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date: 30 September 2022



  • Giles JacksonGiles JacksonShenandoah University


Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that educates and inspires through interpretation—increasingly paired with practical action—that helps conserve the environment and sustain the well-being of local people. Ecotourism is the fastest-growing segment of the travel and tourism industry, and its economic value is projected to exceed USD$100 billion by 2027. Ecotourism emerged in the 1960s as a response to the destructive effects of mass tourism and has been embraced by an increasing number of governments, especially in the developing world, as a vehicle for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As an emerging, interdisciplinary field of study, ecotourism has reached a critical inflection point, as scholars reflect on the achievements and shortcomings of several decades of research and set out the research agenda for decades to come. The field has yet to achieve consensus on the most basic questions, such as how ecotourism is, or should be, defined; what makes it different from nature-based and related forms of tourism; and what factors ultimately determine the success or failure of ecotourism as a vehicle for sustainable development. This lack of consensus stems in part from the different perspectives and agendas within and between the academic, policy, and industry communities. Because it is based on measured and observed phenomena, empirical research has a critical role to play in advancing the theory and practice of ecotourism. However, scholars also recognize that to fulfill this role, methodologies must evolve to become more longitudinal, scalable, inclusive, integrative, and actionable.


  • Case Studies
  • Environmental Issues and Problems
  • Management and Planning
  • Sustainability and Solutions


Although travel has been woven into the fabric of our world since Antiquity, mass tourism is a 20th-century phenomenon. In 1950, there were just 25 million international tourist arrivals. By 2018, this number had increased 56-fold to 1.4 billion arrivals.1 Whereas in the 1950s, tourism was promoted as a passport to development, in the 1960s, concerns mounted over its environmental and social impacts, and scholars debated how “symbiosis” might be achieved between tourism, the environment, and society. At the same time, a new generation of ecologically minded travelers sought a memorable, direct experience in wild, pristine nature.

Pioneered in the 1960s by Lars-Eric Lindblad, the first travel company owner to take travelers where only scientists had previously gone, the ecotourism industry grew rapidly and was embraced by governments and the international development community as a viable alternative not only to mass tourism but also to a host of extractive and/or consumptive economic activities, especially in places of high biodiversity value. Ecotourism is now the fastest-growing sector of the travel and tourism industry and is forecast to have an economic value exceeding USD$100 billion by 2027.2

On the other hand, Covid-19 laid bare ecotourism’s vulnerability to external shocks.3 Since Covid-19 is part of a pattern of increasingly frequent epidemics coinciding with urbanization, climate change, globalization, and travel, a critical question is how to build local resilience through diversification and other measures—without undermining ecotourism’s future prospects.

Ecotourism is a highly interdisciplinary field of study, encompassing economics, business administration, social entrepreneurship, environmental science (including biology, ecology, and geography), environmental education, political science, anthropology, sociology, social psychology, ethics, and other fields. While there is near consensus on its core principles, there is still confusion over what ecotourism means, or should mean. This problem is compounded in practice by “greenwashing,” where companies make misleading claims about their environmental credentials to capitalize on rising demand for sustainability-linked products and services. An alphabet soup of certification schemes for guides, companies, and destinations has emerged to address this issue, as well as accrediting bodies whose role is to certify the certifiers. Nevertheless, only a small percentage of ecotourism operators has been certified, while the certification schemes themselves have come under scrutiny.

After decades of research and discussion, there is still no clear consensus in the literature on the factors determining success or failure in ecotourism. The urgency of addressing methodological issues on multiple levels to reinvigorate the research effort is underpinned by the real and growing risks to biodiversity, coupled with the persistent deficit of funding for conservation (which amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars annually) and the pressing need for evidence-based systems for effective ecotourism management. An immediate task is to bring the widely used definition of ecotourism advanced by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) (2015)—“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education”—into alignment with developments at the leading edge of ecotourism. These include ecotourism’s convergence with participatory, citizen science and its embrace of opportunities for practical action that have a regenerative effect on ecosystems and communities. This trend is likely to gain momentum, given “the unequivocal evidence that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs” (World Wildlife Fund [WWF], 2020, p. 4).

Part One

Origins of Ecotourism

During the 1950s, governments and newly formed aid agencies around the world promoted tourism as a tool for, and an indicator of, modernization. According to Stronza et al. (2019):

Large-scale tourism, in particular, with high-rise hotels and transportation networks, was heralded enthusiastically and often uncritically as fuel for development. The concept of comparative advantage resulted in entire island nations and coastal areas of the world marketing themselves as paradises, promising sun, sand, sea, and sex as they lured foreign and multilateral investors with tax breaks, fee exemptions, and devalued local currencies. (p. 232)

However, others began to question the postwar paradigm of progress, whose critiques would soon encompass the tourism industry. Rachel Carson (1962) drew attention to the growing humanmade threat to nature in her seminal book, Silent Spring, which increased environmental awareness and helped inspire new groups, new agencies, and new legislation.4 During the 1970s, development specialists also began to question the principle of economic growth at all costs, challenging the idea that tourism offered a guaranteed passport to development. There was discussion about a different kind of development harmonizing socioeconomic development and environmental protection, which came to be known as “eco-development” (Glaeser, 1984).

The synergies between tourism and eco-development were self-evident. For example, Dassman et al. (1973) recognized that while a certain amount of deterioration in environmental quality may be a necessary trade-off in some kinds of economic activity with tourism, the quality of the environment is the basis for attracting visitors and, therefore, must be conserved. Anticipating the emergence of ecotourism, they wrote,

Particular attention should be paid to the recent increase in scientific and educational tourism, in which the people concerned seek opportunities for nature study and the development of understanding of unique or at least different kinds of ecosystems and assemblages of wild species. Such tourists can be accommodated in areas from which mass tourism might best be excluded.5 (p. 117)

In 1972, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a resolution on “balanced tourism,” which called on the industry and governments to confront the adverse effects of tourism development. In 1976, Geraldo Budowski, IUCN’s director-general, argued that ecological principles must govern resource use, which would require greater cooperation between tourism and conservation interests. He hypothesized three plausible relations between the two camps (see Table 1), one of which (symbiosis) also anticipated the emergence of ecotourism.

