Ecotourism has been defined as the “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people” (The International Ecotourism Society). The term arose in the 1980s to highlight the connection between conservation and tourism, and the benefits that one can have on the other (Stronza et al., 2019). But when I think of ecotourism, I normally think of rich Westerners spending thousands of pounds to fly halfway across the world to feed an orangutan. Or as my friend and fellow blogger Beth puts it, “glamping and seeing a giraffe”. This post will more closely inspect these shallow assumptions and determine whether ecotourism is a sustainable way of encouraging environmental awareness amongst tourists.
Supporters of ecotourism claim that the improved education and awareness of visitors is a key benefit of the industry. For example, visitors interviewed in Bako National Park, Borneo, showed high awareness of the environmental impacts occurring there (e.g. littering, wildlife attracted to rubbish bins and discoloured water), with the majority supportive of education and regulatory measures to control visitor numbers and forest use (Chin et al., 2000). As well as this, there are several more direct benefits of the industry to conservation: in Costa Rica, ecotourism has been found to contribute to reducing land degradation and even lead to reforestation in some areas, as well as provide increased wages to local people supporting protected areas (Stronza et al., 2019). Ecotourism gives local communities the opportunity to share their culture, revitalise ethnic traditions, share indigenous knowledge and seek employment opportunities in the sector, which in some cases can reduce other more exploitative employment such as logging (Stronza et al., 2019).
Because the number of ecotourists is much lower than mass tourists, and the assumption that they are interested in the environment, it is often assumed that the impacts of such tourists will be lower (Wall, 1997). Ecotourists are also likely to pay substantially more to fund conservation in the areas they visit (Wall, 1997). Therefore, perhaps ecotourism is valuable in generating attention and funds to conservation in areas which may themselves be less equipped to prioritise conservation funding.
“ecotourism has been shown to contribute directly to a sense of cultural pride as well as the opportunity to showcase and support local arts and, in some cases, revitalize ethnic traditions, customs and shared identities.” – Stronza et al. (2019)
However, criticisms of the industry are numerous. Ecotourism is sold as a “win-win” to both conservation and improving the lives of local people, often in poorer countries in the Southern hemisphere. But ecotourism and sustainable tourism are not synonymous. In their review on the subject, Wall (1997) writes that the use of these terms interchangeably can be problematic, as it can be used by the tourism industry to promote green, sustainable and environmentally friendly activities (through “greenwashing”), which may in fact do more worse than good. In some areas, the pressure of building infrastructure, wildlife disruption, the greenhouse gas emissions burned through flying to the location and the disruption of predator-prey relationships can far outweigh the benefit of increasing visitor awareness of environmental issues and species protection (Chin et al., 2000).
The theory behind the movement has been further criticised, for putting a price on nature and the cultures of local people. Many conservationists believe that it is inappropriate to expose nature to market-based systems, as it takes away the intrinsic value of wild spaces and instead commodifies them, giving them a financial value. However, in a world where nature is not valued on its own merit, adding a price to its value makes its importance clearer, so that destruction to a habitat is not only seen as bad for the ecosystem itself, but also financially – and when money is at stake, people tend to pay more attention (Juniper, 2012).
Another key point to make here is that many of the issues around sustainability in ecotourism arise before a person even sets foot in their destination. Ecotourism may be sustainable at a local level, but the problem of air travel is a big one: a mass tourism destination such as Tunisia might be less sustainable in terms of visitor activity, but compared with a conservation trip to Seychelles, it has a 3x smaller environmental footprint – 433,581 international tourists in Tunisia have the same environmental footprint as 117,690 tourists headed to Seychelles (Marzouki et al., 2012). As well as the environmental impacts, the central “improves the welfare of local people” part of the definition of ecotourism is not always met. For example, the benefits of ecotourism to Nepal were not sufficient to convince local people to conserve wildlife, nor were they enough to pull locals away from logging and towards conservation of the Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Mexico (Stronza et al., 2019).
“ecotourism as a Western construct that privileges tourists’ pleasure at the expense of local communities and environments” – Stronza et al. (2019)
The ecotourism industry seems to achieve mixed results for environmental conservation depending on the scale of the projects involved. It attracts funding from around the world, conserves endangered species and has an important role in raising awareness of environmental issues to visitors (Wall, 1997). It can also support local communities, when structures are put in place that ensure local people receive direct economic benefits and lead monitoring and enforcement of conservation efforts themselves (Stronza et al., 2019).
However, it is still subject to widespread greenwashing, and should not be considered equal to truly sustainable tourism: for ecotourism to be sustainable, it’s benefits should be equally spread across the social, environmental and economic spheres of the host environment. At present, it seems that the most sustainable way of being an ecotourist is to visit local places, invest in the communities local to the area and remain conscious of your own impact, whether you’re in Tunisia, Turkey or Timbuktu (Marzouki et al., 2012).
“ecotourism can still hold promise among an array of strategies for justifying large protected areas and building local stewardship, support, and institutional capacity for managing wildlife.” – Stronza et al. (2019)
Chin, C.L., Moore, S.A., Wallington, T.J. & Dowling, R.K. (2000) Ecotourism in Bako National Park, Borneo: Visitors’ perspectives on environmental impacts and their management. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 8(1), pp.20-35
Juniper, T. (2012) We must put a price on nature if we are going to save it. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/aug/10/nature-economic-value-campaign (Accessed: 29/06/2020)
Marzouki, M., Froger, G. & Ballet, J. (2012) Ecotourism versus mass tourism. A comparison of environmental impacts based on ecological footprint analysis. Sustainability, 4(1), pp.123-140
Stronza, A.L., Hunt, C.A. & Fitzgerald, L.A. (2019) Ecotourism for conservation?. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 44, pp.229-253
Wall, G. (1997) Is ecotourism sustainable? Environmental management, 21(4), pp.483-491