Ecotourism: The Challenges of a Growing Industry

Ashley Parker

Ashley Parker (class of 2014) is from Rhode Island and plans to major in Biology and minor in French.  She is looking forward to studying abroad in France during her time at Davidson.  Ashley is co-president of the Equestrian Team, as well as a member of Methodist College Fellowship, French Club, and Food Club.  Her work was written for Dr. Helen Cho’s ANT 271: Human Ecology.

With a nine per cent annual growth rate and continued potential for further expansion, tourism is one of the fastest-growing industries.1 Ecotourism, a branch of tourism where visitors travel to experience the natural area in an environmentally-friendly way while learning about the host country and local peoples, is becoming increasingly popular as well. Ecotourism is an effect of the environmental movement and a growing dissatisfaction with mass tourism, as well as an increased overall demand for travel. But the contemporary challenge for many corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private organizations is to pinpoint a more exact definition of ecotourism and then to apply it to their work in the industry. Unfortunately, due to a lack of a specific standard for international ecotourism, there are just as many detrimental effects as positive effects, and many corporations may poach upon substantive environmental concerns for their own profits. However, with a lessening of ambiguity in ecotourism’s exact definition, the practice might become a more authentic environmentally-sensitive travel experience in which tourists benefit from the education, submersion, and cultural understanding of an area.

The most universal definition of ecotourism today comes from The International Ecotourism Society (TIES): “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”2 Despite its wide popularity, this definition leaves much in obscurity. With no clear indication of ecology22-150x150 Ecotourism: The Challenges of a Growing Industrywhat responsible, natural, and improving mean, ecotourism agencies do not have a stable armature upon which to design their business practices, nor do they have standards to which they might be held accountable for their actions. For example, big-name hotel chains and resorts in Costa Rica can “greenwash,” or call themselves “eco-” simply because they have a beautiful surrounding landscape and use water-reducing showerheads.3 However, this same hotel may also be located on a pristine,  irrigated lawn, with a well-kept golf course consuming large quantities of water. So, without a stable means to define ecotourism, any number of supposedly eco-friendly destinations can claim to be environmentally-responsible.

Martha Honey, co-founder and co-director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), an NGO formerly known as the Center for Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, has compiled an accurate summary of the components of ecotourism. Honey maintains that ecotourism involves travel to natural destinations that minimizes impact on the area, builds environmental awareness, leads to direct financial benefits for conservation, leads to financial benefits and empowerment of local people, builds respect for local culture, and suports human rights and democratic movements.  ((Martha Honey, Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2008), 29-31.)) If the international community works together to solidify a working version of a definition such as this, and specifies the methods and means to necessary to realize these standards, then the broad, global understanding of ecotourism would be stabilized.

With no clear indication of what responsible, natural, and improving mean, ecotourism agencies do not have a stable armature upon which to design their business practices, nor do they have standards to which they might be held accountable for their actions.

With such an expanding realm of sustainability and movements towards “greener” living, various forms of environmentally-friendly tourism have emerged on the global stage. Nature tourism is travel to unspoiled places to experience and enjoy nature. Trips such as these usually involve some sort of low-exertion physical activity, such as hiking or camping. Wildlife tourism is a form of travel with the goal of observing birds, animals, and fish in their natural habitats. Adventure tourism, such as rope-climbing, deep-sea diving, and kayaking, combines nature tourism, physical exertion, endurance, and risk-taking.4 Ecotourism, however, differs from these alternate forms of tourism because it benefits the environment in some direct fashion, educates tourists, and helps the host country in some form or another. For example, Costa Rica’s Hotel Punta Islita is revered for its sustainability promise, its dedication to hiring locals, and for its return of the majority of its profits to the area. Of course, there is always room for improvement, such as offering additional programs to educate tourists in environmental interests and concerns, but Hotel Punta Islita has made major advances toward becoming an exemplary ecotourism site.5

With the emergence of all of these various environmental forms of tourism, one of the main challenges of ecotourism as a whole is maintaining consistency in its work toward sustainability, education, and local community reciprocity. In a 1998 study, researchers conducted examined the Royal Chitwan Naitonal Park in Nepal, and determined that its ecotourism (as it was structured at the time) did little to provide employment for local people, and offered few benefits to the surrounding community.6 Only four per cent of the households surveyed reported having family members in the ecotourism industry.7 Non-locals own sixty-one per cent of the hotels surrounding the park and rarely serve locally-grown food in their dining rooms.8

The Royal Chitwan National Park’s structure of ecotourism gives the locals “little incentive. . .to support biodiversity conservation,” since they obtain nearly no monetary return.9 If these people were to be given a more substantive place in ecotourism industries, and be awarded a portion of their profits, they would feel a sense of ownership in the design and execution of local ecotourism. Community-based ecotourism, especially those instances managed by local village groups, ultimately produces a better result for the goals of species preservation and habitat conservation than those tours run by private corporations. ((Bookbinder et al., “Ecotourism’s Support,” 1404.)) To keep ecotourism’s ideals ethically intact, we must find a way to keep them supremely consistent with local interests.

