Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Introduction to Ecotourism

by Alan S. Cajes 

Conceptual Definitions of Ecotourism

Ecotourism has gained enormous popularity in recent years, yet there has not been a universally accepted definition of the term. The variety of definitions reflect a range of paradigms and perspectives that range from passive to active stances incorporating three common concepts, namely: nature-based, education and sustainability (Diamantis 1999).

The term emerged in the early 1980s as a result of emerging popularity of the paradigm on sustainable development and as a response to environmental destruction happening the world over. It has been observed that the tourism market has become greener in response to the trend in society of heightened environmental awareness and environmental concern (Burns and Holden 1995: 209; Wright, 1993).

The term, which came out in 1983, is often credited to Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, who defined ecotourism as:

…tourism that consists in traveling 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 manifestation (both past and present) found in the areas.

In these terms, nature-oriented tourism implies a scientific, aesthetic, or philosophical approach to travel, although the ecological tourism need not be a scientist, artist or philosopher. It emphasizes that the person who practices ecotourism has the opportunity of immersing himself/herself in nature in a manner generally not available in the urban environment.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a respected and influential conservation organization at a worldwide level, officially adopted Ceballos-Lascurain’s definition during its First World Conservation Congress held in Montreal in October 1996 (Resolution CGR 1.67 'Ecotourism and Protected Area Conservation').

It has been argued, however that the definition of Ceballos-Lascurain does not say anything on avoiding resource degradation, having positive impacts on the flora and fauna, optimizing economic impacts and benefits, and/or enhancing the visitors’ experience or levels of satisfaction (Boyd and Butler, 1996).

The Ecotourism Society, based in the United States has defined ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people. The Australian National Ecotourism Strategy defines ecotourism as nature-based tourism that involves education and interpretation of the natural environment and is managed to be ecologically sustainable (FAO 1997).

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), an international non-government organization founded in 1990, defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."

According to FAO (1997), most conceptual definitions of ecotourism can be reduced to the following: "ecotourism is tourism and recreation that is both nature-based and sustainable," According to FAO, the definition clarifies the descriptive and the prescriptive components of the ecotourism concept. The nature component is descriptive or positive in the sense that it simply describes the activity location and associated consumer motivations. The sustainable component is prescriptive or normative in the sense that it reflects what people want the activity to be. An important point is that, as used here, sustainability incorporates environmental, experiential, socio-cultural, and economic dimensions (FAO 1997).

A variety of terms have been associated with the term including small-scale tourism, alternative tourism, nature travel, nature-oriented tourism, nature tourism, nature-based tourism, sustainable tourism, alternative tourism and special interest tourism forms of tourism (Weaver and Oppermann 2000; Diamantis, 1999; Weaver and Opperman, 2000).

Others have contrasted two major types of tourism based on the type of destination and tourist characteristics. Mass tourist prefers to areas where there are large numbers of tourists, requiring a large infrastructures (such as hotels, resorts, etc) to accommodate them, while in contrast, alternative tourism or special interest travel (including ecotourism), advocates an approach opposite to mass tourism (USDA, APHIS, VS, CEAH, Center for Emerging Issues, 2001: 5).

Others have defined ecotourism as follows:

  • Respects local culture, optimizes benefits to local people, minimizes environmental impacts, and maximizes visitor satisfaction. - W. Hetzer, 1965
  • Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people - International Ecotourism Society, 1990
  • Purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment; taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem; producing economic opportunities that makes the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people.” - The Ecotourism Society, 1991
  • Environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy, study and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features - both past and present), that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations. - World Conservation Union, 1996
  • Traveling to and visiting natural areas, places where nature still exists in a relatively unaltered state. - Drumm and Moore, 2005
  • Travel for the purpose of learning about the natural and cultural environments, while contributing to local community development, and the conservation and restoration of resources, while using only those operators and suppliers that are making a significant effort to practice sustainable tourism and green management. - ecoplan:net ltd.
  • Any project that is organized and designed to promote the observation and appreciation of nature through the provision of facilities and opportunities for visitor education in a manner that, where appropriate, fosters community involvement and seeks to ensure and sustain the integrity of the resources around which the tourism activity is based. - Ramon Benedicto Alampay and Carlos M. Libosada Jr., 2003 
Weaver and Opperman has identified ecotourism as one form of sustainable tourism if done on a small scale. They argue that this is on the assumption that such tourism is more likely to have positive environmental, economic and socio-cultural impacts within the destination and that there are many examples of sustainable tourism that are small scale. They caution, however, that it should never be automatically assumed that the outcomes are always positive.

Ceballos-Lascurain contends that ecotourism has to adapt to different environmental, socioeconomic and cultural circumstances and it is this reason why different people and institutions in diverse countries have different definitions (cited in Mader 2006). He, however, makes a case for the adoption of a common definition because the multiplicity of definitions is causing a good deal of confusion.

