Ecotourism: Probably Not What You Think It Is

Ecotourism: Probably Not What You Think It Is

Sustainable lifestyles are becoming more common as awareness spreads about our individual and collective environmental impacts. With this trend spreading so quickly, there are plenty of eco-friendly changes that can be made, and most people don’t even realize these options exist. Also, there are bound to be oversights and mistakes, it’s part of the change process.

In this piece, I’m looking at the concept of ecotourism, an idea I hadn’t considered before, but seems obvious now.


What is ecotourism?

Like any other concept with an “eco” prefix, ecotourism is the approach to exploration in an environmentally conscious manner. Ecotourism is defined by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

By that definition, there are some businesses that purport to be ecotourism programs but don't quite fit the bill.


Is there a downside to ecotourism?

In theory, nothing should be wrong with ecotourism, right? According to the TIES definition, our environment would actually benefit from ecotourism. Of course, things aren’t that simple.

In practice, most people are not as thorough as TIES in their assessment of a program’s merit to be considered “ecotourism.” Consider that many people will probably fly out to these attractions via airplane. If not flying, transportation, in general, contributes to much of the pollution that comes from the tourism industry.

Also, tourism means bringing more people into an environment that had not previously been there. Introducing new entities to an environment is bound to affect the habitat, especially when there is a business built around that introduction.


Indigenous Communities Affected by Ecotourism


The presence of modern humans in nature implies a negative impact on the environment which has to be counteracted. The more we can avoid affecting the environment, the better. It’s better not to lean on our insufficient ability to repair the environment to its natural state, and just leave it alone. My whole skepticism about ecotourism is based on my doubt that most businesses branding themselves as ecotourism are not as thorough with implementing sustainable initiatives.

So, are there any benefits to ecotourism?

Maybe I was being a bit cynical about the possibilities of ecotourism. Let’s not overlook the good that can come out of this approach to the notoriously damaging tourism industry.



In line with TIES, a program is truly sustainable if it follows the principles of ecotourism, which are:

  • non-consumptive / non-extractive
  • develop an ecological conscience
  • hold eco-centric values and ethics in relation to nature

These principles have been defined over the past 30 years to improve on the possible impact of programs that claim to be ecologically sustainable.

What would happen if every eco-friendly tourism business adhered to the principles set forth by TIES?


Non-Consumptive / Non-Extractive

Picture a little island village. A sparse population, typically low education and low-income families. Now, imagine a resort is established nearby the village. Who do you think would consume the most natural resources quickest? Of course, the resort.

So this hypothetical island village is second (at best) in line for whatever resources are available after the resort takes what it needs. This is an example of a consumptive or extractive activity. If your vacation is using up natural resources, it’s not ecotourism. It’s best to leave the local communities and their surrounding resource deposits alone.


Ecological Conscience

Enough hypotheticals, use your imagination. This principle means that you return from your vacation with a new perspective on environmental impact. There should be an experience built into the trip that exposes the participants to the effects of an unsustainable lifestyle. With this new perspective, they will move forward with an awareness of the consequences of their decisions.


Ethics in Relation to Nature

Humans are part of nature, but much of what we do happens to act to the detriment of our natural environment. That resort from earlier was not ethical in their treatment of the environment or local communities. An authentic ecotourism business is built around empowering the environment in which they inhabit.

This means your vacation should incorporate low-impact facilities, consideration for local communities, and incentives for conservation. Otherwise, it’s not true ecotourism.

Ecotourism looks like:

There has to be an easier way to determine a program’s eco-validity, right?

If doing research on every possible sustainable impact of your vacation sound like too much, I should let you know that you could just check for ecotourism certification. Here is information on different entities and the relevance of their certification, because not all sustainable programs are equally eco-friendly.

Use this list to vet any programs claiming to be ecotourism, when it is actually “nature tourism.” Sounds similar, but nature tourism is the experience of ecotourism without any of the follow-through.


Final Verdict

This topic is a bit too gray for me to call one way or another. The cynic in me thinks that for ecotourism to be truly effective every program must commit 100%, otherwise, it’s more performative than effective.

On the other hand, the tourism industry will never completely stop, so it may be worth nurturing any positive presence we can identify in such a ravenous industry.

At any rate, ecotourism should be in addition to a lifestyle and not a standalone act of sustainability.

Moher Ecotourism destination

Change the way you (or others) perceive the resources needed to support your lifestyle. Learn more about sustainability and why it’s worth the extra cost in a previous piece of mine. Or catch up on the timeline of sustainable development as a global concern in another.

Keep an eye out for more of my explorations through sustainability as I continue to build and learn with False Ego.



Image credit: "USAID Measuring Impact Conservation Enterprise Retrospective (Uganda; International Gorilla Conservation Program)" by USAID Biodiversity & Forestry, "Tsam Tsam Ecotourism Site" by D-Stanley, and "The Cliffs Of Moher Ecotourism" by dorameulman

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