There is no universally accepted definition of ecotourism. Evans-Pritchard and Salazar [1992, cited in Mowforth and Munt, 1998, p.104] note that “it is still not possible to be exact about whether the term 'ecotourism' is meant as a pure concept or as a term for wide public use”. Theoretically, ecotourism can be defined as a type of tourism where the environment, local community and visitor all benefit. In practice, the term ‘ecotourism' is often used by tour operators as a marketing tool to promote any form of tourism that is related to nature. As Wight [1994, p.39] notes:
“There seem to be two prevailing views of ecotourism: one envisages that public interest in the environment may be used to market a product; the other sees that this same interest may be used to conserve the resources upon which this product is based. These views need not be mutually exclusive”.
Various conferences have been held on ecotourism and responsible tourism to promote the latter view cited above. At the 1995 World Conference on Sustainable Tourism held in Lanzarote, it was agreed that:
“Tourism is sustainable when its development and operation include participation of local population, protection of the total environment, fair economic return for the industry and its host community, as well as a mutual respect for and gratification of all involved parties” [Jafari, 1996, p.959].
From such conferences and literature on ecotourism have emerged numerous principles to which tourism should adhere if it can be defined as ecotourism. These principles and guidelines are not merely theories espoused by “armchair geographers” as to what a “perfect” form of tourism would look like but are important if the tourism activities are to be viable in the long term. The principles of such ideal ecotourism are outlined below. These principles outline our definition of ecotourism.
Ecotourism and the environment:
The environment is one of the primary concerns of ecotourism, which often involves travel to relatively undisturbed areas. As the tourism product is often dependent upon nature, negative impacts upon that resource should be minimized. As Cater  notes, even the most conscientious tourist will have some degree of impact on the environment and so ecotourism should therefore attempt to minimize that impact. Many studies of tourism attempt to identify an environmental carrying capacity but a major difficulty of this technique is that it “implies the existence of fixed and determinable limits to development and that if one stays below those threshold levels no changes or deterioration will occur” [Murphy, 1994, p.282; see also Gunn, 1994, Farrell & Runyan, 1991, p.31].
Ecotourism, the local population and economic benefits:
A definition of ecotourism must also take into account the local population - ecotourism should minimize negative impacts on the host community because otherwise the local population may come to dislike the presence of tourism, and this could undermine its long-term prospects. Tourism is likely to have the greatest socio-cultural impacts on small, isolated communities [Pearce, 1994] which may themselves be one of the tourist attractions. As a result, any cultural changes in the community's way of life may reduce the tourism product's overall marketability and therefore future prospects. At the same time, ecotourism should produce direct economic benefits for the local community if it is to receive their continued support – benefits that should compliment rather than overwhelm traditional practices and sources of income [Wallace & Pierce, 1996]. However, such economic benefits and material wealth obtained by the local community may themselves lead to cultural changes in their way of life. The literature on ecotourism asserts that economic benefits should be accrued by the host community whilst at the same time preserving the environment and cultural way of life of that community. Little of the literature acknowledges the fact that the two will often be mutually exclusive. An article by Wall  notes that “ecotourism is an agent of change” [p.490]. He also notes the widespread misuse of the term “sustainable tourism”, asserting that it should be considered as “tourism which is in a form which can maintain its viability in an area for an indefinite period or time” [ Butler , 1993, cited in Wall, 1997, p.486]. Considering that “ecotourism is not automatically sustainable” [Wall, 1997, p.490], it may have to be viewed as part of a longer term strategy of sustainable development in which tourism is later phased out [Prosser, 1994]. Such an argument questions the underlying principle of ecotourism – that it is a sustainable form of tourism.
It is widely agreed that the host population should receive economic benefits from ecotourism. Without economic benefits, the host community will have little reason to view the intrusion of tourists positively and will have little incentive to protect the environment upon which tourism depends. Ecotourism is often found in designated protected areas or national parks which may have been imposed upon the indigenous population and if they can see no benefit from it's existence, they may have little incentive to adhere to the environmental regulations of the “common pool” resource [Hardin, 1968; Healy, 1994; see also Bird, 1997]. Ecotourism is regarded by some critics as a form of neo-colonialism, and the question of who actually benefits from the designation of protected areas is addressed by Mowforth and Munt [1998, p.177]:
“There is the question of who actually gains from the construction of parks. It rarely seems to be the local people and, indeed, part of the answer seems to be found in the removal of local rights and a loss or denial of ownership. Instead it is the rich consumer in the industrialised North with leisure and wealth to be a tourist in the Third World who gains from the designation of national parks”.
