also frequently support initiatives to improve the welfare and environmental conditions locally. Often these types of facilities have a nearby attraction like an archeological site or natural attraction such as a wildlife reserve. The video below shows a small 10 room facility in Yucatan.

Community Based Ecolodges:

Throughout the world there have been several experiments involving communities in tourism projects where the “community” has built lodging facilities, developed tours and offers other hospitality services. Some have been funded by NGO’s, some with international development funds and other sources of non-conventional financing. Some are rural projects using farm stays, some are village stays using local homes. Buildings  are adapted or could be purpose built structures. All these projects serve to provide income for small communities seeking a more sustainable means to living.

In general, this type of ecolodge is a very simple, grassroots types of operation and can be very emotionally satisfying for visitors from the “developed world”. But the quality and reliability of service is sometimes inconsistent for many reasons. It is more “real life” as experienced by the local people everyday and that might not fit well with someone who is not yet open to experiences like this.

To one person this can be accepted as part of the charm of really experiencing a region and to another it can be a very unpleasant culture shock. It depends on the attitude you bring to the equation.

Sadly, however, it seems that few of these community based (owned) enterprises last too long. There are many reasons for failure, and yet there are models for success. Capitalism and communitarianism must find a good fit.

What About Green Hotels?

This is an exciting development in the accommodation industry. Hotels, motels, inns, campgrounds, and bed and breakfasts all over the world have started to make their businesses greener by either participating in certification programs or by maintaining memberships green hotel associations which require them to take measures which help protect the environment. We have made an intense search for such hotels and happily the list is growing.

Many measures may take place behind the scenes and include things like energy efficient heating and lighting, waste reduction, water conservation, use of non-polluting soaps and cleansers, recycling of sheets and linens and a host of others. Some measures may be more visible such as towel and linens reuse cards in your rooms, notices throughout the facility on ways visitors can protect the region they are visiting. We therefore use certified green hotels where ever we can so that we are assured that we are taking responsible steps to keep our tours as eco as possible. For example, the following list shows how a property in Canada can earn 4 Green Keys as part of the Eco-Rating program adopted by the Hotel Association of Canada. This program has been widened to Green Key Global and is recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

* Have installed over 90% compact fluorescent or comparable high-efficiency lighting in the lobby, hallways and other common areas.
* Have implemented a recycling program that includes at least separating and collecting recyclable material from hotel guests and meeting clients if applicable.
* Have installed in all guestrooms and public washrooms at least two of the following three: low-flow/water conserving showerheads, tap aerators and toilets.
* Have purchased at least four eco-labeled products for use by facility staff.
* Have eliminated the use of chemical pesticides throughout facility and grounds.
* Have employee training with an environmental awareness/practices component.
* Have ongoing communication about the hotels environmental commitment and initiatives to guests using means such as room directories, tent cards or personal communication by staff.
* Sponsored or directly participated in at least one local conservation or environmental stewardship initiative.

How to Book and Ecolodge

We offer a fee free service to book ecolodges and organise the logistics of transfers and transportation. To learn more please see the section on visiting an ecolodge. We know these destinations and the unique arrangements that need to be made for visiting.