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What is ecotourism and why is it so important?

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We’ve all heard of the term ecotourism, but how many of us know what is really means?

The term ecotourism gets thrown about way too much these days, with people claiming to be ‘ecotourists’, when they don’t really understand the principles of ecotourism. Well, I intend to change this!

Today, I will teach you what you need to know about ecotourism. I will cover what is ecotourism, definitions of ecotourism, why it is important, the history of ecotourism and the principles of ecotourism. I will also provide a brief history of how the concept came about. Towards the end of this article I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of ecotourism (this is the important stuff- don’t close the page before you reach this part!). Finally, we will look at some famous examples of ecotourism around the world.

Are you ready to learn more about ecotourism? Keep scrolling and by the end of this article you will know everything you need to about ecotourism…

The difference between sustainable tourism and ecotourism

Before we begin to discuss the concept of ecotourism, I would clear up a common misnomer about the difference between sustainable tourism and ecotourism. Sustainable tourism and ecotourism are NOT THE SAME. They are two different concepts with different underlying principles.

An ecotourism project doesn’t, by definition, have to be sustainable. And sustainable tourism doesn’t have to involve the environment (remember- there are THREE pillars to sustainable tourism. Didn’t know this? Then you should definitely take a look at my article on sustainable tourism).

Here is the major difference:

  • Ecotourism is focussed predominantly around the notion of environment.
  • Sustainable tourism is focussed on the practical longevity of tourism.

In actual fact, ecotourism is often (although sadly not always-more about this later) an example of sustainable tourism. It comes under the umbrella of sustainable tourism. It is just one example of sustainable tourism.

OK, so is that clear now? Sustainable tourism and ecotourism are NOT THE SAME.

Right, I’m glad that we have that one cleared up. Now lets get on with the article…. so what exactly is ecotourism?

What is ecotourism? A simple explanation

You stumbled across this article because you want to know more about ecotourism, right? So lets start with a simple explanation…

To put it simply, ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.

There are generally three dimensions to any ecotourism project:

  • It is based around nature
  • An environmental education is provided
  • It is sustainably managed

Of course, there are many discrepancies over exactly what ecotourism should look like and how it should be managed. Each project is unique and operates in its own way.

However, as a general rule of thumb, we can assume that if a project is designated as an ecotourism venture, it will involve nature, provide education about said nature and operate sustainably.

Ecotourism definitions

As with most types of tourism, there are many definitions that have been developed within both the academic community and by various stakeholders of tourism to identify the concept of ecotourism.

The first formal definition of ecotourism was developed by Ceballos-Lascuráin in 1987. He defined ecotourism as; ‘travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas’.

Since this time, the concept has evolved somewhat, and in 1993 Wight suggested that ecotourism was a sub-sector of sustainable tourism, identifying it as an ethical overlay’ of tradition nature-based tourism.

Tickell (1994) simply summarised ecotourism as ‘travel to enjoy the world’s amazing diversity of natural life and human culture without causing damage to either’.

And the International Ecotourism Society states that ‘around the world, ecotourism has been hailed as a panacea: a way to fund conservation and scientific research, protect fragile and pristine ecosystems, benefit rural communities, promote development in poor countries, enhance ecological and cultural sensitivity, instil environmental awareness and a social conscience in the travel industry, satisfy and educate the discriminating tourist, and, some claim, build world peace.’


Why is ecotourism important?

As I explain at length in my article on the environmental impacts of tourism, it is important that we protect the environment. Ecotourism is a great way to do this.

We are destroying our planet. It’s happening and it’s happening fast. The population is expanding globally at a rapid rate. And with this we have more waste, more energy consumption and more crowding.

Tourism is inherently one of the most environmentally destructive activities on the planet. Taking just one transatlantic flight omits more pollution into the air per passenger than the average daily commute to work (in the UK) for a year.

Did this surprise you? Head on over to the WWF website to calculate your carbon footprint.