Ecotourism and local participation
Great importance is attached to the need for local participation in ecotourism. According to Wallace and Pierce , ecotourism is a type of tourism that “maximizes the early and long-term participation of local people in the decision making process that determines the kind and amount of tourism that should occur” [p.850]. There are important reasons for local involvement other than a moral obligation to incorporate the people tourism will affect. The degree of control the local population has over tourism in their locality is generally perceived as being a significant element of sustainability [Mowforth & Munt, 1998]. As was noted earlier, ecotourism is required to provide direct economic benefits to the local community and minimize negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts. The most likely way these objectives can be achieved is if the local community are actively participating in and empowered through ecotourism. Cater [1994, p.84] points out that:
“In terms of conserving the natural and socio-cultural resource base, the time perspective of the local population is longer than that of outside entrepreneurs concerned with early profits. They are also more likely to ensure that traditions and lifestyles will be respected. Their co-operation is also a vital factor in reducing infringements of conservation regulations such as poaching and indiscriminate tree-felling”.
Drake [1991, p.134] notes further advantages of involving the local community in ecotourism projects:
“Local participation functions as an early warning system, helping managers to avoid or plan for decisions that might otherwise cause conflict with the local population. Also, including a participation program in the design stage of a project provides the opportunity for the local community to become educated about the purpose and benefits of the project, thereby increasing support for the effort.”
Tourism that includes indigenous communities as part of the tourist attraction is often accused of being a process of zooification which leads to a position of powerlessness for the local people. The key to avoiding such situations is local control of and participation in the tourism activity [Mowforth & Munt, 1998].
The degree of power wielded by the local community in relation to tourism activities is crucial to its long-term prospects and sustainability. Their empowerment might go some way to counter the claim that tourism, and ecotourism in particular, is a form of neo-colonialism. However, as Mowforth & Munt [1998, p.240] note, “the push for local participation comes from a position of power, the First World ”.
Ecotourism and education
The final principle to which ecotourism should adhere is that of education. Wight [1994, p.40] asserts that ecotourism “should involve education among all parties – local communities, government, non-governmental organisations, industry and tourists (before, during and after the trip)”. Guides should therefore have been taught conservation issues and the tourists should be told about local conservation efforts and why they are deemed important. Tourists should be made aware of the damaging potential of their stay and should be properly informed on “ecotourism etiquette” and how to behave to reduce any negative impacts they might have [Cater, 1994, p.81].
This ecotourism definition is copyright © 2003 C.L. Hardyment (Piedra Blanca ecotourism consultant - email)
See our Ecotourism Resources page
Piedra Blanca would like to thank the following ecotourism directories for providing our website with a free listing:
Worldsurface.com - excellent travel guide for conscientious backpackers
Eco Tropical Resorts - travel guide to eco-tourism's finest tropical destinations
www.jiwi.com - Adventure travel and ecotourism.
Ecobusinesslinks.com - Environmental directory, with links to eco-tour operators
Ecoturismolatino.com - South America ecotourism and eco-holidays.
Big volcano ecotourism resource centre - A comprehensive guide to ecotourism, the environment, development, ESD, activism, and best practice in the tourism and travel industry.
We would also like to express our deep disappointment that the following ecotourism directories charge a fee for inclusion, and have no policy whereby small-scale community-run ecotourism projects (the ideal form of ecotourism - see above) are included for free. Can they really be considered eco-tourism directories if they filter out so many small scale projects that can't afford a listing? If you agree, email them and tell them.
www.ecotourism.org - The International Ecotourism Society
www.ecotourdirectory.com - directory of eco-tours and eco-lodges
www.planeta.com - Global journal of practical ecotourism
www.sustainabletravelinternational.org - promoting responsible eco travel and tourism.
Ecotourism guidelines for Piedra Blanca - Piedra Blanca Environmental Assessment