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Ecotourism and sustainable development

Ecotourism enterprises


Ecotourism, short for ecological tourism, refers to outdoor recreation, sightseeing, and guided natural history studies in remote or fragile natural areas, or archeological and cultural sites. It was created in its current form in the 1980s but became first well known when the United Nations declared the year 2002 to be the International Year of Ecotourism. Ecotourism usually involves travel, by people called ecotourists, to engage in activities such as trekking and hiking, diving, mountaineering, biking, and paddling, while exploring a regions natural highlights, observing native animals, and learning about the areas natural history. Ecotourists may also visit local cultural and historical sites, and even participate in cultural activities. Many ecotours employ native guides and interpreters who can help visitors fully appreciate the natural and cultural significance of their experience.

Ecotourism and sustainable development

Ecotourism is touted as a successful tool for promoting sustainable economic practices in developing nations, and for encouraging environmental conservation worldwide. The guiding principle of sustainable development is to meet the needs and aspirations of a regions present generation of people without compromising those of future generations. Sustainable development policies also seek to develop economic systems that run with little or no net consumption of natural resources, and that avoid ecological damage. Ecotourism, like other successful sustainable development strategies, provides a strong economic incentive to protect natural resources. Economies that depend on ecotourism dollars have an obvious interest in preserving the natural and culture features that these amateur naturalists and explorers pay to see. Furthermore, the environmental impacts and resource needs of ecotourism, which include development of trail systems and access roads, use of fuel and vehicles for transportation to and from the wilderness, and establishment of campsites, are minimal, especially when compared to the land use practices that commercial nature travel often replaces. Finally, the firsthand experience of traveling in the wilderness, of observing natural complexity, and of reflecting on the fragility of ecosystems stressed by human uses often gives ecotourists and their local guides a new perspective on the value of environmental preservation and resource conservation.

A number of international organizations, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Conservation International, support ecotourism as a component of their sustainable development and environmental conservation strategies. While many governments and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) promote ecotourism, they also caution that ecotourism must be practiced correctly in order to provide positive results for the region involved, and for the tours participants. Many of the activities offered by ecotourism companies, including high-altitude mountaineering, whitewater paddling, diving, and travel in the remote wilderness, are inherently dangerous, and require highly skilled guides. Furthermore, some of Earths most remarkable natural features exist in politically unstable nations, where international visitors may be unwelcome, and even unsafe. Ecotourism, practiced incorrectly, can also cause significant environmental damage. A safari hunt for an endangered animal in a country that has lax conservation laws, for example, is not a sustainable ecotour. Finally, ecotourism enterprises that exploit another regions natural and cultural resources without contributing to the local economy do not meet the criteria for sustainable development. If none of the tourists money goes to the local businesses or conservation agencies, then often-poorer countries bear the financial responsibility of providing protected natural and cultural sites for wealthy foreigners to visit, but receive none of the financial reward. Organizations like the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and the International Ecotourism Society (IES) investigate various ecotourism enterprises, and can provide potential ecotourists with valuable guidance in choosing a company to guide them on a safe, sustainable adventure.

Ecotourism enterprises

Many private companies offer a wide variety of ecotours, as do a number of development and conservation-related NGOs. These businesses often enlist the logistical and marketing assistance of government agencies in the countries where their tours take place. Ecotourism companies typically supply a number of services to their clients: transportation to and from remote venues, food and cooking, lodging, local guiding, outdoor skills training, and expert interpretation of natural and cultural features. These services promote in-depth exploration of the natural and cultural sites on the itinerary, minimize environmental impact, and allow clients to travel safely and comfortably in remote or environmentally fragile areas.

Ecotours are available to all types of potential adventures with all kinds of interests. Ecotourists can visit and explore all seven continents, and all four oceans. The National Geographic Society (NGS), for example, explains in its Traveler magazine, July/

Key Terms

Ecotourism Ecology-based tourism, focused primarily on natural or cultural resources.

Sustainable development Development that meets the needs and aspirations of the present generation, without compromising those of future ones.

August 2006 issue, that there is an international effort underway to make ecotourism in Madagascar profitable while reducing the need to cut down its forests for farmland (what is called deforestation). Some of the top destinations for ecotourism, according to NGS is hiking Machu Picchu in Peru, cruising the Gala´pagos Islands, exploring the Alaskan Frontier, visiting the pyramids of Egypt, diving in the Caribbean, and photographing South African wildlife. Some of its highlighted ecotours in 2007 include: Belize: Rainforests, Reefs, and Maya Ruins; British Isles; Celtic Lands; China Family Adventure; Classic Journey Through China; Exploring Pantagonia, Land of the Polar Bears; and Mongolia: Land of the Nomad.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Institution offers study trips to hundreds of locations including Patagonia, Antarctica and Falklands, the rivers of West Africa, Tahiti and Polynesia, Yellowstone, Baja California, Australia, and the Southern Amazon.

