Ecotourism, defined as responsible tourism focused on the natural
world, has emerged as a concept that unites the interests of
environmentalists and developers. Proponents of ecotourism see it as
potential salvation of some of the world's most endangered ecosystems, and
an opportunity for communities that possess biological resources to
develop sustainable economic strategies, instead of pursuing
environmentally-damaging patterns of resource use. However, finding a
compromise between preservation and development is often challenging, and
ecotourism can generate additional environmental problems for the very
regions it is intended to protect.
Ecotourism is intended to be sustainable, focused on the natural
world, and beneficial to local communities. The IUCN (World Conservation
Union) defines it as environmentally responsible travel and visitation to
relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate
nature that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and
provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local
Practically speaking, ecotourism includes activities in which visitors
enjoy hands-on experiences, such as bird-watching in the Brazilian
rainforest, hiking in the mountains of Nepal, participating in a
traditional village celebration, or taking a canoe trip down a river.
Local guides usually accompany small groups of tourists on expeditions,
teaching them about the local flora, fauna, and culture of the region.
Ecotourism is characterized by small-scale outfits in remote locations
where commercialization and mass-tourism outfits have not yet penetrated.
Tourists typically stay with local families, or at small,
environmentally-friendly hotels called ecolodges. These opportunities for
personal contact with members of the host community facilitate
cross-cultural exchange and add greatly to the value of ecotourism
experiences for some people. Ecotourism is rooted in a conservation ethic
and has a mission to support the biological and cultural resources of the
community. Revenues from safari expeditions, for instance, may go to
protecting the animals from poaching, while the entry fees from visiting a
village may go to supporting education and health care for the local
children. Prime locations where ecotourism has become popular include
Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Australia.
Participants in the Sustainable Ecotourism in North America Online
Conference in May 2000, organized by ecotourism consultant Ron Mader,
developed a number of standards that characterize ecotourism:
- tourism activity in relatively undisturbed natural settings
- minimal negative impacts on the environment
- conservation of natural and cultural heritage
- active involvement with and benefit to local community
- tourism-generated profits contribute to sustainable development
- educational experience for visitors that incorporates both natural
and cultural heritage [Ceballos-Lascuráin].
Worldwide, tourism generates annual revenues of nearly 3 trillion
dollars and contributes nearly 11% of the global GNP (Gross National
Product), making it the world's largest industry. Although the events of
September 11th rocked the tourism industry and made it difficult to
predict long-term trends, ecotourism is a growing component of the larger
tourism industry, and several factors indicate that it is likely to thrive
over time. These factors include increased awareness of environmental
problems among tourist populations, willingness of tourists to engage in
socially-aware travel, and interest in visiting lesser-known countries
like Thailand and Belize rather than traditional vacation getaways.
Rainforest hike, Ecuador|
Benefits of Ecotourism
Ecotourism has been described as "one of the most potent tools in
the arsenal of the contemporary conservationists" [Downs]. It presents an
environmentally friendlier and potentially more sustainable alternative to
extractive activities, such as farming, logging, mining, or harvesting of
wildlife. It offers local people the chance to escape a cycle of poverty
and, by sharing their knowledge of the local terrain and ecology with
visitors, to develop a stronger sense of community pride and a broader,
more global perspective that recognizes the value of biodiversity to all
Businesses initiated through ecotourism ventures can become self-sufficient within
a short time and can enhance the long-term economic prospects of
a community. The Eco-Escuela school in the Maya Biosphere Reserve
in the Petén region of Guatemala, for example, was developed in
cooperation with Conservation International, an international nonprofit
organization, and became financially independent within three years.
The school, which provides employment to 56 local families, offers
a week-long program to tourists including Spanish classes and lodgings
in the Petén community [Ecomaya]. Ecotourism also
encourages the development of markets in native handicrafts and
artwork for souvenirs, and thus contributes to the preservation
of cultural heritage.
Market in Ecuador|
For foreign visitors, tourism provides an educational glimpse of a
world not their own, often a world of striking natural beauty and rich
cultural heritage. Educational and spiritually satisfying, ecotourism
appeals to the desire to "get back to nature." A more subtle benefit is
the opportunity to engage in an international dialogue with people from
different backgrounds. This cross-cultural exchange can form a healthy
bridge between industrialized and developing countries.