And do you know what the most ironic thing is? Tourism RELIES on the very environment that it damages! Go figure, huh?!

Ecotourism is important because it promotes awareness. It educates people about biodiversity, nature and wildlife. It helps to conserve and protect species and wildlife.

History of ecotourism

Ecotourism plays an important role in the recent history of tourism. The exact origins of the concept of ecotourism are not entirely clear. But what we do know for sure is that its really started to gain some gravitas in the 60’s and 70s.

In 1965, Hetzer was one of the first to address the concept of ecotourism, by identifying four pillars of responsible tourism. The four pillars, also referred to as principles are:

  • minimising environmental impacts
  • respecting the host culture
  • maximising the benefits to the local community
  • Maximising tourist satisfaction

It was the first ‘pillar’ that gained the most attention, highlighting the notion of ecological (aka eco) tourism.

The chronological development of the concept of sustainable tourism and ecotourism. Adapted from Swarbrooke (1999)

Some argue that the term itself was coined by a Mexican environmentalist named Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin. Lascurain used the word ecotourism to describe his travels to natural, unspoilt areas, where tourists could appreciate and enjoy the natural beauty and culture. This is an example of the ‘pure’ ecotourism noted in the diagram above.

Lascurain later became the founding president of the Mexican Association for the Conservation of Nature. In the 1980s he was the most influential Mexican in the environmental conservation sector. In 1984 he founded the first Mexican ecotourism travel agency, which he named Ecotours.

The word ‘ecotour’ was formally recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1973 and the term ecotourism followed in1982. Despite the term being absent from the dictionary until the 80s, academics continued to address the issue prior to this. Early references to ecotourism were found in Millar’s work in 1978. Millar examined national park planning for ecodevelopment in Latin America.

It was in the 1980s that the understanding of the term ecotourism began to become widespread. This was the result of an increased awareness of environmental impacts of tourism, alongside a growing dissatisfaction for mass tourism. By the mid 1980s, many countries had identified ecotourism as a way of achieving environmental conservation and economic production. At this time many ecotourism projects were in the planning and development stage.

The major components influencing the rise of ecotourism (Jamal et al 2006)

In the early 90s Epler Wood founded The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) is a nonprofit organisation dedicated to promoting ecotourism. They help organisations, communities and individuals promote and practice the principles of ecotourism. The organisation currently has members in more than 190 countries and territories, with a range of tourism stakeholders involved including: academics, consultants, conservation professionals and organisations, governments, architects, tour operators, lodge owners and managers, general development experts, and ecotourists.

In 2002, the World Ecotourism Summit further addressed the concept of ecotourism. The outcome of the summit was that 8 postulates were developed, these stipulated that ecotourism should:

  1. have a natural area focus that ensures visitors have the opportunity to personally and directly experience nature
  2. provide interpretation or educational services that give visitors the opportunity to experience nature in ways that lead to greater understanding, appreciation and enjoyment
  3. represent best practice in ecological sustainability practices
  4.  contribute to conservation of natural areas and cultural heritage
  5. provide ongoing contributions to the local community
  6. respect and be sensitive to the culture/s existing in the area
  7. consistently meet consumer expectations
  8. be marketed and promoted honestly and accurately so that realistic expectations are formed

Since this time, awareness and popularity of ecotourism has continued to grow. It is estimated that ecotourism represents approximately 15% of all tourist expenditure. The sector continues to grow at around 5% each year. Despite the recent COVID-19 pandemic bringing travel and tourism almost to a complete halt, there continues to be a strong desire and interest for eco-based holidays.

The principles of ecotourism

The principles of tourism as identified by Cobbinah (2015)

Ecotourism is identifiable because of its underlying principles. These are the aspects that make up the concept, that define what ecotourism is, how is occurs and what it means. Below, I have briefly outlined what the principles of ecotourism are.

Provide long term benefits

brown wooden bridge beside green leafy trees
Photo by on

Ecotourism should be designed to provide benefits to the local environment and the local community. This includes aspects such as regeneration, employment, improved social services, research, protection of flora and fauna, growth of species and the protection of wildlife.