Some ecotours are athletically strenuous, some are luxurious, and some are scientific. There are groups that offer adventures for travelers on all types of budgets. There is also a wide range of ecotourism and outdoor education activities available to high school and college students. Some of these programs, including the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and Semester at Sea, offer high school and college credit for their courses. Other programs allow students to participate in international conservation efforts and natural science expeditions. Many schools and universities even offer their own off-campus programs to augment natural, environmental, and social science curricula.

It is difficult to place a number of tourists who participate in ecotourism each year because some of the activities that are touted as ecotouristic in nature are all too often just a hotel in an exotic and/or remote landscape, which is actually harming the environment and ecosystem. These environmentally irresponsible activities are sometimes called green-washing. As of 2006, it is roughly estimated that there are over five million ecotourists each year, most of them originating from the United States and Canada, but others also from Europe and Australia.

See also Ecological economics; Ecological integrity; Ecological monitoring; Ecological productivity.



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Bill Freedman

Laurie Duncan

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Ecotourism is ecology-based tourism, focused primarily on natural or cultural resources such as scenic areas, coral reefs, caves, fossil sites, archeological or historical sites, and wildlife , particularly rare and endangered species .

The successful marketing of ecotourism depends on destinations which have biodiversity , unique geologic features, and interesting cultural histories, as well as an adequate infrastructure. In the United States national parks are perhaps the most popular destinations for ecotourism, particularly Yellowstone National Park , the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains and Yosemite National Park . In 1999, there were 300 million recreational visits to the national parks. Some of the leading ecotourist destinations outside the United States include the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, the wildlife parks of Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa, the mountains of Nepal, and the national parks and forest reserves of Costa Rica.

Tourism is the second largest industry in the world, producing over $195 billion in domestic and international receipts and accounting for more than 7% of the world's trade in goods and services. There were 693 million international tourists in 2001, creating 74 million tourism jobs. Adventure tourism, which includes ecotourism, accounts for 10% of this market. In developing countries tourism can comprises as much as one-third of trade in goods and services, and much of this is ecotourism. Wildlife-based tourism in Kenya, for example, generates $350 million annually.

Ecotourism is not a new phenomena. In the late 1800s railroads and steamship companies were instrumental in the establishment of the first national parks in the United States, recognizing even then the demand for experiences in nature and profiting from transporting tourists to destinations such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. However, ecotourism has recently taken on increased significance worldwide.

There has been a tremendous increase in demand for such experiences, with adventure tourism increasing at a rate of 30% annually. But there is another reason for the increased significance of ecotourism. It is a key strategy in efforts to protect cultural and natural resources , especially in developing countries, because resource-based tourism provides an economic incentive to protect resources. For example, rather than converting tropical rain forests to farms which may be short-lived, income can be earned by providing goods and services to tourists visiting the rain forests.

Although ecotourism has the potential to produce a viable economic alternative to exploitation of the environment ,it can also threaten it. Water pollution , litter, disruption of wildlife, trampling of vegetation, and mistreatment of local people are some of the negative impacts of poorly planned and operated ecotourism. To distinguish themselves from destructive tour companies, many reputable tour organizations have adopted environmental codes of ethics which explicitly state policies for avoiding or minimizing environmental impacts. In planning destinations and operating tours, successful firms are also sensitive to the needs and desires of the local people, for without native support efforts in ecotourism often fail.

Ecotourism can provide rewarding experiences and produce economic benefits that encourage conservation . The challenge upon which the future of ecotourism depends is the ability to carry out tours which the clients find rewarding, without degrading the natural or cultural resources upon which it is based.

See also Earthwatch; National Park Service

[Ted T. Cable ]



Boo, E. Ecotourism: The Potentials and Pitfalls. 2 vols. Washington, DC: World Wildlife Fund, 1990.

Ocko, Stephanie. Environmental Vacations: Volunteer Projects to Save the Planet. 2nd ed. Santa Fe, NM: John Muir, 1992.

Whelan, T., ed. Nature Tourism: Managing for the Environment. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1991.

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