For environmentalists, ecotourism provides an opportunity for long-term protection
of the land and its resources. This is particularly valuable considering
that the hot spots of biological diversity are generally the poorest
regions of the world, where economic necessity is most likely to
drive people to pursue environmentally damaging options. Ecotourism
is an opportunity to preserve ecosystems and biological diversity
that would otherwise be lost. It is also a chance to generate revenue
to support research efforts. Entry fees for an ecotourism attraction
can be channeled into programs that further scientific knowledge
about the area's ecology; that support captive breeding, rehabilitation,
or reforestation; or that monitor human impact to ensure that visitation
does not degrade the resource. The Kakum canopy walkway in Kakum
National Park, Ghana, for example, is a rainforest walkway designed
and built by Conservation International. The walkway is used both
by tourists and scientists and is a source of revenue for conservation
efforts in the park. It was credited with boosting visitation levels
from 2,000 in 1992 to 70,000 in 1999 [Conservation
Ecotourism can play an important role in raising awareness of the
problems facing a particular locale or its people. Tourism drew attention
to the at-risk Everglades ecosystem in Florida, motivated the preservation
of the Everglades National Park, funded a program to save the highly
endangered Bahama parrot, and assisted many more conservation activities
[META]. Marine Ecotourism for the Atlantic
Area (META), a transnational
program led by a team of UK researchers, expects that marine ecotourism
will raise the profile of marine resources in the planning process and
will provide "an economic rationale for ecological stewardship"
A well-known ecotourism success story is the Maquipucuna Reserve in Ecuador. The
reserve is a 15,000 acre property in the cloud forest region that
is owned and managed by a private foundation. Visitors stay at an
ecolodge that employs staff and tour guides from the local community,
and enjoy local attractions including a project to rehabilitate
wild bears that had become dependent on handouts from humans, a
sustainably-harvested orchid collection, a pre-Incan archaeological
site, and the popular annual Bear Festival. The lodge is adjacent
to a scientific research station. Thanks to the ecotourism development
efforts in this region, local people have been inspired to see bears
as symbols of their heritage that they proudly show off to visitors,
instead of as pests or threats.
The Dangers of Ecotourism
However, not all efforts that bill themselves as ecotourism are
beneficial to local people and ecosystems. Tourism writer Deborah McLaren
notes, "At its worst, ecotravel is environmentally destructive,
economically exploitative, culturally insensitive, 'greenwashed' travel"
[McLaren]. 'Greenwashing', or
environmental claims by outfits that are not
necessarily environmentally responsible, is prevalent throughout the
Tourists at Galapagos Islands|
Because of their location in environmentally sensitive areas,
ecotourism operations that fail to live up to conservation ideals can have
very serious environmental consequences. Tourists represent an increase in
population, however temporary, and their demands on local resources can
require the installation of additional infrastructure, produce large
amounts of waste and pollution, and further the degradation of fragile
ecosystems. Even a harmless-sounding activity like a nature hike can be
destructive, as hikers can contribute to soil erosion and damage plant
roots. In the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, the presence of 60,000 tourists
annually has worn deep ruts in the trail [McLaren]. Tourists who go to
view wildlife can scare animals away from their feeding and nesting sites,
while those who opt for airplane or boat tours contribute pollution and
noise to the environment. Tourists may even encourage the development of
destructive economies, such as markets in wildlife souvenirs (skins,
bones, etc.). Tourist overcrowding is causing severe environmental damage
to the Galapagos Islands, with inadequate enforcement of visitor limits by
the government of Ecuador [McLaren].
Tourism in a region that boasts
opportunities to view endangered species can cause the further
endangerment or extinction of these species.
Such failures can occur both because of lack of organization and
lack of commitment to conservation goals. Many governments and states do
not have adequate tourism departments and are unable to finance
responsible development efforts. Others are unwilling to limit the flow of
tourist money into the country, so they encourage development past
sustainable levels. Simple lack of regulation--too many people, too much
water, too much waste--causes what was originally a sustainable effort to
mushroom out of proportion.
A primary value of ecotourism is the employment opportunities it
provides to local people, yet many tourism operations are owned and run by
foreign corporations, providing little or no benefit for locals. Revenues
are siphoned off to foreign investors instead of being reinvested in the
community, environmental resources are degraded, and the needs of the
local population are marginalized. In Surinam, a thriving ecotourism
business focused around a marine turtle reserve benefits the reserve and
one indigenous community, but provides no income for the larger community
that surrounds the reserve. To get to the reserve, visitors must first
pass through a coastal village characterized by trash, boat debris, and
low-income housing. Because the locals receive no benefit from tourists,
they have no incentive to protect the reserve, and a significant portion
of the reserve's budget must go to guarding the reserve from
A related problem is that not all operations that claim to be 'green'
actually participate in conservation efforts. It is tempting for some
outfits to claim to be green whether or not they engage in ecologically
responsible activities, since they know tourists will make a special
effort to patronize environmentally responsible establishments. Others may
have good intentions but find that due to financial and organizational
limitations, they are unable to live up to their goals. One not-so-green
business is Ecodesarrollo Papagayo in Costa Rica, a development project
that includes housing, hotels, and a shopping center, and promotes itself
as an ecotourism destination, but has been accused of not following the
principles of ecotourism [McLaren].
