What is Ecotourism?
One of the most common buzzwords in the sustainable travel industry is ‘ecotourism.’ Many travelers rely on this word being synonymous with environmentally friendly, ethical tourism. Others might be asking if ecotourism is as good as it says it is. When ecotourism is executed sustainably – based on research and understanding of the impacts on the natural environment and with guidance from the local communities, then yes, it can be synonymous with ethical tourism. This type of “good” ecotourism is if you create a powerful positive force for environmental conservation and local community well-being.
On the other hand, unsustainable ecotourism, a model of tourism that happens with the best intentions but fails to involve the community or maintain checks and balances regarding the environmental impact of tourism, can be detrimental to both the natural and local communities.
Ecotourism is often conducted in protected natural areas surrounded by vulnerable communities such as nature reserves, national parks, wilderness areas, heritage sites, or natural monuments. In these incredibly culturally and ecologically sensitive communities, true ecotourism can do a lot of good, while failed models of ecotourism or tourism operating under the guise of ecotourism can have catastrophic impacts. In these protected areas, ecotourism must contribute to environmental conservation and the alleviation of poverty or risk destroying the places we love as travelers.
Sustainable ecotourism, or really just ecotourism as it was intended to be, is responsible travel to protected or vulnerable natural areas focusing on environmental conservation/education while sustaining local communities’ economic and social well-being. For ecotourism to be sustainable for generations to come, it must include all three pillars, or the triple bottom line, of sustainability, as seen in the infographic. It isn’t quite enough to have all three of these pillars included; they need to be somewhat balanced, ensuring that tourism develops in a way that doesn’t take too much of an environmental toll while infusing a lot of economic benefits into the economy.
Ideally, the economic development from ecotourism is equitable and able to sustain long-term job development and growth in the region while equally contributing to wildlife conversation and preserving cultural identity. It is normal to have one piece of the Venn Diagram to be slightly larger as true equilibrium is difficult and impossible, but each should grow at a rate that doesn’t create too much imbalance. When things get out of balance, or one circle takes priority over another, no matter the intentions, we begin to have unsustainable ecotourism.
Unsustainable ecotourism may embody or prioritize only one or two pillars of sustainable ecotourism. This can happen for a variety of reasons.
- Tour operators and travel companies may conduct ecotours as a marketing ploy to get the attention of travelers looking for more environmentally friendly travel options. These operators may conduct businesses without fully understanding their impact on the natural environment or equitably distribute tourism’s benefits within their community.
- Adventure companies or individual travelers may enjoy nature-based adventures while disregarding local communities.
- Others may seek to capitalize on the economic gain of nature-based tourism while exploiting nature.
- Culturally sensitive communities may alter their customs or traditional crafts to appeal to tourists, thus increasing their economic gain while degrading their culture.
- Perhaps a national park becomes so popular that the number of people visiting begins to have irreversible impacts on natural vegetation or wildlife.
- Other companies may lack adequate support and resources from their governments, communities, or foreign tour companies to meet well-intended goals.
These are all examples of unsustainable ecotourism, ultimately resulting in the problematic exploitation of natural resources or local communities.
Nature-based tourism vs. ecotourism?
Many people use nature-based and ecotourism interchangeably, but they are not the same. Nature-based tourism is traveling to a natural landscape to enjoy nature. Ecotourism is visiting a place with the goal of contributing to conservation while benefitting the community for a positive impact. I consider the multi-day hikes in the European Alps nature-based, as I am just out for a hike to enjoy nature. If I were to hire a local guide in Peru to take me on a culturally infused hike to learn about nature and culture – then we start to cross into ecotourism.
The penguin tour I did in New Zealand is a great example of a sustainable eco-tour. We learned about the local conservation efforts of a penguin colony on the brink of extinction (environmental), supported a local farm and conservation group (economic), and had a high-quality social engagement learning about New Zealand’s connection to the environment (Social).
Mass Tourism vs Ecotourism? What is better?
When I first started on my journey toward embracing sustainable tourism, I automatically assumed that mass tourism = bad. Ecotourism = good. This is something I see across the board among travelers. However, many tourism academics disagree on this binary and highlight the nuances and importance of well-managed tourism development, whether eco or mass.