These benefits should be long lasting, demonstrating that the ecotourism project is sustainable.


tree trunks piled up on grass on autumn cloudy day
Photo by Ivars on

Education is a core principle of ecotourism.

Ecotourism should educate the tourists who visit about the local area and the wildlife that resides within it. It should also educate other tourism stakeholders including the host community, Government, NGOs and the industry as a whole.

Ecotourism provides opportunity for research and development and for both locals and tourists to really gain an understanding of the biological diversity on offer.

Promote responsibility

person holding clear plastic bottle
Photo by Marta Ortigosa on

Ecotourism should promote ethical and moral responsibility amongst all of those involved.

Tourists, local and other stakeholders should be aware the impacts of their actions and act responsibility.

Minimise negative impacts

orangutan eating fruit near funny baby primate hanging on liana
Photo by Brett Jordan on

The negative impacts of tourism should be minimised at all times.

This includes environmental aspects such as littering, erosion, displacement of animals, trampling and pollution.

It also includes social impacts such as globalisation, cultural erosion, enhancing disparities etc.

Demonstrate strong leadership and management

alley autumn autumn colours autumn leaves
Photo by Pixabay on

Ecotourism should demonstrate a strong management approach. This includes management of the physical area as well as the people within it.

Strong management should prevent over-visitation and overtourism, and to promote responsible behaviour amongst tourists. This could include the implementation of various interventions, such as limiting visitors numbers as a given time, blocking off certain areas or providing educational materials.

Offer site-sensitive accommodation

rural houses on mountain slope
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on

There are many different types of accommodation offered in ecotourism destinations, not just eco lodges.

In order to adhere to the principles of ecotourism, any accommodation that is associated with the concept of ecotourism should be site-sensitive. This means that it is not wasteful of local resources or destructive to the environment. It should also provide ample opportunity for learning about the environment and for sensitive cultural exchange with local communities.

Provide first-hand experiences

person swimming under water taking photo of turtle
Photo by Jondave Libiran on

Ecotourism typically facilitates first-hand experiences with nature. This comes in different shapes and forms, from staying in an ecolodge in the jungle, to birdwatching, to working in turtle conservation in Costa Rica.

First-hand experiences help people to learn easier. And education is another core principle of ecotourism. It also fosters a culture of appreciation.

Demonstrate sustainable tourism practices

beautiful beauty blue bright
Photo by James Wheeler on

As I outlined at the beginning of this post, ecotourism is a form of sustainable tourism (most of the time). Therefore, eco tourism should demonstrate a commitment to the three pillars of sustainable tourism: the environment, society and the economy.

In doing so, the ecotourism project should minimise any negative impacts and maximise any positive impacts to the environment, society and the economy.

Integrate tourism into planning

woman sharing her presentation with her colleagues
Photo by Canva Studio on

Tourism planning is important and ecotourism should demonstrate a strong planning process that involves all tourism stakeholders.

Tourism development should be integrated into national and local strategic planning frameworks. These frameworks should undertake environmental impact assessments, as wells other sustainability assessments as part of the planning process.

Support the local economy

woman holding tomatoes
Photo by Omotayo Tajudeen on

Economic leakage in tourism should be avoided. Activities should take economic impacts to account, whilst continuing to ensure environmental conservation.

Economic benefits should be aimed towards the local economy and communities.

Work with stakeholders

multi cultural people
Photo by fauxels on

In order for ecotourism to be sustainable it requires commitment by all stakeholders. This includes members of the local community, staff, tourists and different levels of Government.

Staff training

man in black suit standing near black wooden table
Photo by cottonbro on

Adequate staff training will help to teach employees about sustainable tourism practices. Staff can be taught how to integrate sustainable practices into their work lives.