The National Ecotourism Strategy (NES) of the Philippines (2002) defines ecotourism as a “form of sustainable tourism within a natural and cultural heritage area where community participation, protection and management of natural resources, culture and indigenous knowledge and practices, environmental education and ethics, as well as economic benefits are fostered and pursued for the enrichment of host communities and the satisfaction of visitors.” The NES looks at ecotourism not as an imported concept but as a direct response to the situation of the country. It identified the following pillars to guide ecotourism development:
  • The management of natural and cultural resources in a sustainable manner;
  • Environmental education and conservation awareness;
  • Empowerment of local communities;
  • Development of tourism products that will satisfy tourist and position the country as a globally competitive ecotourism destination.
The definitions cited above point to the following sub-concepts that define ecotourism:
  • Travel to a natural area
  • Respect to local culture
  • Benefit to local people
  • Community participation
  • Visitor satisfaction
  • Protection and management of natural resources
  • Environmental education
Travel to a natural area means that an ecotourism site is a component of an ecosystem or a combination of ecosystems. An example of an ecotourism site, which is a component of an ecological system, is the particular area for whale and dolphin watching off Pamilacan Island in Bohol or the Underground River in PuertoPrincesa City, Palawan. Both sites are respectively part of the marine and forest ecosystems. 

An example of an ecotourism site, which is a combination of ecological systems, is the Banaue Rice Terraces trekking site, which covers an agro-ecosystem and an upland or forest ecosystem.

Respect to local culture implies that either an ecotourism site is within or near a local or indigenous community or, if there is no community nearby, part of the ecotourism services is provided by a local or indigenous community. Respect, in this sense, could mean taking proactive effort on the part of the visitors not to offend the sensibilities of the residents or the service providers by, for example, ensuring that sacred sites are not desecrated, and taking precautions so that important common resources, for example the community’s source of potable water, are not vandalized or polluted.

Benefit to the local people means that the revenue generated from the ecotourism program accrues wholly or partly to the community that promotes, manages, protects or owns the ecotourism site. This is connected to community participation because ecotourism is community-based; hence, adheres to the principle of subsidiarity, which states that those who are nearest to a natural resource are in the best position to protect and manage it. Although the community may partner with the business sector in promoting and managing the ecotourism program, part of the proceeds should go to the community as incentive for the community members to sustain the protection and management of the natural resource.

Visitor satisfaction enables one to fully experience and enjoy a natural endowment or phenomenon. That is why it is important to diversify the opportunities to satisfy the visitor. This can be done by showcasing a local culture in relation to the natural resources and ensuring that tourist guides can perform nature interpretation properly, among other tasks. In the case of the Olango Birds and Seascapes Tour, the visitor does not only enjoy and experience bird watching with the help of an experienced tour guide but also becomes part of the community’s way of life by learning the fishing practices of the fisher folks, tasting the local delicacies, and watching a brief cultural presentation. Visitor satisfaction, therefore, is the ultimate reason for the development and design of an ecotourism product.

Protection and management of natural resources means that the ecosystem or ecosystems of which the ecotourism destination forms part is/are protected and managed in such a way that the ecological health is maintained and/or improved over time. It should be stressed that environmental protection is the heart of sustainable development. In the absence of a healthful and balanced ecology, access to clean air, clean water and nutritious food will be jeopardized. Rajah Sikatuna National Park in Bohol is a case in point. If the Park is not protected, sooner of later it will be inundated and result in decreased supply of underground water because rainwater can no longer percolate into aquifers. An inundated watershed also means reduction in the productivity of the coastal environment because rivers and estuarine areas will be silted. Farm productivity will also suffer because flooding and soil erosion will be the normal occurrences during rainy seasons. Through ecotourism, however, communities within and near the Park will have an alternative way of generating income, thereby discouraging them from over-extracting or destroying the natural resources and encouraging instead them to protect the natural endowments.

Environmental education refers to the education of the visitors about the value of the ecotourism site and the interrelatedness of the ecosystems of which the site forms part. This sub-concept of ecotourism feeds on the sense of wonder, curiosity or the natural desire of human beings to know. Ecotourists, to a large extent, visit an ecotourism site to satisfy a natural desire to understand something that stimulates interest in the mind, in addition to simply experiencing something in its natural form. While it feels good (affective) to see undomesticated whales and dolphins in an open sea, it is equally important to satisfy the visitor’s cognitive dimension by explaining how whales and dolphins behave, what they eat, what is their value to the marine ecosystem, how can one help to protect them, etc.

Towards an Operational Definition of Ecotourism

The multiplicity in conceptual definitions of the term ecotourism is further complicated by the difficulty of moving from a conceptual definition to an operational definition (FAO 1997). A case in point given by FAO is--- a conceptual definition may involve sustainability, but when one tries to measure whether someone is an ecotourist or some tourism activity is ecotourism, a more precise definition of sustainability is needed. As an example, in determining whether the activity is sustainable and thus qualifies as ecotourism, there is a need to identify criteria that will be used for the purpose (FAO 1997).

