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Defintion and Brief History

Ecotourism is an emerging form of tourism that focuses on environmentally sustainable tourism practices.[1] The Ecotourism Association of Australia defines ecotourism as "ecologically sustainable tourism that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation, and conservation." [1] [2] While the focus of ecotourism is on environmental sustainability, a need for cultural sustainability and responsibility is widely recognized by proponents of ecotourism.

Ecotourism, as the name implies, is a combination of the tourism industry and the environmental movement. Tourism is an industry borne of the relatively recent process of globalization, especially modern travel technologies, information technologies, and mass media. These factors of globalization have helped to create a world in which most people experience spatial boundaries that extend far beyond their local areas. [3] The "eco" part of ecotourism comes from increasing global attentiveness to human impacts on the natural environment and a desire to minimize and hopefully reverse those impacts. Thus "ecotourism" is meant to bridge the divide between the economic profitability and lifestyle-oriented ideas of tourism and long-run environmental sustainability. [4]



Ecotourism practices are expected to follow certain principles in order to be considered "eco". While there is no global law dictating these principles, it is generally believed that the following are the main requirements for good ecotourism practices. [5] [6][2]

  1. Protection of natural and cultural resources
  2. Generation of economic benefits to local communities
  3. Provision of direct financial benefits for conservation efforts
  4. Includes environmental education component
  5. Includes local community participation and stakeholder collaboration in destination planning and tourism management
  6. Provision of a high quality tourism experience
  7. Supports human rights and international labor agreements

Certification and Accreditation

It is important for consumers, industry members, investors, and governments to be able to identify groups that adhere to the standards of ecotourism for many reasons. Certification programs, if done well, can allow for all actors to make informed decisions, and can increase incentives (financial and otherwise) for companies and groups to comply with environmental standards. [7]

Some countries and NGOs offer certification programs. Cost Rica, for example, has a government-run program called the Certification of Sustainable Tourism program. The CST program in Costa Rica assigns all firms in the travel and tourism industry scores from 1-5 based on their adherence to the program's sustainability standards, based on things such as carbon footprints, waste creation and management, and other such environmental considerations. Such programs are especially common, and crucial, in countries where tourism is one of the main industries, such as Costa Rica and Botswana, which has the Botswana Ecotourism Certification System. Non-governmental and/or non-profit organizations also run certification programs around the world. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council is one such organization.

While certification programs like these certainly help to set standards for and give credit to ecotourism practices, there is not yet a global system of certification or accreditation. The Green Globe agreement is currently the closest thing to an international standard that exists. Signed by 182 countries in 1992 at the UN Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro, The Green Globe is meant to establish international regulation of and certification for firms in the ecotourism industry. The Green Globe faces the usual problems of international agreements, though; it is difficult to monitor practices, enforce standards, and ensure communication and cooperation between countries with the current system. The Green Globe is also limited by the fact that many countries have not signed it. It is an important step towards international standards for ecotourism, though. The nature of tourism means that it pervades and defies the spatial boundaries of national borders, making international cooperation crucial to its success. [8] [2]

Effects of Ecotourism

Ecotourism, like regular tourism, can have many effects of the natural environments and communities where it is practiced. These effects are best understood in the categories of economic, environmental, and socio-cultural.


Understanding the economic impacts of ecotourism can give us insight into the incentives for compliance or non-compliance with environmental standards of practice. These impacts can also be important in determine the long-run economic sustainability of ecotourism practices and even their likelihood of success.

Positive Economic Impacts

  • Economic value: Tourism can be a major source of income for both home and host economies and can help generate income and monetary velocity in the areas in which it occurs. The UN Environment Programme estimated that, in 2012, ecotourism accounted for approximately 25% of the world's tourism revenues. [2]
  • Ecotourism generates funds and financial incentives for conservation work, increasing the chances of creating long-term profitability and sustainability.
  • Job creation: demand increases caused by tourists create opportunities for greater local employment, especially in the food service and hospitality sectors. [5]
  • Sustainable development: ecotourism can help drive investment in infrastructure and other improvements in local communities as governments and investors have incentive to make areas more livable for tourists, thus also supporting the development of living improvements for local residents. According to the UN, approximately every $5 spent in the developing world will stay there. [9]