Responsible marketing

pink teal yellow multi color please leave nothing but your feet road signage
Photo by Pixabay on

Responsible ecotourism businesses and destinations should ensure that marketing material is informative and education. It should demonstrate a sincere respect for the natural, social and cultural environments of destination areas.

Undertake research

woman in yellow jacket holding red book
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Research is a powerful tool. Ecotourism destinations should facilitate ongoing research. This will enable to best management strategies to be adopted in the destination and elsewhere.

Ecotourism activities

There are many different types of ecotourism and different ecotourism activities.

A tourist can choose to go on an ecotourism holiday, whereby most aspects of their trip revolve around the concept of ecotourism. Or they can incorporate some elements of ecotourism into their holiday. For example, I stayed in an ecolodge in The Gambia as part of a larger trip visiting the country, the ecotourism element accounted for about 20% of my visit.

Below is a list of ecotourism activities. This list is not exhaustive.

  • staying in an ecolodge
  • camping
  • hiking
  • birdwatching
  • safari
  • bike riding
  • jungle trekking
  • ziplining
  • mountain climbing
  • volunteering
  • wildlife spotting
  • sightseeing
  • educational tours
  • boat trips
  • photography
  • caving
  • horse riding
  • picnics
  • diving
  • snorkeling

Advantages of ecotourism

man and woman lying on hammock
Photo by cottonbro on

Ecotourism can be a fantastic way to bring money into the local economy whilst also satisfying societal needs and conserving the natural environment. Of course, for this to be successful there needs to be strong management, but it is entirely possible.

Environmental advantages

Of course, the major positive impact of ecotourism is the way that it can help to protect the environment. This can happen in many ways, from raising money that can be spent on environmental research, to encouraging tourists to volunteer to help with breeding programmes of animals that are near extinction.

Ecotourism helps to keep destinations and areas natural and unspoilt. It promotes regrowth of flora and fauna. It encourages diversification of wildlife.

Economic advantages

Ecotourism also has many economic advantages.

It creates employment for local people. It brings in foreign currency (if international tourists are targeted). It raises money through taxation, which can then be reinvested in important areas such as education and healthcare.

Social advantages

Ecotourism can also have positive impacts on the local community. Facilities and infrastructure (such as new roads or shops) that are developed for tourism can often be utilised by the local people too. And the money raised through tourism can help to enhance their lives. For example, the money might be used to build a new doctors surgery or social club.

One of the core principles of ecotourism is education. Therefore ecotourism can help to raise awareness of important issues. Issues that may previously gone under the radar can now be exposed on the global stage. This can help their cause and further the preservation and conservation work that is already ongoing.

Disadvantages of ecotourism

man carrying black backpack standing beside trees Ecotourism
Photo by juan mendez on

Ecotourism is not perfect and there are also disadvantages that should be noted. Good planning and sustainable management should aim to reduce these negative impacts.

Environmental disadvantages

Ecotourism often occurs in areas that have fragile ecosystems. These areas sometimes struggle to accommodate the tourists and their associated ecotourism activities. Think Antarctica or the Maldives. Known as ‘last chance tourism’, tourists are often encouraged to visit these areas before it is ‘too late’.

Many tourists choose to visit a particular destination because it is mating, breeding or hunting season. This is because these are the best times to get a good look at the wildlife. The problem is, however, that the presence of tourists may impact the behaviour of the animals- they may choose to mate less frequently, thus reducing population sizes, for example.

Whilst ecotourism is by definition a small and intimate venture, is often exceeds capacity limits for a given location. In other words, it presents itself as overtourism, whereby there are more tourists than the destination can comfortable cope with. This then has adverse impacts on the local area- the environment and society.

Even if the tourist activities at the ecotourism destination have a small environmental impact, there may have been significant impact caused during the tourist’s journey to get there. For example, an ecotourist visiting the Ecuadorian Amazon from the UK will have to take a 15 hour flight to get there! The amount of carbon produced in this single flight would be more than the average person produces in an entire year.