Budowski (1976) observed that the relationship between tourism and conservation is usually one of coexistence moving toward conflict, due to an increase in tourism, coupled with the shrinking of natural areas. He warned that areas of outstanding natural beauty were being incrementally transformed into objects of mass tourism, threatening widespread degradation of fragile ecosystems that would not withstand heavy disturbance. Anticipating the debates to come, he recognized the subtle effects of the sudden arrival of different cultures on nearby communities—which often changed cultural and economic patterns in ways that conflicted with traditional attitudes toward resources—as well as the dangers of laissez-faire public policy.6

Table 1. Relationship Between Tourism and Conservation




Tourism is perceived as detrimental to Nature—usually following a period of unplanned expansion that takes many people by surprise. Conservationists often fight back “with all kinds of interdictions and other restrictions.”


When the two camps establish relatively little contact. This is likely where neither tourism nor conservation is well established in an area, where administrative barriers exist, or because of the ignorance of each concerning the other’s field. “However, this situation of coexistence rarely remains static, particularly as an increase of tourism is apt to induce substantial changes, so that this stage is followed either by a mutually satisfactory relationship (symbiosis) or by conflict (if things go the wrong way).”


Tourism and conservationists organize in such a way that both benefit from the relationship. Natural assets are conserved as far as possible in their original condition or evolve toward an even more satisfactory condition. An increasing number of people derive wider benefits from Nature and natural resources, whether in a physical, aesthetic, cultural, scientific, or educational sense. The tourism industry also benefits.

Source: Adapted from Budowski (1976). Copyright 1976 by the Foundation for Environmental Conservation.

In 1980, IUCN launched the World Conservation Strategy, the first international document on living resource conservation produced with inputs from governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other experts. Subsequently, the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme called on countries and organizations to give environmental factors high priority in tourism planning (Romeril, 1985). However, according to Dowling (2013), “By the mid 1980s it was clear that the idealism of the environment–tourism relationship as advocated through symbiosis was being tempered by the realism that in actual fact the underlying conflicts were still ever-present” (p. 18).7

Change did not come from the top down, as Bukowski and others may have hoped, but from the grassroots. Ecotourism followed a convergent evolution, “where many places and people independently responded to the need for more nature travel opportunities in line with society’s efforts to become more ecologically minded” (Fennell, 2004, as cited in Biggs, 2008). Led by ecotourism trailblazers such as Nicolas Hetzer, Lars-Eric Lindblad, Don Adams, Timothy Means, Nicolas Hetzer, Douglas Trent, Colin Bell, Chris Macintyre, and Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin, ecotourism emerged “within the womb” of the environmental movement (Honey, 1999, p. 19).

In 1965, Nicolas Hetzer, an academic affiliated with the International Ecology University in California, called for a new kind of “eco” tourism, reflecting concerns in the eco-development literature (Fennell, 2013), and later organized tours to the Yucatan (Easton, 2015).8 However, regarded by many as the “father of ecotourism,” Lars-Eric Lindblad was the first travel company owner to take travelers where only scientists had previously gone, including Antarctica and the Galápagos in 1966 and 1967, respectively.9

In 1972, Don Adams, an Australian conservationist, aviator, and entrepreneur, leased a portion of Lady Elliott Island on the Great Barrier Reef for restricted recreation, in exchange for a commitment to revegetate and rehabilitate it.10 In his account of the rehabilitation of Lady Elliott Island, Hall (1984) pointed to the transformative potential of ecotourism:

One can actually see and understand how a coral reef is built up, and how it gives rise to lagoons and finally to beaches and islands, and then all the plants and animals that come to inhabit the island. No amount of reading or watching films can match the realization that comes after a day or two in such a timeless, but constantly growing, island. (p. 38)

Timothy Means set up Baja Expeditions in 1974 to protect the Baja Peninsula. Many of his clients became donors to various nonprofit projects aimed at winning permanent protection for hundreds of islands off the Baja Peninsula in Mexico (Seelye, 2019). Douglas Trent established Focus Tours in Brazil in 1981, offering high-quality nature, birding, and photography tours. Having transitioned traditional hunting families into the business of showing ecotourists jaguars, instead of killing them, Trent established a global consulting practice to help communities make the transition to nonconsumptive practices.

Founded in 1983 by Colin Bell and Chris Macintyre, Wilderness Safaris became one of the largest and most successful examples of contemporary ecotourism. The founders wanted to ensure that the financial benefits of their safaris flowed to Botswana and its people and thus help to ensure the conservation of the country’s wildlife areas. According to the company, “In retrospect, this approach was logical and today forms the cornerstone and central tenet of ecotourism the world over. But in the early 1980s it was ground-breaking and set Wilderness Safaris apart” (Wilderness Holdings Ltd, 2018, p. 12). What started as a small ecotourism venture has since evolved into a specialist tour and safari operation spanning seven African countries.

Figure 1 describes the Wilderness Safaris business model. Starting at the top, prospective clients of Wilderness Safaris are converted into paying guests by the company’s own travel shops and trade partners (retail travel agents, outbound and inbound tour operators), which sell “original experiences in pure wilderness” to discerning international travelers.11 The ecotourism experience is delivered through a network of safari camps, in conjunction with the flying and other transfer businesses, supported by administrative offices that procure and manage multiple inputs (goods and services, third-party suppliers of accommodations and transfers, and people). The primary output of the process is (hopefully) satisfied customers, which includes paying guests and trade partners. Other outputs include community income, rural development, economic contributions, and conservation projects.12

Figure 1. Wilderness Safaris’ value and supply chains.

Source: Wilderness Holdings Limited (2018, p. 14). Copyright 2018 by Wilderness Holdings Limited. In the public domain.

Ecotourism delivery is fragmented and involves a wide range of stakeholders. Figure 2 describes Wilderness Safaris’ stakeholders and how the company engages with each of them.

Figure 2. Wilderness Safaris’ stakeholders and their expectations.

Source: Wilderness Holdings Limited (2018, p. 18). Copyright 2018 by Wilderness Holdings Ltd. In the public domain.

In the early 1980s, Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin, founding president of PRONATURA, the Mexican Association for the Conservation of Nature, lobbied for the conservation of the wetlands in northern Yucatan as breeding and feeding habitats of the American flamingo. Among the arguments that he used to dissuade the building of marinas in the Celestún estuary area was the presence of an ever-growing number of tourists, especially from the United States, who came to watch the flamingos. Ceballos-Lascuráin saw that these visitors could play an important role in boosting the local rural economy while preserving the ecology of the area (Hasek, 2008).