Their arguments hinge on the fact that mass tourism ultimately contains people in places that generally already have the infrastructure to support large groups of people. Imagine if we took the thousands of people staying at an all-inclusive Disney resort – a place with adequate infrastructure to handle these numbers and dropped them all at a small Peruvian rainforest eco-lodge. The small ecolodges set up for sustainable ecotourism and minimal crowds would be overwhelmed, and the environmental and cultural damage would be dramatic. There are also examples of how ecotourism can bring tourists into places previously undisturbed by tourists historically, and it is important to first understand and plan for potential impacts.
This isn’t to put mass or ecotourism into their boxes, but it highlights that there are examples of well-managed mass tourism in areas with infrastructure that are worth supporting. Just as there are examples of poorly managed ecotourism disturbing nature for the first time, it all comes down to how tourism is managed.
What do you think about this argument? Share in the comments!
Five Requirements of Sustainable Ecotourism
What else separates sustainable and unsustainable ecotourism? It’s not enough for ecotourism to vaguely target the three pillars of sustainability at free will. Carefully thought-out itineraries should be constructed before engaging in ecotourism. While there is situational and regional flexibility in how sustainable ecotourism plays out in real life, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed five minimum requirements, hitting all three pillars, that tourists and tour operators should address before engaging in ecotourism. We can use these guidelines to create a custom itinerary when visiting vulnerable natural communities or booking a tour operator.
1. Tourism should benefit environmental conservation
Tourism activities, development, and tour operators should safeguard the environment, conserve natural resources, protect ecosystems, and benefit biodiversity. Several key players need to work together to ensure this. Governments and land managers should ensure that proper scientific impact assessments are done prior to tourism development. Rules and regulations should be established so tour companies, guides, and tourists follow. Involving the community in conservation-based tourism is key.
For us travelers, environmental education is a key component of this. As you visit vulnerable areas, you should try to learn about local biodiversity and environmental concerns. Doing some research ahead of time allows you to align your behaviors in a way that doesn’t degrade the environment, and you can also hold tourism companies accountable for their actions if you are more informed.
- Mass crowds, overdevelopment, and overtourism. Overdevelopment of the region surrounding a protected area to accommodate mass tourism may negatively impact nature. Many species are not confined to the protected natural zone, and over-development can damage migration and breeding patterns, increase water and air pollution, and increase erosion. Protected areas often have a limited capacity before ecosystem degradation may occur.
- Large tour buses or cruise ships drop large groups of people off in a protected region for a short amount of time.
- If a protected region is capitalizing on economic profit and bringing in as many guests as possible without sticking to a sustainable plan.
- Clear-cutting and ecosystem fragmentation to build large resorts
- Tour companies that allow you to touch, feed, or interact with wildlife
- Look for places with non-invasive infrastructure that keep you a safe distance from animals. Look for well-planned trails, viewing platforms/sky bridges, nature centers for education, etc.
- Find alternatives to nature’s hot spots, seeking out small-scale educational nature-based tourism.
- Visit places that minimize capacity with permits and quotas.
- Be willing to pay fees and fines that support sustainable infrastructure.
- Learn and follow all regional, local, and tribal etiquette before entering a protected area.
- Support eco-lodges, regenerative hotels, and other low-impact options.
- Book small group tours or go alone and hire personal local guides to take you into nature on a designated trail.
Read a guest post by an ecologist from India about the do’s and don’ts for visiting national parks in India. This post highlights proper behavior to ensure that you, your local guide, the ecosystem, and the animals you see are safeguarded and protected. – A great example of sustainable ecotourism.
2. Safeguard the cultural and natural heritage of the region
Oftentimes, without even knowing it, we, as travelers, support the decline of a region’s cultural heritage. With the presence of tourism, locals may feel the pressure to please us with certain trinkets or displays that don’t align with their culture to put on a show. There are a few cruise shows in Alaska that are not traditional and are upsetting to certain elders as they have permanently altered traditions to appeal to Western tourists.