Another example, a profitable
ecotourism theme park in Quintana Roo, Mexico, which advertises itself as
Natures Sacred Paradise, is responsible for displacing local Mayan
communities and illegally keeps endangered species in captivity to attract
Tourist needs can take priority over those of wildlife and native
people, and can lead to the monopoly of regional resources. In Kenya, a
spring in the Shaba National Reserve provided fresh water for wildlife and
for the local Samburu people and their livestock. When the Sarova Shaba
Hotel was built, its water needs took priority and the spring was blocked
off from public access. Deprived of water, wildlife and livestock are
dying and the Samburu are close to famine [McLaren].
In some places, locals have resisted tourism development efforts,
including ecotourism, because of the potential for disruption to their
lives. Because past visitors were considered disrespectful, todays
visitors to the Hopi Nation reservation in Arizona are no longer permitted
to take pictures, enter the residential portion of the village, or
participate in hiking and off-road travel [McLaren]. Local people may also
oppose tourism because they resent policies they view as beneficial to
others, but not to them; for instance, fishing limits may be enforced to
protect the populations of reef fishes for tourist viewing expeditions.
Tourism can bring new restrictions or more rigorous enforcement of
existing legislation that protects species and their habitats, and
unaccustomed government interference in local activities may breed
widespread resentment among residents. Tourism may also bring about social
changes, such as the exchange of traditional roles for unconventional
ones, that disrupt the social hierarchy in the community.
The Need for Standards
There is no standard set of guidelines for ecotourism, and no
formal system of accreditation by which green businesses may be rated. The
two largest programs for certification, the Certificate of Sustainable
Tourism (CST) in Costa Rica and the Nature Ecotourism Accreditation
Program (NEAP) sponsored by the Ecotourism Association of Australia, have
only local authority, though the latter has developed an International
Ecotourism Standard that will be released soon. Condé Nast offers an
Ecotourism Award for which organizations must apply, but does not check
applicants' claims before choosing a winner. The Rainforest Alliance is
sponsoring a study to examine the feasibility of international
certification through the Sustainable Stewardship Council, but it may be
years before standards go into effect.
Problems with certification include the difficulty with applying broad
standards to local situations, the need to enforce standards through
regular inspections from some higher authority, and the expense and
organization that regulation entails. Small outfits may not be able to
afford certification even if a recognized and scientifically-sound program
becomes available [Rome].
The lack of certification poses a significant problem, for it
means that ecolodges and other establishments are not answerable as far as
the extent and success of their environmental efforts. Recycling programs,
promotion of low-impact tourist activities, and support for conservation
efforts are entirely voluntary once minimum existing environmental
standards have been met. Most travelers plan their ecotourism trips using
the Internet and are dependent on an outfit's own advertising and on the
advice of friends, so they are unable to make a truly informed choice.
Best Practices for Ecotourism
Sound ecotourism activities contribute long-term benefits to both
the environment and the host community. Pam Wight's guiding principles for
ecotourism include the following provisions:
- tourist activities must not degrade the resource
- visitors should be offered educational first-hand experiences
- all stakeholders (host community, government, non-governmental
organizations, industry, and tourists) must be involved
- tourism must respect the intrinsic value of natural resources
- tourism cannot overtax the resource supplies of the local
- stakeholders must be encouraged to develop partnerships
- tourist revenue must provide conservation, scientific, or cultural
benefits to the resource, local community, and industry as a whole
- these benefits must be long-term [Wight 1993].
Achieving these principles depends in large part upon the scale of
the operation. The cardinal rule of ecotourism is: keep things small. A
region that can absorb the impact of a few dozen visitors over the course
of a month, including the infrastructure to support their presence (such
as plumbing, sewage wastewater, electricity generators, and transportation
facilities), may suffer under the influence of more visitors. Small-scale
grass-roots development that incorporates the desires and opinions of
local people tends to be the best policy. Following this principle
requires managers to reject the growth-oriented philosophy that has
typically characterized economic policy in ecotourism hotspots. Wight
notes that sustainable development does not imply absolute limits on the
number of visitors, but limits based on present technology and
organization and on the capacity of the biosphere to absorb present forms
of damage; thus, thoughtful evaluation of tourist behaviors can reveal
ways to reduce the impacts of visitors on the environment, without
reducing the total number of visitors [Wight 2002].
