What is Ecotourism?

What does it mean?

Many times, when people ask "what is ecotourism?  What does it mean?", the reply more often than not consists of what the respondent believes it isn't.   Over the last two decades unbrella terms have grown to include "sustainable tourism", "nature based tourism", "responsible tourism", "geo tourism", "wildlife tourism", "slow tourism", "green tourism" and others.  No wonder the average traveller is confused!

The collection of resources below is intended as an introduction for stakeholders, tour operators, outdoor guides, project developers, students, the general travel industry, and travellers, to the various opinions and examples in the field.  Some are over a decade old, but provide a good insight into ongoing issues in the field.


  • What is (not) ecotourism?  New  A brief "listicle" of what ecotourism is and isn't, from the Global Ecotourism Network. 
  • Ecotourism From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Wikipedia says; "Generally, ecotourism deals with interaction with biotic components of the natural environments.[4] Ecotourism focuses on socially responsible travel, personal growth, and environmental sustainability. Ecotourism typically involves travel to destinations where flora, fauna, and cultural heritage are the primary attractions. Ecotourism is intended to offer tourists an insight into the impact of human beings on the environment and to foster a greater appreciation of our natural habitats."  A greatly expanded and more thorough entry, with extensive content, covering both pros and cons of "ecotourism".
  • What is ecotourism?  From the State of Queensland (Department of Environment and Science), this page provides a concise description, and reasons why ecotourism is important to the QLD economy (not much mention of culture and environment factors though), and a bullet list of requirements for operators and eco certification assessment schemes.
  • 10 ways to tell if your eco-lodge is really eco! By Justin Francis, responsibletravel.com. " 'Eco' and 'eco-lodges' have become buzzwords used by both terrific organisations dedicated to conservation and benefitting local people, and those seeking to exploit its marketing potential for economic gain with little or no regard for destinations.  Without getting into the intracies of composting toilets how can the tourist decide between the genuine and the not so genuine?"  Still a useful guide for would-be "ecotravallers", with 10 ways to tell if your "eco-accommodation" is really eco, rather than just greenwashing.
  • Codes of Conduct, Practice & Operational Guidelines ERC Links, with descriptions, to operator and travellers guidelines for lecotourism, sustainable tourism outdoor and nature based tourism activities.
  • Ecotourism Accreditation & Certification Programs ERC links, with descriptions, to various ecotourism and sustainable tourism accreditation and certification programs available in various localities around the world.
  • Ecotourism Association of Australia Code of Practice for Operators Originally developed in the mid '90s, it's been superseded by Ecotourism Australia - Eco Certification Program , and other geographically localised programs, but for tourism operators wanting a brief bullet style introduction to the concept, it's a good place to start.  You may find that you're already well on the way!
  • Ecotourism Association of Australia (EAA) Guidelines for Ecotourists Published in the mid 1990s, intending "ecotourists" can still benefit from keeping these guidelines in mind when travelling.
  • Educating the Travelling Community and the Investor Presented by Noah Shepard at the 9th PATA Adventure Travel and Ecotourism Conference, Malaysia, 1997.  Now a old piece, it's still a worthy read. Also interesting to note mention of an example of what is now termed "overtourism".
  • Sustainable Development of Environmental Tourism A case study from 1994, which provided a thorough briefing on how to became a world class ecotourism tour operator, with some practices that might now raise eyebrows.  It's a valuable reference to past practice, and also interesting to note several places mentioned have become so over run with "overtourism", that in the last two years, the Thai Government closed them to visitors, in order to clean them up and give the ecosystems time to recover.
  • Inside Indonesia "Inside Indonesia aims to provide a deeper image of Indonesia than that painted by mainstream media. It focuses on human rights, environmental, social and political issues, but is not limited to those issues. It is not an academic journal, but a publication which produces high standard, interesting, jargon free material about Indonesia by Indonesians or by others who have travelled, lived and/or done research in the country. Inside Indonesia is a non-profit endeavour, and apart from a small amount of technical support, is run on an entirely voluntary basis. None of our editors, writers or photographers are paid."
  • Ecotourism: can it save the orangutans?  Inside Indonesia. #51 July- September 1997.  "RACHEL DREWRY investigates ecotourism as a conservation tool. 'We were in the rainforest for fifteen hours and spent eleven of those waist-deep in a swamp looking at orangutans'. Trekking through the swamps and rainforests of Kalimantan may not be everyone's idea of a fun and relaxing holiday, but to an increasing number of ecotourists there is no better way to spend a couple of weeks."
  • Togians: ecotourism is not the answer Inside Indonesia. #51 July- September 1997 "While others hope environmentally sensitive tourism will help the Togian Islands, KATE NAPTHALI wants to beef up traditional industries instead. The Togian economy is based on trade in fish and copra. Transport is the major barrier. Farmers and fishing households accept prices well below mainland market rates from produce traders who travel through the region. Tourism is a growth industry in the Togian Islands, and this is the major interest for most government agencies and for non-government organisations (NGOs). However most villagers cannot afford to participate in this industry because they possess neither the capital nor the skills required."