There are mindful ways we can learn about and support traditions by appreciating authentic experiences; for example, The Alaska Native Heritage Center is operated by Native stakeholders, and the art, song, dance, and cultural shows are true to the tribe’s heritage.
Unsustainable tourism booms at UNESCO sites such as Hoi An are notorious for contributing to tourism tourism-fiction. This means that culture becomes a commodity rather than part of the heritage. Some have described tourism’s impacts on Hoi An as leaving the city a husk of its former self and operating more like Disneyland than a place of important culture.
- Locals selling mass-produced or cheap trinkets, such as sunglasses, outside protected zones. Many of these people may have given up traditional crafts or lifestyles to get short-term benefits from tourism in the area because they have been exploited and excluded for economic benefits.
- International tour companies that host cultural shows in which traditional songs, dances, or clothing have been changed to appeal to foreigners.
- Commodification of culture
- Invest in quality certified crafts work from master artisans – look for certifications.
- Seek out authentic cultural experiences from homestays or by learning from local guides.
- Visit Indigenous or locally-owned culture centers for an authentic educational song, dance, and cultural experience.
3. Respect Indigenous Peoples and local communities rights
If there is one thing that can grind my gears, it’s when tourists have more rights than locals. When Glacier Bay National Park first opened to tourism many Indigenous groups were no longer allowed to use the land for subsistence hunting and gathering. Meanwhile, massive cruise ships pulled in and dumped their greywater. Efforts are being made to restore subsistence rights, and Indigenous tribes can now harvest certain things, but as it still stands, most cruise companies have more rights in that Bay than many Alaskans. While the Indigenous peoples of Alaska are left suffering the consequences of cruise impacts on their ancestral land, they are also excluded from tourism’s benefits, with multinational cruise companies making the most money.
But, it is not enough to consider Indigenous peoples and the surrounding communities impacted by tourism; they must be a key partner in tourism. Their consent and well-being regarding tourism in protected areas should come first. They should have a direct say in developing tourism while receiving equitable benefits.
- Areas that give tourists more rights than local or Indigenous Peoples. i.e., when people climbed Uluru on eco-excursions despite the wishes of Australia’s Aboriginal People.
- Tours that bring you into protected natural areas without providing ways to learn about local or Indigenous culture directly from the marginalized people.
- If Indigenous groups have been displaced from an area, take it upon yourself to enter the protected area as a guest respecting the traditional owners.
- Hire local guides or meet locals to engage in cultural exchange.
- Learn about tribal history, present, culture, and wishes.
- Perform a land acknowledgment.
- If an area is sacred to an Indigenous group and they ask you not to enter, reconsider your plans and find a viable alternative.
4. Create viable, long-term economic operations in the region
The presence of a booming tourism industry looks great on paper in any region. But, if you dig deep, you’ll start to notice that maybe a lot of that money leaves the local destination and ends up in the pockets of large multinational companies. Or maybe locals don’t have access to year-round jobs that provide them with enough healthcare and healthy food because of boom-bust seasonal cycles. Ensuring local access to stable employment is important to reduce global poverty. Tourism jobs can’t only be seasonal jobs that exploit foreign workers. Locals should be interested in tourism jobs to reach management positions and receive benefits.
Many cite the economic benefits of tourism as the sole reason to develop tourism, but research shows that many locals aren’t interested in tourism jobs because of the lack of sustainable and beneficial long-term employment. When I was a tour guide in Alaska, I worked long hours during the summer months without long-term security, health care, or retirement benefits.
- Tourism leakage. Leakage happens when large international tour corporations or foreign-owned all-inclusive resorts profit off ecotourism while locals are forced deeper into poverty. Locals should be primarily profiting off tourism as they suffer any negative impacts.
- Lack of local guides. Lack of locals in management or hospitality positions.
- Mass-over-tourism booms happening during a short seasonal window, resulting in an employment depression during the off-season.
- Foreign workers are imported for cheap labor exploitation or to make tourists comfortable.
- Support locally owned tour companies providing residents with stable year-round jobs, training, and income-earning opportunities.
- Support local businesses and buy local products when traveling through vulnerable communities.
