Practical Guide: What is Ecotourism?

by | Apr 7, 2017 | Ecotourism, Resources

Ecotourism: What’s the story?

Ecotourism is a nature based form of speciality travel defined by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.”

In 2002, The International Year of Ecotourism, The Quebec Declaration was established, suggesting five criteria by which to standardize the definition of ecotourism:

  • nature-based product
  • minimal impact management
  • environmental education
  • contribution to conservation
  • contribution to community

The Global Ecotourism Network define ecotourism as:

Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that:

  • conserve the environment,

  • socially and economically sustains the well-being of the local people, and

  • creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved (including staff, travelers, and community residents).

It is also their view that

“The label ecotourism is often applied to tourism activities that fail to meet the definition and the basic principles behind it.”

and that Ecotourism is:

  • non-consumptive/non-extractive

  • creates an ecological conscience

  • hold eco-centric values and ethics in relation to nature

  • good for both visitors and visited


The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) define sustainable tourism as:

Sustainable tourism takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities. Sustainable tourism should make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity; respect the sociocultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to intercultural understanding and tolerance; ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socioeconomic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.


Common Terms Confused with Ecotourism

The International Ecotourism Society furthermore define other terms that ecotourism is not, in the Ecotourism Fact Sheet of 2007:

Adventure tourism:  A form of nature-based tourism that incorporates an element of risk, higher levels of physical exertion, and the need for specialized skill.

Geotourism:  Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place-its environment, heritage, aesthetics, and culture and the well-being of its residents.

Mass tourism:  Large-scale tourism, typically associated with ‘sea, sand, sun’ resorts and characteristics such as transnational ownership, minimal direct economic benefit to destination communities, seasonality and package tours.

Nature-based tourism:  Any form of tourism that relies primarily on the natural environment for its attractions or settings.

Pro-poor tourism: Tourism that results in increased net benefit for the poor people.

Responsible tourism:  Tourism that maximizes the benefits to local communities, minimizes negative social or environmental impacts, and helps local people conserve fragile cultures and habitats or species.

Sustainable tourism:  Tourism that meets the needs of present tourist and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future.


There is a whole bunch of other definitions also, three of which below resonate the most with us:


Nature-based tourism that involves education and interpretation of the natural

environment and is managed to be ecologically sustainable.

Commonwealth Department of Tourism, 1992.

A sustainable form of natural resource based tourism that focuses primarily on

experiencing and learning about nature, and which is ethically managed to be

low impact, non-consumptive, and locally oriented (control, benefits and scale).

It typically occurs in natural areas, and should contribute to the conservation

and preservation of such areas.

David Fennell, 1999.

Ecotourism can contribute to both conservation and development and involves,

as a minimum, positive synergistic relationships between tourism, biodiversity

and local people, facilitated by appropriate management.

Ross & Wall, 1999.

What do You think?


We feel that the GSTC definition is perhaps the most all encompassing definition, while acknowledging that it isn’t a definition for ecotourism as such, and is rather cumbersome.

The Global Ecotourism Network definitions are certainly very workable and to the point, and we quite like Fennell’s definition.

With the plethora of definitions and perspectives certain questions arise:

  • Is ecotourism actually ecologically sustainable?
  • Is ecotourism a conservation oriented movement, a philosophy, or a product with excellent marketing and branding strategies?
  • Is ecologically sustainable tourism realistic or achievable?
  • How can ecologically AND economically sustainable tourism exist or operate where foreign ownership prevails?
  • Who or what is the actual driving force behind ecotourism development and who actually benefits?
  • Can ecotourism be truly ethical?

We feel that ecotourism is possible and that it can be ecologically sustainable yes.  BUT we feel strongly that parts of the ‘industry’ could be seen to be guilty of ‘green washing’ in many respects and that authentic ecotourism, that is, completely ecologically and economically sustainable at the local level, is not the norm.

Do we have all the answers and solutions to the questions raised?  No of course not!

But we do have some suggestions and these will form the basis of an additional post in the not too distant future.



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