  • Eco-tourism for whom? Inside Indonesia #91: Jan-Mar 2008 "Bunaken National Marine Park is promoted as an ideal mix of tourism and conservation, but not all local people agree." The disenfrachisement downside continues.  A telling insight into what has probably become the main sticking point for ecotourism as the flag bearer for "sustainable development".  How is it sustainable if local people are disenfranchised from their previous livliehoods, and not able to participate because multinationals crowd out the locals?
  • Read more Inside Indonesia articles with "ecotourism" themes.
  • The Center for Rural Empowerment and the Environment (CREE) "...is an environmental leadership incubator whose mission is to create permanent community leadership for natural resource conservation. We accomplish this through mentoring and supporting talented scientists from the developing world to create local environmental institutions in often challenging, remote, and resource-constrained locations. We work to ensure that conservation and social justice are accomplished simultaneously."  So successful, it has made itself redundant, and the web site is now a clearinghouse for lessons and mentoring only.
  • Stones in the Road: UNSUSTAINABLE TOURISM  "We have multiple definitions of what constitutes ecotourism or responsible travel, but if travelers call a tourism help line or visit a government website, chances are they will not find what they are seeking. There is a demand for sustainable tourism, but it simply won't be articulated in the same language as policy-makers. During the Ecotourism Emerging Industry Forum one operator said, "No one buys an 'ecotour' per se. People buy bird safaris, wildlife safaris, natural history tours, hiking tours, rafting tours, etc. The destination is the first priority. We all like what 'ecotour' connotes but that image is not a driving force in tourist decision-making."  A thoughful and thought provoking article about the past, present and future of "ecotourism" from Ron Mader, a pioneer in the field.
  • SUSTAINABLE REGIONAL TOURISM DESTINATIONS Best practice for management, development and marketing 180 pages of thorough research, workshops, case studies, pilot testing and analysis of Australian destinations for "sustainable tourism".  Now homed at ResearchGate, you can download this still useful document in PDF format.  The advantage is that it now also links to references and citations, which will assist students and academics wanting to do broader research.
  • The Challenge of Ecotourism: A Call for Higher Standards by John Shores. " 'Ecotourism' today unfortunately is used as an all-inclusive term. People are using the term so loosely that nearly all travel qualifies. The goal posts are spread so far that every attempt scores a goal. This adversely affects protected areas and biodiversity in several ways." First published in 1995 you can read John's proposals and decide for yourself how far it's come since then. Are these now recognisable "stages in the greening of the travel system".  Which destinations, companies and organisations can be seen at what stage?  And has the travelling public had any influence on it?
  • Wildlife conservation and wildlife tourism  "Sustainable wildlife tourism has the potential to introduce many hundreds of thousands of people to the wonders of this planet's wildlife, but there is always a risk of disturbing or even destroying the very animals we seek."  From a cofounder of Wildlife Tourism Australia, comes a bullet pointed outline of pitfalls and benefits and of "wildlife tourism".
  • Toolkit on Poverty Reduction through Tourism "The toolkit outlines the background to poverty reduction approaches and how the International Labor Union (ILO) is involved within the context of decent work and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Recent developments in tourism and a vision for an inclusive, pro-poor tourism industry are summarized.  A toolkit on poverty reduction through tourism has been produced. It aims at assisting developing and least developed countries to create a sustainable tourism industry and businesses based on decent employment. It is oriented towards SMEs and local communities in rural areas and includes case studies, training sessions and best practices. The toolkit illustrates the links between the ILO Decent Work Agenda, poverty reduction and the Millennium Development Goals."  Available as a PDF download in English, Espanol: Francais, Bahasa Indonesia, Portugues, tieng Viet.
  • What is ecotourism? (The State of Queensland (Department of Environment and Science) "Ecotourism is a major part of the Queensland Government's plan to grow the tourism industry - one of the state's four economic pillars. ... Ecotourism encompasses a broad spectrum of environmentally responsible activities that increase visitor appreciation, develop a better understanding of the natural and cultural heritage, and are carefully managed to be ecologically, economically and socially sustainable."  An excellent page with details about Queenland ecotourism development, basic practice, eco-certifiction standards, and links to stratagies and resources.

See also EAAustralia Code of Practice for Operators 1994, Sustainable Design & Management, Development and Environment, Ecologically Sustainable Development, Ecotourism Associations and Organisations, Tourism Research and Ecotourism Papers & Articles

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