Discovery Guides Areas


Ecotourism: the Promise and Perils of
Environmentally-Oriented Travel

(Released February 2003)

  by Heather E. Lindsay  


Key Citations

Web Sites


Review Article


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 populations [Ceballos-Lascuráin].

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:

  1. tourism activity in relatively undisturbed natural settings
  2. minimal negative impacts on the environment
  3. conservation of natural and cultural heritage
  4. active involvement with and benefit to local community
  5. tourism-generated profits contribute to sustainable development
  6. educational experience for visitors that incorporates both natural and cultural heritage [Ceballos-Lascuráin].

Rainforest hike, Ecuador
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.

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 people.

Market in Ecuador
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.

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.

Kakum walkway
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 International].

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" [Davies].

Maquipucuna Lodge
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 tourism industry.

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 poachers.

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 visitors [Barkin].

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:

  1. tourist activities must not degrade the resource
  2. visitors should be offered educational first-hand experiences
  3. all stakeholders (host community, government, non-governmental organizations, industry, and tourists) must be involved
  4. tourism must respect the intrinsic value of natural resources
  5. tourism cannot overtax the resource supplies of the local region
  6. stakeholders must be encouraged to develop partnerships
  7. tourist revenue must provide conservation, scientific, or cultural benefits to the resource, local community, and industry as a whole
  8. 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 warns [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 staffing [Rome].

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.

Conservation International
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 travellers.

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 quarterly newsletter.

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 related companies.

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 information.

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 residents.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
United Nations Avenue, Gigiri
P.O. Box 30552,
Nairobi, Kenya
Promotes environmental science and information, encourages early warning and emergency response systems to deal with environmental disasters and emergencies.

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 ecologically sustainable.

World Ecotourism Summit
Quebec, Canada, May 19-22, 2002.
Sponsored by the World Tourism Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme.

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 statistics.

World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)
1-2 Queen Victoria Terrace
Sovereign Court
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.

© Copyright 2003, All Rights Reserved, CSA

Cited References