Negative Economic Impacts

  • Ecotourism can create the problem of enclave tourism, when ecotourism excursions are sold as a package in the home country and the destination country then sees little to no economic benefit from tourist activity.
  • Import leakage: tourists can create demand for new goods in a local economy, putting pressure on local businesses to import in the items the tourists demand, such as things that suit their own cultural tastes; as locals import goods to keep tourists happy, much of the revenue of tourism is funneled back to foreign economies.
  • Visitors put pressure on local resources, natural and otherwise, potentially creating shortages, unfair competition, and inflation for local communities.
  • Corruption: as with areas of natural resource wealth such as oil and diamonds, countries that are popular tourist destinations may face increased governmental or corporate corruption as leaders attempt to distribute the wealth generated by tourism in their own favor (typically, this means happens at the expense of the general population). [10]


It is important to note that ecotourism, while it is a concept of environmentally sustainable tourism, can have many environmental impacts outside of those intended. Those additional impacts can be negative as well as positive.

Positive Environmental Impacts

  • Ecotourism generates funds for conservation efforts. For example, in ational parks and marine protected areas, entrance fees and other charges directly benefit the maintenance of those conservation areas while promoting sustainable tourist activity. [11]
  • Ecotourism can help increase awareness of and appreciation for the natural environment, leading to increased support for conservation efforts in the future.
  • When included, educational components can further generate support, understanding, and advocates for the natural environment.


  • Ecotourism can also help to generate environmental careers and volunteer options.

Negative Environmental Impacts

  • An influx of visitors into natural areas (sometimes nearly virgin land) can, even with when visitors have good intentions and are careful, disturb the natural cycles and balances of ecosystems. [13]
  • Pollution and waste are created by increases in human presence; the byproducts of the lifestyles of the developed world are often carried to destinations. [13]
  • Dangers of commodifying the natural world: money- and consumer-driven mindsets can lead to long-term changes in the way the world thinks about the environment, potentially leading to losses of understanding of the intrinsic value of the environment and general respect for nature. [14]

Negative impacts of ecotourism specific to coral reefs:

  • In coral reef ecotourism or any marine/coastal ecotourism especially, human activity near to or in the water creates dangerous run-off of chemicals and wastes (from things such as sunscreen, other cosmetics, food and human waste).
    • A study done by Burgin and Hardiman in 2011 in Australian coastal waters found that the most critical chemical impacts in the area could be traced back to fuel and human waste. [15]
  • Recreational boating can create chemical wastes (see above) and anchor-dropping can cause physical damage to reefs.
  • Trampling: physical interaction with reef environments, especially by swimmers and snorkelers, can be dangerous to reefs; visitors may unintentionally step on or bump into things, attempt to take pieces of the reef with them, or even just disturb the daily behaviors of organisms.
    • A study done in the waters of Brazil found that Harpacticoida copepods were less abundant in reef formations subject to intensive tourism than in less visited reef formations. [16]
  • Frequent disturbances to reef environment, even beyond trampling, can cause changes in the cycles and behaviors of reef ecosystems.
    • A study done in coastal waters of Thailand found that the presence of scuba boats significantly altered the behavior of the whitetip reef shark; such changes, especially in the behavior of a top-tier predator, could be disastrous for an ecosystem and create a domino effect throughout the trophic levels. [17]


Many of the worlds most popular ecotourism destinations are in natural environments that are also home to local communities with rich cultural histories and capital. As mentioned in the guidelines for ecotourism, mindfulness of these local communities and concern for their preservation can be essential to the sustainability of ecotourism practices and can also significantly enhance the local and tourist experience.

Positive Socio-Cultural Impacts

  • Ecotourism can inspire and facilitate cultural education, exposure, communication, and growth, especially when the guideline for cultural awareness is followed. [18]
  • When done in collaboration with local communities, ecotourism can lead to the protection of local lifestyles, histories, and cultures through the generation of financial and human resources for cultural conservation. [19]
      • For example, the people of the Nunavut region of Canada decided rouse their vast natural resources and cultural heritage to attract visitors for ecotourism excursions; the community has since seen widespread support for its economic stability and cultural preservation, especially through the creation/restoration of museums, landmarks, and local traditions [20]
  • Job creation, and other income generated by tourist activities, can help decrease the need for local community members to migrate to find work.