Economic disadvantages

Ecotourism isn’t usually cheap. And there is no denying that it has huge economic benefits. However, much of the money spent goes to foreign-owned tour operators, travel agents and airlines. This economic leakage reduces the positive impacts to the local area.

The market for ecotourism is specialised and in order to market their product, many ecotourism ventures partner with larger tour operators, most of whom are based in the Global North. This means that much of the money spent by tourists does not end up in the local area where the tourism takes place, but instead is directed back to major economies such as the USA and the UK. The most money is retained by individual travellers, who do not book via an intermediary.

Social disadvantages

As I explain ion my article about Butler’s Tourism Area Lifecycle, social impacts increase with the number of visitors. As ecotourism grows in an area, so do the social impacts.

As ecotourism often takes place in place is locations that are somewhat remote, the local population number is often small. This means that it is not uncommon for tourist numbers to be higher than the number of people who live in the area permanently.

This can cause many social impacts, such as resentment, theft, cultural erosion, globalisation, loss of language and more.

In some instances, the development and growth of ecotourism has resulted in the displacement of local people. Dedicated protected areas and conservation efforts will sometimes mean that local people can no longer continue their traditional line of work. This could include hunting wildlife or selling souvenirs made from local wildlife or plant species.

Whilst the ideals of ecotourism are pure, the local community will not be receptive to the idea if this means taking away their ability to make enough money to feed their families or send their children to school. In cases such as this, effective top-down management is required to ensure that people are provided with alternative employment and training, where necessary. However, the reality is that this often does not happen.

Ecotourism examples

There are plenty of examples of ecotourism throughout the world. Here are my top five:

Ecotourism in Costa Rica

costa rica baby
We loved travelling Costa Rica with our baby!

Costa Rica has a well developed ecotourism industry. In fact, is claims to be the world leader in ecotourism!

From zip lining and walking along the tree tops on the Arenal Hanging Bridges to mountain top walks in the Monteverde Cloud Forest to giant turtle breeding in Tortuguero, there is plenty to do in Costa Rica for the eco-conscious traveller.

Ecotourism in Kenya

Kilimanjaro toilet
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was a once in a lifetime experience.

With its wide open plains, abundant wildlife and bucket loads of culture, it is no wonder that Kenya is a popular ecotourism destination.

Kenya has a wide range of ecotourism activities. There are unique cultural activities for tourists to take part in here, such as visiting the Masaii Mara tribe.

There is also plenty to do in terms of wildlife. You can undertake a volunteer tourism programme, climb Mount Kilimanjaro or go on safari, amongst other things. Oh, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is highly rated too.

Ecotourism in The Gambia

eco lodges in gambia
This is the ecolodge that we stayed in in The Gambia.

As I mentioned earlier, I had my very first ecolodge experience in The Gambia.

We stayed far away from the main tourist resorts in Footsteps Ecolodge. Here we ate ethical sourced food, used a compost toilet and spent our days relaxing on a deserted, unspoilt sandy beach overlooking Senegal. It was pure bliss!

Ecotourism in Norway

snow nature sky night Ecotourism
Photo by Stefan Stefancik on

Norway prides itself on its sustainable tourism principles.

Offering a variation of tours and holidays in the fjords and mountainous areas, Norway promotes many experiences that promote unspoilt nature and sustainability.

Ecotourism in Belize

a blue sea turtle
EcotourismPhoto by Jolo Diaz on

Almost 1/3 of Belize is protected in national parks, nature reserves or sanctuaries.

Belize have done a lot to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability in recent years. They have banned single use plastic cutlery and banned offshore drilling. After years of conservation efforts, the barrier reef has now been removed from the danger list.

It is no wonder that the National Geographic has Belize at the top of their ecotourism list.

Further reading

Now that I have taught you the basics of ecotourism, I suggest that you do a bit more reading. I have plenty of useful articles on this website and there are also some fantastic books that I recommend. I have listed these below for you.

Useful books-

Useful articles on this website-