The nascent ecotourism sector was spurred by the Brundtland Report (1987), a seminal work on sustainable development that brought the concept into greater public awareness.13 As alarm spread about habitat loss, conservation groups bought and protected forest tracts, and since funds were often insufficient, ecotourism was embraced as a means to bridge the gap (Donnelly et al., 2011). Tour operators and ecotourists began to make the conservation of natural areas a priority, with more and more operators allocating a portion of their client fees to conservation groups or establishing their own nonprofit conservation organizations. Local communities partnered with tour companies and NGOs, hoping to channel outside attention on their lands, traditions, and resources to positive changes for their communities, while regional and national governments embraced ecotourism as a means to protect biodiversity and alleviate poverty.

In the 1990s integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs) linked to tourism emerged as a tool for combining development with conservation, especially in rural parts of the developing world (Ghimire & Pimbert 1997, as cited in Butcher, 2007). NGOs positioned themselves as mediators among various stakeholders collaborating in new partnerships, lobbying for policies favorable to tourism, and promoting the idea of environmental responsibility in tourism. This activity spurred significant interest and investment in the nascent sector. From 1985 to 1995, USAID commissioned more than fifty studies related to ecotourism, and had invested more than $2 billion into more than 100 ecotourism-related projects (Honey, 1999, as cited in Biggs, 2008). “Ecotourism was meant to provide sustainable economic development, effective mechanisms for biodiversity conservation, strategies for empowering marginalized peoples, ethical practices for reversing colonial legacies of social and environmental injustice, and better cross-cultural understanding” (Stronza et al., 2019, p. 233).

Although local communities, tour companies, NGOs, and governments began to work more closely together, these initiatives were often carried out independently. For example, a 1990 survey found some 60 sets of ecotourism guidelines, published by a wide variety of groups (Simon, 1996). Megan Epler Wood therefore proposed the creation of a professional organization for the nascent ecotourism sector. Echoing Geraldo Bukowski, she wrote, “Whether ecotourism is only a fad or a genuine conservation tool will depend, in large part, on the ability of these diverse constituencies to work together” (Epler Wood, 1991, p. 201). As the battle over the earth’s remaining resources intensified, the promise of tourism revenues could, she argued, be a valuable bargaining chip for the conservation cause.

David Western, founding president of TIES, led a global effort to arrive at a simple, balanced definition of ecotourism that gave equal weight to conservation and the community: “Responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people” (TIES, 1990). This means that those who implement and participate in ecotourism activities should follow the following principles:


Minimize impact


Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect


Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts


Provide direct financial benefits for conservation


Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people


Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate

The original definition has since been amended thus: “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). This amended definition, and its associated principles (listed below), emphasize the non-consumptive, non-extractive nature of ecotourism and the responsibility of ecotourism operators to nurture an ecological conscience.


Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts


Build environmental and cultural awareness, and respect


Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts


Produce direct financial benefits for conservation


Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry


Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates


Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities


Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the Indigenous People in your community and work in partnership with them to create empowerment

Ecotourism Under Scrutiny

In the late 1980s, articles about ecotourism began to appear in professional journals (Weaver & Lawton, 2007), focusing mainly on ecotourism in protected areas (PAs). As examples, in their study of the Khao Yai National Park in Thailand, Brockelman and Dearden (1990) observed that nature tourism is one of the few economic uses of natural areas that is compatible with protection of the environment and its wildlife and could provide significant income for villages near the borders of national parks through activities such as guided trekking, thus reducing the illegal exploitation of park resources by local inhabitants. A study of game farming in Kenya found that wildlife tourism was 50 times more lucrative than cattle grazing, a lion was calculated to be worth $575,000, and a single free-flying macaw in Peru was estimated to generate as much as $4,700 per year in tourism dollars (Honey, 1999, p. 391).

However, a number of studies questioned ecotourism’s early record as a strategy for building local conservation economies. A World Wildlife Fund study of ecotourism in Belize, Costa Rica, Dominica, Ecuador, and Mexico found that while there was a growing demand for tourism to parks in developing countries, they were completely unprepared (i.e., no entrance fee system, no training for park guards, no visitor centers, no environmental education for visitors, very little local enterprise, and many missed opportunities) (Boo, 1990). These countries therefore needed to address a plethora of policy issues (e.g., carrying capacity, infrastructure development, park personnel and tour guide training, reduction of economic leakage, environmental protection). Another study of 23 Integrated Conservation Development Projects, most with ecotourism components, found that few of the benefits went to local people or served to enhance protection of adjacent wetlands (West & Brechin, 1991).

As Brandon (1996) argued, how well ecotourism lives up to expectations depends principally on the planning process prior to ecotourism initiatives, as well as the management controls and involvement of stakeholders once they begin. Too often, tourism is promoted by government and industry without an overall strategy, effective protected area management plans, or consultation or inclusion of local communities. Benefits are most frequently in the form of seasonal or low-paying jobs (i.e., unequally distributed). In cases where ecotourism generated increased revenues, provided for more infrastructure, or helped fund community projects such as school construction and health clinics, these benefits were often offset in the eyes of local communities by interference in their daily lives and resultant cultural changes. “When the low-impact scale of ecotourism is exceeded and the tourism, even if nature-based, takes on the characteristics of mass tourism, increased traffic, pollution, sequestering of profits by outsiders, and rising local prices can all become significant problems” (Brandon, 1996, p. 36).

Brandon (1996) therefore called for a clear separation between ecotourism and nature tourism on the grounds that only the former is consistent with conservation objectives, because of its small scale and limited ecological and social impacts.14 However, in a 1993 review, the World Travel and Tourism Environment Research Centre made no such distinction, nor had many researchers (Goodwin, 1996). Some view ecotourism as a subset of nature-based tourism, whereas others situate ecotourism at the intersection of different forms of tourism (Nyaupane, 2007).

Seeing that many private-sector enterprises, NGOs, and public agencies were using the term “ecotourism” indiscriminately, IUCN at its first World Conservation Congress (1996) passed Resolution 1.32 calling on members to promote authentic ecotourism, defined as

environmentally responsible travel and visitation to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples; active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.

Principles of Ecotourism

Held at Yale University in 1996, a stated goal of the conference The Ecotourism Equation: Measuring the Impacts was to sidestep circular and unproductive discussions over definitions (Malek-Zadeh, 1996). At this conference, Wallace (1996) argued that what fundamentally distinguishes ecotourism from other types of tourism is its ethical principles and values. Drawing on the extant ecotourism literature, as well as various tools and techniques in natural resource management (Limits to Acceptable Change, Visitor Impact Management, Visitor Experience and Resource Protection Process, etc.), Wallace proposed six principles for “true ecotourism,” along with actionable, site-specific standards and indicators that could be used to evaluate and compare ecotourism operations across sites (Table 2).