One conservation objective is to ensure that construction and
maintenance of ecolodges follow environmental protocols to avoid degrading
the very areas that tourists value for their pristine qualities. Low
consumption, efficient use, and strict recycling of resources are key.
While a hotel in an industrialized nation might be able to throw away
large amounts of garbage, an ecolodge in a remote rainforest location has
no place to get rid of trash, and must find ways to recycle it instead.
Modern-day tourists are used to having clean sheets in their bedrooms
daily. In order to conserve water, power, and labor, an ecolodge might
have to adopt a weekly schedule of linen-changing. Tourists are also used
to throwing away large amounts of packaging and other trash in the course
of their daily activities. Binna Burra, an ecolodge in Australia, provides
visitors with biodegradable toiletries and offers boxed lunches for hikers
in reusable containers, generating no trash [Rome].
|Binna Burra lodge
In addition to keeping the enterprise to a manageable scale,
ecotourism developers must demonstrate an upfront commitment to
environmental objectives, provide quality leadership, and exploit small
market niches where personalized service and unique experiences are
favored over large-scale operations [Kirstges].
Education for host communities and for the tourists who plan to
visit them is key to providing both with a good experience. Guides need to
have the social skills, familiarity with English (or other languages),
basic knowledge about the region, and capacity for authority to lead
well-organized tours. More than one tourism operation has foundered due to
lack of human resources in the host community. At the same time, tourists
must be prepared for what they will encounter, and must have the proper
attitude and maturity to appreciate their experiences. Most ecotravelers
are well-educated, respectful of local traditions, and eager to contribute
to conservation efforts, though some arrive with ill-conceived
expectations that result in less-than-ideal experiences both for the
tourists and for the host community.
Prioritizing conservation over short-term profit lies at the heart of
the ecotourism challenge. Conservation provides the moral authority for
ecotourism efforts and the basis for long-term economic stability, but it
can be difficult to preach a philosophy of preservation to people used to
surviving in a short-term, unstable economy. A local resident who can
expect to receive large sums on the black market for an animal skin may be
unwilling to believe that the long-term benefit of not killing the animal
will be greater. Indeed, his personal benefit may be lower, given that
revenues from tourism aren't distributed equally throughout the community,
and that even if he stops poaching, his neighbors may well continue. The
World Resources Institute suggests that the key to gaining local
enthusiasm for a project is to do as much as possible to ensure that
benefits are shared fairly and that no one shoulders a disproportionate
share of the cost [WRI].
Another rule for successful ecotourism is to develop an economy
that does not rely on tourism as the sole source of income for the
community. Because it is a seasonal business that is influenced by far-off
political, social, and financial trends, and that is easily damaged by
natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and political unrest, tourism can
dry up without warning.
In addition, a good ecotourism site must follow principles of common
sense. Blazing trails through the forest to allow tourists to take
nature hikes and look for wildlife will be pointless if the presence of
humans on the trail scares away wildlife. Instead, offering visitors a
guided tour that focuses on the natural history of the area and a visit
to a captive breeding or rehabilitation facility may be more effective
in terms of satisfying visitor expectations.
Government support is necessary to provide financial backing for
rural and indigenous people who lack the resources to acquire education or
start up business initiatives, to provide organization and coordination of
ecotourism efforts, to give small communities access to knowledge about
sustainable development, and to prevent abuses. If governments or agencies
do not empower rural guides and tourism operations, the absence of local
participation betrays one of the main components of ecotourism, Ron Mader
However, government control cannot be allowed to overshadow local
interests. Since much of the decision-making power for land-use rests with
local authorities, gaining their endorsement for an ecotourism project can
go a long way toward meeting conservation goals. Certainly, bringing in
outsiders to run all aspects of the project is undesirable, since it not
only divorces the community from the effort, reducing their interest in
supporting it, but ensures that they will not profit from it, limiting
their ability to survive without turning to unsustainable industries.
Ecotourism consultant Abi Rome suggests that guidelines for certification
of ecotourism businesses ought to include local ownership and 80% local
Ecotourism can live up to its promise if it follows the principles
of wise development, adequately monitors and protects its resources, and
ensures fair distribution of profits within the host community. Awareness
of the pitfalls of unsustainable or unregulated tourism can guide
communities that are struggling to take their place in a global economy
without damaging the resources we all value.
The following organizations can provide additional valuable information
about ecotourism science.
1919 M Street, NW Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036
Applies innovations in science, economics, policy and community
participation to protect diversity.
