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Are you curious about what ecotourism is, if it’s really as beneficial as it sounds, and how to ensure you’re engaging in sustainable ecotourism? Ecotourism is when we travel to vulnerable natural places. Our impact can work toward the environmental conservation and cultural preservation of the region, or add to the stresses that put the region at risk. It is up to us to be informed on how our behavior impacts protected natural places. So, Let’s dive into the nuances of ecotourism, the benefits, and the negatives, and most importantly why sustainable ecotourism matters. By understanding how to identify sustainable ecotourism you’ll become a more informed traveler doing your part to save travel and the protected natural areas that we choose to visit.
This post was carefully curated relying on personal experience, my education in environmental sustainability, and research relying on government documents, case studies, and international conservation entities.
Ecotourism happens in vulnerable communities and protected natural areas.
Sustainable ecotourism engages the 3 pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social benefits.
Unsustainable ecotourism neglects 1-2 of the pillars resulting in negative implications for nature or locals.
Nature-based tourism is often confused with ecotourism – learn how to spot the difference.
Before engaging in ecotourism, ask yourself or the company you book how they benefit ALL three pillars.
Often the best solution is to work directly with local tour groups or organizations.
Ecotourism does not always mean ethical tourism.
There is no perfect model of ecotourism. It is up to you to ensure you have a positive impact on vulnerable natural destinations.
What is Ecotourism?
One of the most common buzzwords used in the sustainable travel industry is ‘ecotourism.’ Many travelers rely on this word being synonymous with environmentally friendly, ethical tourism. When ecotourism is executed sustainably, then yes, it can be synonymous with ethical tourism – creating a powerful positive force for conservation and local communities. On the other side of the coin, unsustainable ecotourism 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. Therefore ecotourism should contribute to environmental conservation and the alleviation of poverty.
Sustainable ecotourism is responsible travel to protected or vulnerable natural areas that focus 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.
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 simply enjoy nature. Whereas sustainable 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 I do in the European Alps nature-based, as I am just out for a hike. When I went on a tour with a local company in New Zealand to learn about and support the conservation of little penguins that was ecotourism.
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. Unsustainable ecotourism may embody only one or two pillars of sustainable ecotourism. Adventure companies or individual travelers may partake in nature-based adventures while disregarding local communities. Others may seek to capitalize on the economic gain of nature-based tourism while exploiting nature. Other companies may lack adequate support and resources to meet well-intended goals. All are examples of unsustainable ecotourism and result in problematic exploitation of natural resources or local communities.
Five Requirements of Sustainable Ecotourism
What else separates sustainable and unsustainable ecotourism? It’s not enough for ecotourism to target the three pillars of sustainability vaguely 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. These guidelines can be used to create a custom itinerary when visiting vulnerable natural communities or when booking a tour operator.
1. Safeguard the environment, conserving natural resources, ecosystem processes, and biodiversity.
Any amount of tourism in an area can degrade the ecosystem to some extent, but generally allowing people to access natural areas sustainably and connect with nature outweighs any negative impacts. Ultimately you should be contributing to conservation efforts while taking steps to have as little impact on the environment as possible. Environmental education is a key component of this, and as you visit vulnerable areas you should make effort to learn about local biodiversity and environmental concerns. In the Tongass National Forest, ecotourism was praised as being a sustainable alternative to the detrimental logging industry. However, if just as many trees are cut and just as many roads are built to accommodate tourism, we have just replaced logging with tourism. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet.
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 busses or cruise ships that drop large groups of people off in a protected region.
If a protected region is capitalizing on economic profit and bringing in as many guests as possible without sticking to a sustainable plan, this might be a sign of unsustainable ecotourism.
The presence of mega hotel chains, sprawling highways, and foreign-owned resorts.
Clear-cutting and ecosystem fragmentation.
Look for places with non-invasive infrastructure, safe distances from animals, 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 cultural and spiritual qualities by conserving the natural heritage of the region and locals.
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. We can still learn about and support traditions by appreciating authentic experiences though, 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. Another example would be going to Ireland and expecting it to be one big Irish American St. Paddy’s event – so pubs might cater to that disregarding traditional values.
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 tourism’s economic benefits.
International tour companies that host cultural shows in which traditional songs, dances, or clothing have been changed to appeal to foreigners.
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 the rights, traditional values, cultural authenticity, and heritage of Indigenous Peoples and local communities while contributing to intercultural understanding, education, and tolerance.
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 that are distributed fairly and with equity to anyone impacted by tourism in the area. Provide stable employment, income opportunities, social services to host destinations/communities contributing to poverty reduction.
The presence of a healthy 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 multi-national 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 locals have access to good stable employment is important to reduce global poverty.
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 the ones primarily profiting off tourism as they primarily suffer any negative impacts.
Lack of local guides. Lack of locals in management or hospitality positions.
Mass-overtourism booms happening during a short seasonal window, resulting in an employment depression during the off-season.
Foreign workers imported for cheap labor exploitation or imported to make tourists comfortable.
Support locally owned tour companies providing stable year-round jobs, training, and income-earning opportunities for residents.
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 based on locally driven education seeking to connect travelers to the environment, local culture, and why conservation matters.
If you’re just 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, learn about the local food, nature, and people.
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 for longer than a bus stop or half a day.
Book locally owned accommodation engaging in regenerative practices that educate you in meaningful ways.
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
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
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
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, I think they could have included more information about the region’s Indigenous culture (social). So, I made sure to do 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 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 buy high-quality souvenirs.