Table 2. Ecotourism Principles and Indicators




(1) True ecotourism entails a type of use that minimizes negative impacts to the environment and to local people.

There is consensus that ecotourism should minimize impacts to wildlife, soil, vegetation, water, and air quality and emphasize respect for the cultural traditions and activities of local people. Efforts are made to be less consumptive, travel lighter, produce less waste, and be conscious of one’s effect on the environment and on the lives of those living nearby. Both general guidelines and more site-specific norms should be developed and utilized.

Indicators include group size; mode of transport; equipment; methods of waste disposal; use of “leave no trace” procedures; type and amount of training given to guides; type of information given visitors before and during field visits; level of cultural sensitivity of interpretive materials and activities pursued; resulting attitude of locals toward tourism; architectural style and types of building materials and decor; measures of biophysical change, such as site spreading, vegetative composition, erosion, water quality, and wildlife behavior; and other site-specific measures. All of these imply some form of impact monitoring.

(2) True ecotourism increases the awareness and understanding of an area’s natural and cultural systems and the subsequent involvement of visitors in issues affecting those systems.

Learning about nature and other cultures is a primary motivator for ecotourists. Visitors should be able to experience truly representative and intact ecosystems and compare them with areas that have been disturbed. They should also be able to experience authentic two-way interaction with local residents. Other awareness activities could focus on sustainable development or conservation and wildland protection issues in the host and home country.

Indicators include donations to local projects or nongovernmental organizations, continued correspondence between locals and visitors, increased support for conservation/development projects, and an increased level of commitment and activism (an untapped area for researchers). An indirect indicator would be educational and interpretive experiences for visitors, especially those that permit interaction with local people and their issues and that reveal how ecosystems function.

(3) True ecotourism contributes to the conservation and management of legally protected and other natural areas.

Where possible, this should mean strengthening the management capability, personnel, and stature of units that are part of a national, state, and local system of parks and protected areas or similar management of private reserves or attraction sites.

Indicators include collaborative efforts between operators and protected area managers, payment of established entrance fees and additional donations, tours that encourage visitor interaction with protected area personnel and incorporate management issues into tour interpretive activities, adherence to area regulations, cooperation with infrastructure maintenance and improvements (volunteer work days, trail, dock, visitor center maintenance, etc.), research results that benefit a protected area in the case of “scientific tourism,” or development of management plans and subsequent actions on private reserves.

(4) True ecotourism maximizes the early and long-term participation of local people in the decision-making process that determines the kind and amount of tourism that should occur.

Key is the early establishment and continued functioning of committees, partnerships, and other mechanisms that provide local input to public (protected area managers, etc.) and private (outside concessionaires, conservation groups, etc.) interests that operate in the area. Ideally, locals will also belong to those interest groups.

Indicators include strength and duration of local advisory and planning groups, incorporation and implementation of local ideas in area management plans and tour activities, development of local ecotourism ventures and tour itineraries that conform to local needs and schedules, the presence of staff delegated to community relations tasks, and the attitude that local people have toward ecotourism.

(5) True ecotourism directs economic and other benefits to local people that complement rather than overwhelm or replace traditional practices (farming, fishing, social systems, etc.).

Ecotourism often depends on natural areas where resource protection requires low visitor density and small group size. Ecotour operations are of smaller scale and more susceptible to changes in season, weather, access, economic, and political events. Therefore, these operations yield irregular and modest returns when compared to mass tourism. Local economies will be more robust if they are diverse and if local people are not asked to make wholesale changes away from traditional activities (not to be construed as retarding the desire for increases in income and standard of living). Benefits should be diverse and should contribute to various aspects of the quality of life.

Indicators include increases or decreases in the diversity of economic activity, the variety and value of items produced and purchased locally; services provided by concessionaires to locals; the number and level of local park/ecotour employees; the relative distribution of benefits among community members; the number of programs that train or assist with the development of locally owned enterprises; existence of an adequate fee structure and evidence that some portion of park/protected area and concessionaire revenues are being reinvested in community development projects, as well as reserve or protected area infrastructure and management; and management zones for limited harvesting and other sustainable uses of an area’s resources by locals that complement traditional activities.

(6) True ecotourism provides special opportunities for local people and nature tourism employees to visit natural areas and learn more about the wonders that other visitors come to see.

This is similar to Principle 2 but emphasizes making both foreign visitors and local people feel comfortable as visitors to any given natural area. Some authors specifically point out the need for “biocultural restoration” via educational and recreational activities for locals and employees.

Indicators include number and percentage of the local population that uses the park/protected area; number of special days, events, and transportation arrangements for locals each year; use of multitiered fee structures; use of the area for environmental education by local schools; and number of opportunities for employees (cooks, maintenance personnel, etc.) to occasionally accompany visitors on field tours.

Note: Adapted from Wallace (1996).

In their evaluation of ecotourism operators in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon Basin, Lincango (1995, as cited in Wallace, 1996) operationalized the six principles using a range of research methods, including surveys, interviews, focus groups, and observational research. With stakeholder input, standards were developed for each indicator and operators scored against these standards. In light of mounting concern that ecotourism may reinforce existing power structures and inequities, new indicators were deemed necessary to address issues of social equity.

Community-Based Ecotourism

In the 1990s, a number of books about ecotourism, including Ecotourism in the Less Developed World (Weaver, 1998); Ecotourism: Impacts, Potentials and Possibilities (Wearing & Neil, 1999); and Who Owns Paradise? Ecotourism and Sustainable Development (Honey, 1999) reiterated earlier concerns that in many countries, ecotourism had been promoted by government or industry without an overall strategy, effective protected area management plans, and consultation or inclusion of local communities.