Ecotourism Association of Australia
GPO Box 268
Brisbane Qld 4001, Australia
Non-profit whose members include ecotourism accommodation, tour and
attraction operators, tourism planners, protected area managers, students,
tourism consultants, local and regional tourism associations, and
International Centre for Ecotourism Research (ICER)
Ralf Buckley, ICER, Griffith University, PMB 50
Gold Coast, Queensland 9726, Australia
Established and now runs the ongoing research program of the Cooperative
Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism,
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES, formerly TES)
P.O. Box 668
Burlington, VT 05402
Non-profit organization that publishes and distributes information about
ecotourism, organizes workshops, answers inquiries, and compiles a
National Ecotourism Accreditation Program (NEAP)
Ecotourism Association of Australia
P.O. Box 26
Red Hill QLD 4059, Australia
Developed by industry for industry to identify genuine ecotourism
operators in Australia.
Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA)
Unit B1, 28th Floor, Siam Tower, 989 Rama I Road, Pathumwan
Bangkok 10330, Thailand
Provides marketing, research and educational opportunities to government
tourist offices, airlines, hotels, travel agencies, tour operators and
Partners in Responsible Tourism (PIRT)
P.O. Box 237
San Francisco, California 94104-0237
Network of individuals and tourism companies who are interested in
adventure travel and ecotourism.
Hosted by Ron Mader (journalist), author of Ecotourism Marketing on the
Internet. Travel resource center and clearinghouse for ecotourism
RARE Center for Tropical Conservation
1840 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 402
Arlington, VA 22201-3000
Partners with local communities, NGOs, and other stakeholders to develop
and replicate locally managed conservation strategies; works to raise
public awareness and empower local people.
Sustainable Tourism Resource Centre
National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036-4688
Three databases of hyperlinks for tourism professionals, travelers, and
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
United Nations Avenue, Gigiri
P.O. Box 30552,
Promotes environmental science and information, encourages early warning
and emergency response systems to deal with environmental disasters and
World Conservation Union (IUCN) Headquarters
Rue Mauverney 28
Gland 1196, Switzerland
Seeks to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to
conserve biodiversity and to ensure that natural resource use is
World Ecotourism Summit
Quebec, Canada, May 19-22, 2002.
Sponsored by the World Tourism Organisation and the United Nations
World Tourism Organization (WTO)
Capitán Haya 42
28020 Madrid, Spain
Leading international organization in the field of travel and tourism.
Global forum for tourism policy issues and a practical source of info and
World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)
1-2 Queen Victoria Terrace
London E1W 3HA, UK
Global business leaders' forum for Chief Executives from all sectors of
industry, including accommodation, catering, entertainment, recreation,
transportation and other travel-related services.
- [Barkin] Barkin, David. Ecotourism for Sustainable Regional Development. Current Issues in Tourism. vol 5, nos. 3 and 4, pg. 252.
- [Ceballos-Lascuráin] Ceballos-Lascuráin, Hector. Preface, Current
Issues in Tourism. vol. 5, nos. 3 and 4, pg. 169.
- [Conservation International] Conservation International. Washington, D.C.
- [Davies] Davies, Terry, and Sarah Cahill. Environmental Implications of
the Tourism Industry (discussion paper). Resources for the Future (RFF),
- [Downs] Downs, J. (1994) Protecting paradise is a priority.
Wildlife Conservation 97(2), 2.
- [Ecomaya] Ecomaya. Petén, Guatemala.
- [Kirstges] Kirstges, Torsten. Basic Questions of Sustainable
Tourism. Current Issues in Tourism. vol 5, nos. 3 and 4, pg.
- [Mader] Mader, Ron. Latin American Ecotourims: What Is It? Current Issues in Tourism. vol 5, nos. 3 and 4, pg. 272.
- [McLaren] McLaren, Deborah. Rethinking Tourism and Ecotravel: The Paving of Paradise and What You Can Do to Stop It. West Hartford, Connecticut:
Kumarian Press, Inc., 1998.
- [META] Marine Ecotourism for the Atlantic Area (META), Bristol, UK. http://www.tourism-research.org/project_introduction.html
- [Rome] Rome, Abi. Ecotourism Explained workshop, sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, D.C., November 6th, 2002.
- [Wight 2002] Wight, Pamela A. Supporting the Principles of
Sustainable Development. Current Issues in Tourism. vol 5, nos. 3 and 4,
- [Wight 1993] Wight, Pamela A. Ecotourism: Ethics or Eco-Sell.
Journal of Travel Research 31(3), 3-9.
- [WRI] World Resources Institute, 10 G Street, Suite 180, Washington,