Mountain gorilla treks in Uganda and DR Congo are great sustainable ecotourism models supported by local government, residents, and conservation groups. Uganda even has a conservation economy that prioritizes conservation as an economic value. Mountain gorillas are endangered species, in a vulnerable natural habitat surrounded by high-densities of rural farmers. A sustainable model of ecotourism in the region protects both gorillas and includes the livelihood of local residents.
Environmental: The presence of tourists deter poachers, and encourages local governments to implement protection of the gorillas. Gorilla populations are increasing as a result of sustainable ecotourism.
Economic: Locals are offered stable employment opportunities as guides, trackers, and anti-poaching guards. Many of them are ex-poachers which reduces the poaching threat even more so. US$428,000 was directly invested in Rwandan communities over a five-year period helping locals build schools, enact locally-driven environmental projects, and aid food securities.
Social: Cultural exchange between local guides and tourists enhances cultural and environmental education. Local guides are able to showcase years of local expertise and take pride in their culture and nature.
Interested in learning more about ethical moutnain gorilla treks? Kesi from Kesi to and Fro created an awesome guest post detailing her first hand experience seeing mountain gorillas in the wild. You even have the chance to join her on a group trip to Uganda to work with local tour operators to support conservation, boost the local economy, and engage in cultural exchange. Learn more about sustainble gorilla trekking!
Unsustainable – Machu Picchu Ecotreks
Ecotourism in Machu Picchu has exploded over the last decade. Tourism in the region has grown unchecked with both international and local tour companies capitalizing on the economic benefit of a booming industry. However, tourism grew to unsustainable levels focusing primarily on the economy rather than the environment or social aspects. This is a prime example of when ecotourism turns into mass-overtourism.
Photo by Alan Hurt Jr. Unsplash
Environment: Mass development in the region surrounding Machu Picchu threatens South America’s last remaining pocket of the Andean cloud forest. Increased waste from humans adds to air and water pollution. Heavy foot traffic damages the fragile Paramo grasslands. Noise pollution contributed to the disappearance of the Andean condors from the region. Migrating and breeding patterns of threatened animals have changed.
Economic: During the off-season, most workers and guides are left without work or stable year-round income. Tourism leakage, where locals do not benefit as much as they should from tourism in the region is problematic.
Social: Portions of the city are sliding downhill causing damage to a cultural and historic icon. Visitors have defaced, broken, and damaged parts of the city. An increase in cheaply made trinkets has caused a decline in local artisanal craftwork. Overall the region has suffered a loss of cultural authenticity. The visitor experience has suffered greatly too with packed trails, and long waits.
*This does not mean that all Machu Picchu treks are bad. You can still visit, but be respectful as you visit, support local tour operators, respect permits, buy quality souvenirs, pay additional fees, and follow all instructions from your guide to minimize your impact. You should also consider other ways to learn about the history of the region or find an alternative hike.
By now you should have a pretty good idea of what constitutes sustainable ecotourism and be able to identify if your next nature-based adventure checks some of these boxes, but here are my top tips to help you get started.
Read Their About Page
You can tell a lot about a tour operator by looking at their “about” page. I always say the more details the better. Tour companies, hotels, and excursions near vulnerable nature and communities should freely offer up a lot of detailed information about how they are hitting that triple bottom line. If any one of the three pillars of sustainable ecotourism is missing from their mission statement or is not easily accessible online that is your first major red flag. Browse the website to see how they are supporting the environment, local economic development, and cultural conservation.
Look for Greenwashing
There is the possibility that companies will engage in greenwashing, presenting information on their website that makes for a convincing sustainable ecotourism model. Some signs companies are greenwashing is when they offer vague information, general statements about committing to sustainability without examples, or put customer satisfaction and fun at the center of their advertising rather than social impact.
When in Doubt, Ask
I always recommend sending an email asking how they give back to the community, where your money goes, what local conservation efforts are, how they engage with local culture if they employ locals, etc.
Check Their Business model
Is sustainability part of their core mission or is it an afterthought? Research shows that companies that were built around a sustainable business model prioritizing social, economic, and environmental benefits to the local community are more likely to be ethical in the long-term. Companies that created a sustainable statement as an afterthought or in response to harmful behavior they were caught for are more likely to engage in damaging behavior. A great example of this is Carnival Cruises. Carnival has literal pages outlining their commitment to the environment, but this was created because a court ordered them, and not necessarily because they wanted it. Look for companies that were founded with the intent of creating a positive impact. This information is often included in an origin story or about section.
Find the Owner
Who owns the company? Is it locally owned? Google the name of the owner. For example, many cruise lines and resorts appear to be small boutique companies, but they are owned by large international conglomerates. If in doubt Google, “Who owns X eco-resort.”
Look for certifications, read reviews, and internet stalk them. Look for environmental warnings, report cards, read comments on their social media, and dig up any information you can find.
Create a checklist and save it on your computer to help you identify sustainable ecotourism. Having this handy will help you identify sustainable ecotourism excursions that you can feel good supporting.
What are some of your favorite sustainable eco-tour companies or excursions you’ve supported? Let us know in the comments so we can all learn about great companies around the world working toward helping local communities and protecting our environment.
Make sure you share this post so all your fellow travelers can discover the benefits of sustainable ecotourism and be able to identify the difference between sustainable and unsustainable ecotourism – so we can all do our part to save travel!
Susanna grew up in small-town Alaska where the changing climate was always on her mind. Through traveling, she gained an interest in the power of sustainable and regenerative travel. She now attends a Master's program for environmental sustainability and bridges sustainable travel with environmental science. When she's not outside playing, you'll find her drinking whiskey with her cat and partner while trying to get to level 99 in life.