Douglas Trent, founder of Focus Tours and the Focus Conservation Fund, argued that community inclusion was more than a moral imperative; it was a practical necessity: “With biodiversity distributed around the entire planet, we need to look to communities throughout the world for answers. When communities become the beneficiaries and custodians of their biodiversity, they are much more likely to preserve it” (Trent, 2000, p. 107). Community-based ecotourism (CBET) is based on the principle that biodiversity must pay for itself by generating economic benefits, particularly for local communities. Bruce Poon Tip, who founded Planeterra in 2003, is a notable pioneer of this approach.15

Empirical research on CBET has been mixed. As examples, Matsuura’s (2019) experience in Gabon suggests that CBET can work if the local contexts are well understood and if productive, collaborative relations exist among all stakeholders. In contrast, Ma et al. (2019) studied ecotourism in Sichuan Province, China, and found that while CBET significantly raised households’ conservation attitudes, it also increased natural resource extraction, especially at high altitudes. Overall, “CBET in the giant panda habitat has not led to a win–win situation between social and ecological outcomes, especially at high altitudes” (p. 1). Kiss (2004) argued,

There are many examples of projects that produce revenues for local communities and improve local attitudes towards conservation, but the contribution of CBET to conservation and local economic development is limited by factors such as the small areas and few people involved, limited earnings, weak linkages between biodiversity gains and commercial success, and the competitive and specialized nature of the tourism industry. Many CBET projects cited as success stories actually involve little change in existing local land and resource-use practices, provide only a modest supplement to local livelihoods, and remain dependent on external support for long periods, if not indefinitely. Investment in CBET might be justified in cases where such small changes and benefits can yield significant conservation and social benefits, although it must still be recognized as requiring a long term funding commitment. (p. 232)

Studies of community-based ecotourism often lack methodological rigor. Kiss (2004) observed that case studies often provide no supporting data, provide figures without essential contextual information, and offer vague conclusions. For example, they often do not specify the amount of land provided for conservation, and where they do, the areas fall short of what is probably needed for a viable conservation unit.16 Moreover, despite the grassroots empowerment rhetoric of CBET, the literature has paid lip service to non-Western perspectives. Le et al. (2016) argued that much of the CBET literature laments the loss of tradition and the incursion of modernization impulses that are deemed by “so-called experts” to be inappropriate and ill-considered (p. 177).17 As Trent (2000) argues,

Communities often are the recipients of short-term projects run by foreign organizations. After waiting patiently for a project to finish, they get on with their lives with little or no lasting effect. Without a long-term commitment, it can be difficulty for a community to change for the better. We need to support people, processes, and institutions, such as farmer cooperatives, small, sustainable industries and women’s groups. There are no short-term answers for long-term protection of our biodiversity. We cannot separate people from the biodiversity where they live. Failures in the protected area programs usually result from ignoring these realities. (p. 108)

In the Brundtland report, the need for strong partnerships between stakeholders was identified as vital to implementation (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). This is especially true in tourism, which is highly fragmented and whose activities overlap with so many other sectors of society. Bramwell & Lane (2000) called for empirical research to determine how to forge enduring partnerships involving regular, cross-sectoral interactions between parties on multiple levels, based on agreed rules or norms in pursuit of specific policy goals. However, Butcher (2013, as cited in Ballantyne & Packer, 2013) warned that “wider claims implying greater democracy or control for the community should, at the very least, be treated with a degree of circumspection” (p. 52).

In Video 1, Ivan Suarez, an Ecuadorian guide, coffee farmer, and ecotourism operator, describes a community-based ecotourism model that has largely survived and thrived on the outer fringes of the formal economy. Deterrents to engagement with the formal sector include bureaucratic complexity and inflexibility, the high cost of compliance, and the perception that the government does not understand or empathize with their practices and habitually fails to look out for their interests on critical issues such as property rights. Consequently, many ecotourism enterprises operate in stealth mode, under the radar. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to imagine how enduring public–private partnerships can be achieved in practice. Campbell (1999) discusses the problem of ad hoc development in her study on ecotourism in rural developing communities.

Video 1. Interview with Ivan Suarez, entrepreneur and guide, on the topic of Community-Based Ecotourism (Jackson 2019).

Themes in the Ecotourism Literature

Weaver and Lawton (2007) identified five interrelated categories in the ecotourism literature over the preceding 20 years (Figure 3). Figure 3 begins with a basic supply–demand dichotomy, with the former exploring the nature of ecotourism, venues (mainly protected areas), and the ecotourism industry and the latter focusing on the ecotourist market and its segmentation. A third category examines the role of specialized and nonspecialized institutions, while a fourth considers the ecological, economic, and sociocultural impacts of ecotourism, as well as quality control and ethics. Interpretation, marketing, and the ecotourist experience are considered mediating variables. The fifth category includes external environments, both human and biophysical, that affect and are affected by the ecotourism sector.

Figure 3. Ecotourism sector schemata.

Source: Adapted from Weaver and Lawton (2007). Copyright 2007 by Elsevier Ltd.

Table 3 summarizes the key points in each of the five categories.

Table 3. Themes in the Ecotourism Literature


Definition, criteria: Fennell (2001) identified no fewer than 85 definitions of ecotourism, which remains a point of contention. However, largely due to the contributions of Blamey (1997, 2001), there is at least near consensus that ecotourism should satisfy three core criteria: (1) attractions should be predominantly nature based, (2) visitor interactions with those attractions should be focused on learning or education, and (3) experience and product management should follow principles and practices associated with ecological, sociocultural, and economic sustainability. However, each criterion leaves ample room for interpretation.

Types: The lack of consensus on definition may explain why ecotourism outgrew its original configuration in the mid-1980s as a nature-based form of alternative tourism, to embrace, as examples, recreational angling, trophy hunting, and noncaptive zoos. Greater recognition is being given to culture as a core component of the ecotourism product mix, reflecting the realization that natural environments cannot be divorced from human activity. This is particularly evident in the growing subfield of Indigenous ecotourism, where ecotourists may, for example, gain insights into how Indigenous peoples learned to coexist with the natural world.

Ecotourism’s relationship with mass tourism is contested. Laarman and Durst (1987) distinguished between “soft” and “hard” ecotourism; the former (“mass ecotourism”) reflects growing demand for casual encounters with the natural world. Others reject this formulation on the grounds that true ecotourism is necessarily a subset of alternative tourism, and therefore, conventional tourism is properly considered an external environment. The blurring of the boundary between ecotourism and other forms of tourism may lead to an array of problems, including product development overlap and confusion in the marketplace. Less controversially, the ecotourism literature has witnessed the emergence of a number of specialized subfields with their own attendant issues and themes, such as Indigenous, whale watching, bat-based, and Antarctic ecotourism.

Venues: Virtually all ecotourism case studies are situated in public protected areas. Case studies from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia dominate this literature, perhaps in recognition of the degree to which ecotourism can potentially serve as a vehicle for economic development in these regions. Although understudied, private protected areas are an increasingly popular alternative, particularly in Central America (e.g., Monteverde in Costa Rica) and South Africa. However, no systematic effort has yet been made to analyze the case study literature to identify major themes and trends pertaining to the ecotourism–protected area interface. Other ecotourism venues include private venues that are not designated protected areas and highly modified public and private lands, including urban areas.