WTO and UNEP have come out with general characteristics that can prove useful in operationalizing the concept of ecotourism. These are as follows:
  • All forms of tourism that are nature-based in which the main motivation of the tourists is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas;
  • With educational and interpretation features: Providing interpretation is one of the distinguishing characteristic of ecotourism, which is the use of preferably local guides who impart their knowledge of local natural and cultural resources to the tourist;
  • Generally organized for small groups by specialized and small, locally owned businesses. Foreign operators of varying sizes also organize, operate and/or market ecotourism tours, generally for small groups;
  • Minimizes negative impacts upon the natural and socio-cultural environment;
  • Supports the protection of natural areas by:
  • Generating economic benefits for host communities, organizations and authorities managing natural areas with conservation purposes; In fact, it has been argued that local community participation or community-based ecotourism is the essence of ecotourism sustainability.
  • Providing alternative employment and income opportunities for local communities;
  • Increasing awareness towards the conservation of natural and cultural assets, both among locals and tourists.
The importance of finding an operational definition can not be overemphasized. Some however view ecotourism as a dynamic concept, which can change depending on the setting in which it occurs ((Boyd and Butler, 1996: 385). They go on to say that a flexible approach is required where it is understood that no one definition is suitable for all settings, and that certain elements will have greater value than others depending on the environment in which ecotourism is promoted (Boyd and Butler, 1996: 385). While ecotourism has generally been regarded as fostering environmentally responsible principles, it has been shown that in many areas, it has resulted in significant negative impacts upon the human and physical environments (Boo, 1990; Dearden and Harron, 1992; Kenchington, 1989 in Boyd and Butler, 1996: 383). These impacts have been found to be similar to those found in areas that have experienced conventional tourism.

According to Boyd and Butler (1996), areas where ecotourism has been introduced have been quite often devoid of the effects of tourism and, in some cases, extremely sensitive and vulnerable environments (Boyd and Butler 1994 in Boyd and Butler 1996: 383-384).

Based on the sub-concepts identified above, a working operational definition of ecotourism may be formulated: Ecotourism is visit to an ecosystem or its component to experience, enjoy and learn about a natural phenomenon, as well as contribute to environmental protection and enhancement of the way of life of the communities that manage and promote the ecotourism site. This working operational definition is at best tentative but stated to capture and establish a connection among the sub-concepts.
Following Megan Epler Wood 2002, this paper views ecotourism as a sub-component of sustainable tourism. As nature-based sustainable tourism, ecotourism is in the same category as beach tourism, adventure tourism and outdoor recreations, which are sub-components of sustainable tourism. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) explains sustainable tourism in this way: “It must be clear that the term ‘sustainable tourism’—meaning ‘tourism that is based on the principles of sustainable development’—refers to a fundamental objective: to make all tourism more sustainable. The term should be used to refer to a condition of tourism, not a type of tourism.”

Elements of Ecotourism

The Ecological Tourism in Europe (ETE), which views ecotourism as a component of sustainable tourism identifies the following elements:
  • Money remains in the region;
  • Direct financial support for nature conservation (e.g. entrance fees);
  • Raise public awareness;
  • Educate tourists and locals in the field of tourism and environment, and
  • Minimize the negative impacts (social, ecological and economic).
  • Seen in this context, the UN and ETE perspectives imply the following for ecotourism:
  • It generates economic benefits for host communities, organizations and authorities;
  • It provides alternative employment and income opportunities for local communities;
  • It contributes actively to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage;
  • It directs revenues to the conservation and management of natural and protected areas;
  • It stresses the importance of responsible business, which works co-operatively with local authorities and people to meet local needs and deliver conservation benefits;
  • It includes local and indigenous communities in its planning, development and operation;
  • It increases awareness towards the conservation of natural and cultural assets, both among locals and tourists;
  • It educates the traveler on the importance of conservation;
  • It interprets the natural and cultural heritage of the destination to visitors;
  • Is generally, but not exclusively organized for independent travelers and small groups by specialized and small, locally owned businesses;
  • Involves responsible action on the part of tourists and the tourist industry;
  • Requires lowest possible consumption of non-renewable resources;
  • Seeks to ensure that tourism development does not exceed the social and environmental limits of acceptable change as determined by researchers in co-operation with local residents;
  • Emphasizes use of environmental and social base-line studies, as well as long- term monitoring programs, to assess and minimize impacts, and
  • Emphasizes the need for regional tourism zoning and for visitor management plans designed for either regions or natural areas that are slated to become eco-destinations.
In summary and following Wood 2002, the elements of ecotourism are as follows:
  • Contributes to the conservation of biodiversity;
  • Sustains the well being of the local people;
  • Includes and interpretation/learning experience;
  • Involves responsible action on the part of the tourists and the tourism industry;
  • Delivered primarily to small groups by small-scale businesses;
  • Requires the lowest possible consumption of non-renewable resources, and
  • Stresses local participation, ownership and business opportunities, particularly for rural people.
Principles of Ecotourism