Another challenge is to maintain economic goals without straying from the ideals of eco-friendliness and education, especially when industrial competition is introduced into an area. Increasing number of ecotourism companies and hotels lead to vigorous competition, which increases the likelihood that companies will deviate from ecotourism’s ideals in order to compete. To attract more visitors, they develop more land, and at times shift to a model of vertical integration where local tour operators contract with large corporations to ensure a steady flow of ecotourists. Yet another detriment is the “moral hazard” that can set in if ecotourism continues to be popular.10 In such a hazard, consumers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers may begin to believe that the land set aside for ecotourist interests in sufficient for habitat protection, and may see no harm in converting additional untouched areas.11 Assuming that natural habitats are in unlimited supply, successful companies, driven by the promise of greater returns, expand their operations. Fundamentally incompatible values clash.

This is not to suggest that all ecotourism companies violate ideals. Ecotourism has aided in preserving the elephant habitat in Thailand, the primate habitat in Zaire, and the harp seal ecology22-150x150 Ecotourism: The Challenges of a Growing Industryhabitat in Labrador, Canada. ((Isaacs, “Limited Potential,” 63.)) In Angatja, Australia, an aboriginal family joined with several non-aboriginal friends to create a business where native people provide the destination and education while the non-aboriginals raise funds, develop markets, and provide staff. Together, this business cares for the environment, educates its visitors, and establishes an link between indigenous and non-indigenous people.12

Such examples suggest that it is in our long-term economic and environmental interests to try to extend the mission behind ecotourism. When done properly, ecotourism can be a tremendous asset to a community, including economic benefits such as new business establishment and capital streams, both of which can enhance local conservation by land management organizations. The environment benefits from the education of visitors and by the sustainable choices made by operators.13 Tour guides for Catlins Wildlife Trackers Ecotours, a New Zealand outfit, identify wildlife, trap predators, and remove weeds while teaching their visitors about the area. Ecotourism can also provide its hosts with a sense of pride and new dedication to sustaining their home places. Once the inhabitants newly realize their landscape’s power to influence others, they come to revalue preservation. Many tourists also donate funds for such efforts, or themselves become “voluntourists,” combining vacation travel with civic service.14

Organized travel, however, may not be for everyone. There are still environmentally-friendly methods of travel for those who enjoy singular adventure. Practices such as avoiding excessive air travel, utilizing public transportation, and staying with a host family are some of the best practices associated with ecotourism outside of organizations. Backpacking, hiking to destinations, and camping in designated areas are also good methods for reducing environmental impacts. Certain ecotouristic ideals can be activated simply by staying in locally-owned small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. Eating locally-grown foods is another practice that will help the host country and reduce environmental impacts.

The central challenge to the ecotourism industry today is determining the shared standards to which ecotourism should abide. Once multinational expectations are set, and an agency is established to enforce these standards, the negative repercussions of ecotourism will decrease. Still, ecotourism, will all of its benefits, is helping make tourism more environmentally-feasible and community-friendly.


Beeton, Sue. Ecotourism: A Practical Guide for Rural Communities. Collingwood, Australia: Landlinks Press, 2000.

Bookbinder, Marnie P. et al. “Ecotourism’s Support of Biodiversity Conservation.” Conservation Biology 12. no. 6 (1998): 1399-1404.

Egan, Timothy. “Uneasy Being Green: Tourism Runs Wild.” New York Times, May 20, 2001.

Honey, Martha. Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise? Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1008.

Isaacs, Jack C. “The Limited Potential of Ecotourism to Contribute to Wildlife Conservation.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 28, no. 1 (2000): 61-69.

The International Ecotourism Society. “Our Mission.” International_Ecotourism_Society.htm. (accessed April 15, 2011).))

West, Paige and James G. Carrier. “Ecotourism and Authenticity: Getting Away from It All?” Current Anthropology 45, no. 4 (2004): 483-498.


  1. I would like to thank Rebecca McKee for helping me brainstorm ideas for this paper, and helping with the editing process. For a analysis of this trend, see Jack C. Isaacs, “The Limited Potential of Ecotourism to Contribute to Wildlife Conservation,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 28, no. 1 (2000): 61-69; as well as Paige West and James G. Carrier, “Ecotourism and Authenticity: Getting Away from It All?” Current Anthropology 45, no. 4, 2004: 483-498. []
  2. The International Ecotourism Society, “Our Mission.” International_Ecotourism_Society.htm (accessed April 30, 2011). []
  3. Timothy Egan, “Uneasy Being Green: Tourism Runs Wild,” New York Times, May 20, 2011. []
  4. Honey, Ecotourism, 7. []
  5. Honey, Ecotourism, 167-169. []
  6. Marnie P. Bookbinder et al., “Ecotourism’s Support of Biodiversity Conservation,” Conservation Biology 12, no. 6 (1998): 1399. []
  7. Bookbinder et al., “Ecotourism,” 1402. []
  8. Bookbinder et al., “Ecotourism,” 1402. []
  9. Bookbinder et al., “Ecotourism,” 1404. []
  10. Isaacs, “Limited Potential,” 67. []
  11. Isaacs, “Limited Potential,” 67. []
  12. Beeton, Ecotourism: A Practical Guide for Rural Communities (Collingwood, Australia: Landlinks Press, 2000), 45. []
  13. Beeton, Ecotourism, 3. []
  14. Honey, Ecotourism, 113. []