Industry: Relatively little research has been undertaken on the structure of the ecotourism industry, possibly because lesser developed country sites that dominate the literature tend to follow the community-based model of service provision that operates largely outside the ecotourism industry. Nevertheless, a distinction can be made between specialized ecotourism activities, including ecolodges and ecotour operators, mediating attractions (i.e., canopy walkways, cableways, and submarines that facilitate access to otherwise inaccessible areas and are attractions in their own right), and nonspecialized operations such as conventional hotels, cruise lines, and travel agencies that incidentally serve ecotourists and/or provide ecotourism products. Operations may also be situated along a continuum ranging from micro-businesses to major transnational corporations. A common theme in this research is the high failure rate of small specialized ecotourism businesses and threats to long-term viability. A number of studies have found partnerships with local communities to be a critical success factor.


Ecotourism market: Attempts to define ecotourists as a distinct set of consumers are constrained by disagreements over the definition of ecotourism itself. For example, many studies consider all visitors to protected areas to be ecotourists. Further study of consumers in general and visitors to protected areas must be undertaken and synthesized to gain a better understanding of the size and composition of the ecotourist market. What is clear is that ecotourists tend to be more environmentally aware and active, have higher levels of education and income, and originate disproportionally from developed countries.

Market segmentation: A considerable body of research attempts to divide ecotourists into distinct subgroups on the assumption that each will have its own unique set of management implications. From a behavioral perspective, a number of variations of the soft and/or hard ecotourist model have been proposed, but this market defies easy categorization. Eubanks et al. (2004) segmented U.S.-based bird watchers into no less than eight subtypes, based on patterns of motivation, behavior, and expenditure. Nontraditional ecotourist markets, such East Asia, where annual visitation to protected areas numbers in the hundreds of millions, have not been studied systematically. Another important, yet understudied, phenomenon is the apparent dominance of females in ecotourism and emerging ecofeminist perspectives.

Interpretation and marketing mediate ecotourism supply and demand.

Interpretation: Interpretation has received considerable attention in the literature because of its role in facilitating visitor learning and satisfaction as well as positively affecting visitor behavior, both on- and off-site. Various case studies have explored how interpretation may effect positive long-term transformations in visitor behavior and how poorly designed interpretation programs might undermine it.

Marketing: Little attention has been paid in the ecotourism literature to core aspects of marketing, such as promotion and advertising. Content analyses by Price (2003) and Lai and Shafer (2005) indicate a serious problem in the industry that warrants further investigation. The former found that ecotourism operators do not effectively convey environmental learning opportunities in their advertising, while the latter found that sustainability practices and credentials of self-proclaimed ecolodges in the Caribbean and Latin America were not featured in the latter’s websites.


Institutions encompasses the formal mechanisms, including government policy and plans, specialized and nonspecialized organizations, and educational programs explicitly focused on ecotourism. Despite increasing institutional influence, only a few studies have addressed this topic. Duffy (2006) describes how the development of ecotourism in Madagascar and, by extension, other lesser developed countries is being increasingly controlled by a growing array of interconnected international environmental organizations, many of which also offer tours and private protected areas. Butcher (2005, 2006) is especially critical of the alleged “neo-populism” of these organizations, whose positions on issues often lack broad community support. The Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism that emerged from the 2002 International Year of Ecotourism is cited as exemplifying this patronizing approach. Another understudied area is the influence and evolution of specialized ecotourism organizations such as TIES and Ecotourism Australia. Research is also lacking on the influence of academic ecotourism programs, which have proliferated.


Ecological impacts: There is a persistent effort to understand the ecological impacts of ecotourism, albeit along two separate trajectories of research. One is a hard scientific path, focused on the effects of viewing on particular wildlife species, and Buckley (2004) provides a useful summary of this research. Despite the importance of this research to the management of the ecotourism experience, almost none of the empirical studies have been undertaken by tourism specialists or are found in specialized tourism journals (one scientific journal—Biological Conservation—accounts for most of the output). Most studies identify distance between ecotourist and wildlife as the critical variable affecting wildlife stress. Contributions from the tourism field tend to be more holistic in perspective, such as Hunter and Shaw’s (2005) study of ecological footprinting (EF) applications in various ecotourism scenarios and the use of case studies in South Africa and Belize to demonstrate the potential of ecotourism to encourage habitat restoration (Blangy & Mehta, 2006). An emerging research theme is the role that volunteer ecotourists can play in the on-site maintenance and enhancement of wildlife habitat. Fennell and Weaver (2005) proposed the establishment of a network of “ecotourisms,” consisting of existing protected areas in which visitors would play a major role in enhancing and rehabilitating park habitat.

Sociocultural impacts: Community-based ecotourism is often touted as a potential vehicle, although not a panacea, for achieving sustainable development through community empowerment. Most studies associate success (commonly defined as the generation and equitable distribution of surplus revenue) with such factors as internal collaboration, external partnerships, secure access to venues, and effective leadership. Almost all studies are based on lesser developed country case studies, often involving Indigenous people and/or ethnographic research methods. An emerging subcluster of studies considers whether empowerment issues are unique to Indigenous cultures and explores ecotourism’s role as a political tool to gain sympathy and endorsement for Indigenous causes, demonstrate long-term Indigenous occupation and use of a particular area, reinforce legal claims on these areas (and other areas beyond their designated reserved land), and achieve greater participation in the management of parks and other sites within those areas. In light of the above, “indigenousness” is a topic that is likely to attract more research within the ecotourism field. Other concerns include community-based ecotourism’s potential to generate internal conflict; exacerbate discrepancies in class, gender, and patronage; and create long-term dependencies on external support. Moreover, it is not always clear who should be properly considered part of the “community.”