Negative Socio-Cultural Impacts

  • Opportunities for cultural conflict: sometimes the ideals of visitors and locals are naturally at odds and neither group wishes to compromise. This can create socially precarious situations and hostile environments for both groups.
    • Tourism-based economies can create destructive dichotomies between the locals and the outsiders that put them at odds for claim of an area and its resources and can create animosity, segregation, and exploitation. [10]
  • Infiltration of foreign businesses or ex-pats seeking employment: a popular tourist area is likely to attract foreign investment including the movement of foreign franchises (such as restaurants, clothing stores, etc.) into destination communities. Popular tourist destinations, especially those in pleasant climates, also often attract foreign migration; increases in migration to a community, especially if new residents speak the language of the tourists, can redirect jobs and cause local employment bias in favor of immigrants.
    • Recall the problem of import leakage, mentioned in the Economic Impacts section: foreign business take the revenue from tourism and funnel it back into their parent economy, rather than allowing it to benefit the local economy and population.
  • The privatization or commercialization of community areas can cause local communities to lose land and other resources to tourist activity.
  • Ecotourism, or tourism in general, can create the potential for corruption and loss of local voices in government.

Other sources for information about ecotourism

  • The International Ecotourism Society: A non-profit dedicated to promoting ecotourism. TIES provides membership services, guidelines, training, technical assistance, news in the field, and educational resources for individuals and firms interested in ecotourism.
  • The Green Globe: more information on the UN Earth Summit agreement, its ratifying countries, and it success thus far.
  • Ecotourism and coral reefs: This website was made by a biology student at Edge Hill University in Lancashire, England and provides a lot of good information and well-cited analysis of ecotourism and coral reefs.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Cater, Carl and Erlet. Marine Ecotourism: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Cambridge, MA: CABI Publications, 2007. Print.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Weaver, David. "The Encyclopedia of Ecotourism." Oxon, UK: CABI Publishing, 2001. Print.
  3. Aronsson, Lars. "The Development of Sustainable Tourism." London, UK: Bath House, 2000. Print.
  4. Weaver, David. Ecotourism. Milton, Qld.: John Wiley & Sons, 2001. Print.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Diamantis, Dimitrios. Ecotourism: Management and Assessment. London: Thomson, 2004. Print.
  6. Honey, Martha. Ecotourism & Certification: Setting Standards in Practice. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002. Print.
  7. Fennell, D. and Dowling, R.K. Ecotourism policy and planning. New York, NY: CABI Publications, 2003. Print.
  8. Luck, Michael and Kirstges, Torsten. Global Ecotourism Policies and Case Studies: Perspectives and Constraints. Clevedon: Channel View Publications, 2003. Print.
  9. Carribean Foresters. Linking Conservation, Tourism, and Sustainable Development in the Caribbean. Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: USDA Forest Service Institute of Tropical Forestry, 2008. Print.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Duffy, Rosaleen. A trip too far: ecotourism, politics, and exploitation. Sterling, VA: Earthscan Publications, 2002. Print.
  11. Cote, Isabelle M. and Reynolds, John D. Coral reef conservation. Cambridge, MA; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print.
  12. Singh, Sagar. Shades of Green: Ecotourism for Sustainability. New Delhi: The Energy and Resources Institute, 2004. Print.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Liddie, M.J. Recreation Ecology: The ecological impact of outdoor recreation and ecotourism. New York, NY: Chapman & Hall, 1997. Print.
  14. Duffy, Rosaleen. Nature Crime: How We're Getting Conservation Wrong. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. Print.
  15. Burgin, S. and Hardiman, N. (2011) "The direct physical, chemical and biotic impacts on Australian coastal waters due to recreational boating" Biodiversity and Conservation. 683- 701.
  16. Sarmento, V.C., and Santos, P.J.P. (2012) "Trampling on coral reefs: tourism effects on Harpacticoid copepods" Coral reefs. 135- 146.
  17. Worachananant, S., Carter, RW., Hockings, M., and Reopanichkul, P. (2008) "Managing the Impacts of SCUBA Divers on Thailand's Coral Reefs" Journal of Sustainable Tourism. 645- 663.
  18. The World Tourism Summit, Quebec City, May 2002, Final Report. Madrid: World Tourism Organization, 2002. Print.
  19. Cock, Peter. Australian Ecotourism: Contributing to Ecological and Community Sustainability. Melbourne, Vic.: School of Geography and Environmental Science, Montash University, 2002. Print.
  20. Robbins, Mark. "Arviat Community Ecotourism Initiative: Creating a Local Tourism Economy and Pride in Culture in a Remote Inuit Community." The International Ecotourism Society, April 2012. Accessed online at:
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