The Québec Declaration on Ecotourism recognizes “that ecotourism embraces the principles of sustainable tourism, concerning the economic, social and environmental impacts of tourism. It also embraces the following specific principles that distinguish it from the wider concept of sustainable tourism:
  • Contributes actively to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage,
  • Includes local and indigenous communities in its planning, development and
  • Operation, and contributing to their well-being,
  • Interprets the natural and cultural heritage of the destination to visitors,
  • Lends itself better to independent travelers, as well as to organized tours for
  • Small size groups
  • A more comprehensive set of ecotourism principles has been identified and advocated by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). These principles are as follows:
  • Minimize the negative impacts on nature and culture that can damage a destination;
  • Educate the traveler on the importance of conservation;
  • Stress the importance of responsible business, which works cooperatively with local authorities and people to meet local needs and deliver conservation benefits;
  • Direct revenues to the conservation and management of natural and protected areas;
  • Emphasize the need for regional tourism zoning and for visitor management plans designed for either regions or natural areas that are slated to become eco-destinations;
  • Emphasize use of environmental and social base-line studies, as well as long-term monitoring programs, to assess and minimize impacts;
  • Strive to maximize economic benefit for the host country, local business and communities, particularly peoples living in and adjacent to natural and protected areas;
  • Seek to ensure that tourism development does not exceed the social and environmental limits of acceptable change as determined by researchers in cooperation with local residents, and
  • Rely on infrastructure that has been developed in harmony with the environment, minimizing use of fossil fuels, conserving local plants and wildlife, and blending with the natural and cultural environment.

The TIES principles serve as guideposts to ensure that the development and implementation of ecotourism projects are in accordance with the generally accepted standards that are implemented in other parts of the world. These principles, however, are broadly stated and do not prescribe the specific approaches that need to be undertaken.

Trends in Ecotourism

While there is recognition of the rapid growth of ecotourism worldwide, it appears that many countries do not have accurate data on the magnitude of ecotourism. Generally, it is recognized that ecotourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry worldwide and the sector is expected to expand at a faster rate than other tourism products. However, it appears that the lack of a common definition of the term prevents the establishment of international trends and that many countries have done their projections based on their own definitions.

General estimates have been given so far. Filion et al (1994) estimates that tourism in the natural and wildlife settings accounted for a total of 20%-40% of international tourism receipts, and estimates that it will increase by 20-50% per year (cited in Diamantis, 1999).

Similarly, TIES acknowledges ecotourism as the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry, and estimates an annual growth rate between 10% and 30%. It further estimates ecotourism as comprising 20% of the world travel market (TIES: Ecotourism Statistical Fact Sheet). Tourist activities that are included in this estimate include both land and water based activities such as hiking/trekking, wildlife viewing, and visiting parks and protected areas (TIES: North American Ecotourism Markets: Motivation, Preferences, and Destinations cited in USDA, et al, 2001: 5).

Studies undertaken by the World Tourism Organization and George Washington University have shown that adventure travel including ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of tourism in the world. Australia, for one, reflects this global situation; having no concise definition of the term, found it difficult to accurately measure the scale of ecotourism (Weaver and Opperman 2000). Other countries such as Canada have estimated that “235 million travelers who went abroad in 1990 engaged in some kind of ecotourism, spending on the average about $1000 or well over $200 billion in total, on ecotourism activities” (Canadian Wildlife Service).

While no international trends exist, there is recognition on its global importance. The United Nations designated the year 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE), and its Commission on Sustainable Development requested international agencies, governments and the private sector to undertake supportive activities.

The UN designated 2002 as the IYE to review and discuss ecotourism experiences with stakeholders worldwide, and to talk about ways to maximize its economic, environmental and social benefits from ecotourism, while avoiding its past shortcomings and negative impacts. IYE trips showcased incredible examples of ecotourism in action.


Megan Epler Wood. Ecotourism Principles, Practices and Policies for Sustainability. UNEP and TIES, copyright UNEP 2002
United Nations Program and World Tourism Organization. Making Tourism Sustainable. A guide to Policy makers. Copyright UNEP and WTO, 2005
Alampay and Libosada Jr. Development of a Classification Framework on Ecotourism initiatives in the Philippines. PASCN Discussion Paper No. 2003-04, May 2003
Ecological Tourism in Europe. “What is Ecotourism?” January 2003
http:// www. Ecotourism.org/index2.php?what-is-ecotourism

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