Economic impacts: Much of the early ecotourism-related research of the 1970s was concerned with establishing the monetary value of charismatic megafauna. In the early 2000s, a number of studies explored applications of contingent valuation (CV), which assesses the amount a target audience is willing to pay to use or not use a particular environmental service, such as a national park. Using this method, Solomon et al. (2004) determined that manatee protection in Florida is more economically rational than degrading or destroying its habitat to facilitate development due to the economic benefits of ecotourism. A travel cost (TC) variant of this method was used by Menkhaus and Lober (1996) to estimate the willingness of U.S. tourists to visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica, while the CV and TC methods were both used to demonstrate the importance of flamingos in attracting tourists to a national park in Kenya (Navrud & Mungatana, 1994). Wunder (2000) found that the income obtained from ecotourism by Indigenous communities in Ecuador created a conservation incentive. Overviews of economic methodologies for ecotourism planning are provided by Herath (2002) and Lindberg (2001), with the latter emphasizing a number of studies from the 1990s that used input/output analysis to calculate indirect and direct economic benefits. Gössling (1999) introduced the concept of environmental damage costs into cost/benefit analyses of ecotourism to account for the impact of transit-related aircraft emissions on climate change.

Quality control, ethics: Quality control mechanisms help ensure that ecotourism products and services comply with stipulated standards of excellence, grounded in the principles and practices of sustainability. Effective quality control is a crucial means through which the sector can gain legitimacy among consumers. Nevertheless, there is a lack of research on the efficacy of ecotourism certification programs. Similarly, few studies have attempted to identify or quantify the indicators that form the basis for sustainable management. The broader issue of ethics pervades the ecotourism impact literature. As examples, Jaakson (1997) argued for the recognition of a distinctive and pervasive “ethic of ecotourism,” Donohoe and Needham (2006) situated ethics as a core definitional criterion, and Malloy and Fennell (1998) proposed a framework for assessing the ethics of ecotourism organizations. However, research is lacking on how far ethical intentions translate into actual compliance. Other understudied areas include the pervasiveness of “greenwashing,” as well as ethical dilemmas in ecotourism. Buckley’s (2005) study of narwhal watching in the Canadian Arctic, for example, revealed how visitor perceptions of the narwhal as an iconic species conflicted with local norms and consumptive practices.


Regrettably, the literature does not reflect the truism that all ecotourism is profoundly affected by external cultural and geophysical forces. The focus is mainly on ecotourism’s relationship with conventional sea, sand, and sun tourism. Less understood is the relationship between ecotourism and consumptive activities such as recreational hunting and fishing, assuming that the latter do not qualify as ecotourism. Studies of ecotourism’s relationship with other external factors are few and far between. As examples, Ospina (2006) examined the relationship between war and ecotourism in the national parks of Colombia. van Amerom (2006) considered the effects of foreign relations on ecotourism in South Africa, and Yu et al. (1997) described the negative effects of agricultural colonization on an ecolodge in the Amazon region of Peru. In the geophysical realm, Preston-Whyte and Watson (2005) explored the impact of climate change on the ecotourism industry in sub-Saharan Africa.

Source: Adapted from Weaver and Lawton (2007).

Weaver and Lawton (2007) identified three “macro-themes” in the literature:

Expansion of Ecotourism

The expansion, differentiation, and segmentation of ecotourism is occurring along multiple fronts, including products, venues, activities, and markets, such that ecotourism increasingly overlaps with conventional tourism and, although universally nature based, is no longer confined to remote and pristine areas—raising issues of definition, identity, authenticity, and jurisdiction.18

Impacts of Ecotourism

Impact studies follow four separate trajectories of research: effects of viewing on wildlife species’ behavior, potential for community-based models to optimize sociocultural impacts, optimization of ecotourism’s economic impacts, and ethical codes and their efficacy.

North–South Divide

Whereas studies of ecotourism venues and community-based models are dominated by case studies from lesser developed countries, studies of markets, industry, and institutions are overwhelmingly based in more developed countries, as is authorship of most of the ecotourism literature.

Weaver and Lawton (2007) identified four broad understudied areas of ecotourism.

Quality Control Mechanisms and the Pervasiveness of Greenwashing

“Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound” (Kenton, 2022). Anecdotal evidence suggests that greenwashing is pervasive in the ecotourism sector, as unscrupulous operators seek to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally sound products.19 In Video 2, Cécile de Borggraef laments the deceptive business practices encountered during her tour of Central and South America and identifies structural barriers to change, suggesting that travelers care little about environmental impacts in foreign countries. Some scholars argue that contemporary ecotourists are more interested in taking selfies to elevate their status on social media than they are in environmental and social concerns (Beall et al., 2021).

Video 2. Interview with Cécile de Borggraef, ecotourist, on the topic of ‘greenwashing’ (Jackson 2019).

A plethora of ecotourism certification schemes has emerged to help tackle the problem of greenwashing. Widely considered a world leader in ecotourism (Weaver, 2001), Australia launched the world’s first National Ecotourism Accreditation Program in 1996 “to promote ecotourism throughout Australia and its immediate region by creating partnerships, developing and encouraging quality ecotourism experiences and providing the industry with a clear voice.” Renamed “Ecotourism Australia Limited” in 2002, the organization delivers four certification programs for the tourism industry: (a) ECO Certification (replaced National Ecotourism Accreditation Program [NEAP] in 2003), (b) Climate Action (launched in 2008 to encourage all sectors of the tourism industry to develop a climate action plan), (c) Respecting Our Culture (transferred from Aboriginal Tourism Australia in 2008),20 and (d) EcoGuide Certification, which launched in 2000 (Ecotourism Australia, 2020).

Recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (an accrediting body for certification programs) as aligning with its Criteria for Sustainable Tourism, ECO Certification consists of three tiers (Figure 4). Whereas the “Nature Tourism” tier focuses on environmental impact, the “Ecotourism” tier requires interpretation (consistent with TIES’s, 2015 definition of ecotourism), and the “Advanced Ecotourism” tier includes additional requirements, such as a climate action plan.

Figure 4. ECO Certification, Ecotourism Australia Ltd.

Source: Ecotourism Australia website. Copyright 2020 Ecotourism Australia Ltd. In the public domain.

The program’s goal is to help travelers choose an experience that is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. According to Alan Wallish, managing director of Passions of Paradise, an Advanced Ecotourism certified operator at the Great Barrier Reef:

While anecdotal, we believe that passengers are very keen to know about our environmental credentials and our commitment to sustainability. On Trip Advisor, our commitment to sustainability and the environment is mentioned frequently, so we can assume that passengers are noticing it.

(personal communication, March 16, 2020)

Wavelength Reef Cruises, another Advanced Ecotourism certified operator at the Great Barrier Reef, publishes its environmental philosophy on its website (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Wavelength Reef Cruises environmental philosophy.

Source: Wavelength Reef Cruises website. Copyright 2020 by Wavelength Reef Cruises Ltd. In the public domain.