- Visit places during the shoulder or off-season to support a healthy year-round economy.
- Avoid booking with international tour companies and all-inclusive resorts unless they engage in the trip-bottom line.
5. Create meaningful and high-quality visitor experiences
If you’re stepping out of a tour bus for that Instagram photo opportunity without learning about your destination, you are not having a meaningful or high-quality experience. Slow down and enjoy the lesser-known sights, and learn about the local food, nature, and people. These tourism experiences should be led by locals with a deep affinity for a region, allowing you to connect them to the place on an intimate level. Canada has a rigorous tour guide certification called interpretative guides. The guides aim to foster a deep and meaningful connections between the local people, places, and tourists. Tourists are more likely to care for their destination if they have a connection and understanding regarding why its protection is important.
- Tour busses that drop people off in a protected area to look around and snap a few photos and leave without offering educational information or ways to learn about the landscape.
- Violating local rules to gain access to a protected area for an Instagram photo.
- Engage in ecotourism that hinges on environmental education and cultural connection.
- Stay in a region longer than a bus stop or half a day.
- Book locally-owned accommodation, engaging in regenerative practices that educate you meaningfully.
- Please do it for more than the gram.
The Pros and Cons of Ecotourism
There is no perfect model of truly sustainable ecotourism. Even the most sustainable ecotourism models will have some negative implications, but the ultimate goal is to create a long-term sustainable plan that maximizes benefits and minimizes negative impacts. As you can see the potential benefits are almost equal to any potential negative impacts. The key is understanding how your presence can have a positive or negative impact, and strive to check as many positives as possible. Ensure you are engaging in ecotourism that ticks positives in environmental, social, AND economic, otherwise, it is likely the negatives outweigh the positives of sustainable ecotourism.
|Potential Positives of Ecotourism||Potential Negatives of Ecotourism|
- Connects tourists to nature (they are more likely to adopt sustainable habits)
- Incentivizes governments to support conservation
- Supports the research of environment and ecotourism
- Supports biodiversity and species awareness
- Reduces poaching and illegal animal trade
- Reduces land exploitation from deforestation and fossil fuels
- Locals more tolerant of disturbances from wildlife
- Increase in pollution, carbon emissions, and contamination
- Changes in soil
- Ecosystem fragmentation
- Introduction of invasive species
- Overfishing and harvesting to supply food for tourists
- Change in species behavior
- Increased tourist/wildlife conflict
- Increased mortality of species from roadkill, etc.
- Economic incentive to conserve and protect nature
- Jobs and income for residents
- Diversifies economy
- Financial support of conservation through tourism fees
- Encourages local manufactures and crafts
- Enable locals to learn new skills and trade
- Seasonal job loss during low season
- Tourism leakage to international companies
- Locals in low wage jobs; no room for growth
- Over dependency on tourism
- Inflation and exclusion of local land owners
- Unequal distribution of benefits
- Improved standard of living for locals
- Intercultural understanding
- Inclusion of Indigenous voices
- Appreciation for cultural heritage and traditions
- Encourage conservation of culture, crafts, and arts
- Promote health and well-being through recreation
- Puts conservation in the hands of local people and governments
- Commodification of local culture and traditions
- Decline in traditional crafts and trade
- Destabilization of communities
- Exploitation of women and children
- Displacement of local communities
- Loss of subsistence access
- Locals and Indigenous Peoples losing land-right access
- Stress from over-tourism
Does the Good Outweigh the Bad?
I went on an eco-tour to see brown bears in the wild in Alaska. We learned about brown bears from a distance and the Lake Clark National Park ecosystem (environmental) with a local company (economic) on a quality tour (social). However, they could have included more information about the region’s Indigenous culture (social). So, I did some of my own research, doing a land acknowledgment and discovering the park’s true name is Qizhjeh Vena, meaning a place where people gather in the Dena’ina language. Despite a few shortcomings, I decided this ecotour had more positive than negative impacts especially since Indigenous Alaskans have access to the park. But this shows that not everything will be perfect. You can weigh your options and take personal actions outside of the tour to balance it out, such as independent research, donations, land acknowledgments, and buying high-quality souvenirs.