In 2013–2014, the combined annual turnover of all Ecotourism Australia certified tour operators exceeded AUS$1 billion (Ecotourism Australia, 2020).

Ecotourism Australia offers the ECO Destination certification in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific, which allows destinations to demonstrate internationally recognized ecotourism credentials to visitors, stakeholders, and the community (Figure 6). The program combines Ecotourism Australia’s ecotourism criteria with the Green Destinations Standard, a set of criteria to measure, monitor, and improve the sustainability policy and management of destinations and regions.

Figure 6. ECO Destination certification, Ecotourism Australia Ltd.

Source: Ecotourism Australia website. Copyright 2020 Ecotourism Australia Ltd. In the public domain.

Ecotourism Australia also offers the EcoGuide Certification, which provides a professional development framework for tour operators, PA managers, and accredited training providers. Operated in Australia by Savannah Guides, the program assesses generic guiding skills (including knowledge of the tourism industry, roles and responsibilities of a guide, communication skills, safety and risk management, group management, developing and delivering tour activities, and content knowledge) and EcoGuide-specific skills (including minimal impact principles, a commitment to ongoing professional development and respecting Indigenous culture). The goal is to recognize guides who deliver an authentic, environmentally responsible and professional experience.

Research is needed to determine the degree of consistency across different ecotourism certifications at the guide, operator, or destination level, including such factors as criteria, measurement, verification, and cost. For example, whereas Ecotourism Australia grants certification without an on-site external audit (this is conducted within the first 12 months of the date of certification and then every 3 years thereafter), other certification bodies have different requirements.

In 2016, the World Conservation Congress called upon the IUCN’s director general, commissions, and members to “work with existing national, regional and international certification schemes, standards and guidelines focused on ecotourism in order to improve conservation outcomes, including by encouraging the uptake of best practices and the adherence to and strengthening of globally accepted standards,” and “create and deliver training opportunities for ecotourism governance, auditing and certification, and the implementation of best practices for ecotourism development and management.” However, the impact of these resolutions on ecotourism practice is yet to be determined.

The Growing Influence of Institutions

Institutionalization is the process by which a set of activities becomes integrated into a formal system, where new practices become routinized as standard practice (Yin, 1978, as cited in Zida et al., 2018). Australia epitomizes the institutionalization of the ecotourism sector. All of its regional tourism organizations are required to produce comprehensive ecotourism plans, whose purpose is to provide a framework for building a thriving ecotourism industry. For example, launched in 2016, Queensland’s plan describes 36 actions, aligned with five strategic directions: (a) driving innovation in ecotourism experiences, (b) showcasing the world-renowned Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, (c) stimulating investment in new and refurbished ecotourism experiences, (d) expanding authentic Indigenous ecotourism experiences, and (e) promoting Queensland’s world-class ecotourism experiences21 (State of Queensland, 2016).

Queensland’s Department of Innovation, Tourism Industry Development and the Commonwealth Games, in consultation with key landholding agencies (including the Department of Environment and Science), investors, the tourism industry, and other key stakeholders, developed the Queensland Ecotourism Development Toolkit to help ecotourism entrepreneurs navigate planning and environmental regulatory and native title processes when developing ecotourism products and experiences across a range of land tenures in the state. Thus, proposals for ecotourism facilities may require commonwealth, state, and/or local government approvals, depending on location, design, and scale. The key steps in developing and implementing an ecotourism product in Queensland are shown in Figure 7. According to this toolkit,

An important early step is the selection of an appropriate site that showcases the natural and cultural values of the landscape setting, while ensuring its ongoing preservation; that is, the right ecotourism concept, at the right site, run by the right operator (State of Queensland, 2016, p. 10).

Figure 7. Overview of ecotourism development process, Queensland, Australia.

Note: DTP, Destination Tourism Plan; TOPS, Tourism Opportunity Plans. Steps do not always occur sequentially in the order shown. Some steps may run concurrently or at least start prior to completion of an earlier step.

Source: Adapted from Queensland Ecotourism Development Toolkit, by the State of Queensland (2016, p. 10). Copyright 2016 by the State of Queensland. In the public domain.

The process outlined in Figure 6 is dependent on the documentation and approval framework applying to ecotourism facilities in Queensland (Step 8, highlighted in green). Since one of the most important factors affecting the approval processes is land tenure, the Queensland government provides indicative flowcharts of the key steps in the approval processes required to develop ecotourism facilities on freehold, nonprotected areas (unallocated state land, leasehold and reserves) and protected areas (national and conservation parks, state marine parks, declared fish habitat areas, and commonwealth marine parks). For example, Figure 8 shows the key steps in the approval process for facilities in declared fish habitat areas. Since it is not unusual for ecotourism projects to straddle a number of different tenures, in such scenarios, the approval process is complex and involves a wide range of institutions at the local, state, and commonwealth levels.

Figure 8. Approval process for ecotourism facilities in declared fish habitat areas, Queensland, Australia.

Source: From Queensland Ecotourism Development Toolkit, by the State of Queensland (2016, p. 40). Copyright 2016 by the State of Queensland. In the public domain.

Whereas Australia has evolved relatively sophisticated arrangements for guiding ecotourism development, in many countries, ecotourism enterprises are not even formally recognized.

The Ecotourism Industry

There is a dearth of research on the private sector, despite its dominance in all areas except community-based ecotourism and institutions (Weaver & Lawton, 2007). Consequently, ecotourism is approached with a limited understanding of business issues and an incomplete understanding of the management mechanisms needed to help ensure its economic, social, and ecological sustainability. As Drumm et al. (2004) argued,

Conservationists have typically approached eco-tourism with a limited understanding of business issues and an incomplete understanding of the management mechanisms that are available and necessary to ensure the sustainability of tourism in protected areas. Starting points for ecotourism initiatives have typically been guide training programs or lodge construction, which are almost guaranteed to end in failure. (p. 3)22

Wilderness Safaris provides a rare insight into contemporary business issues and management mechanisms by virtue of the fact that this was, for a time, a public company and, as such, was legally bound to keep its shareholders informed of its plans, activities, and results. Awarded the 2019 PricewaterhouseCoopers/Business Botswana Award for Best Published Corporate Report and Accounts and Best CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) program, the company contributed 150 million Botswanan pula (approximately USD $13 million) to local conservation economies in 2018, equivalent to 12% of revenue. The proceeds were invested in employment and training, community development and welfare, concession and park fees, conservation projects, and children’s programs (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Wilderness Holdings’ contribution to local conservation economies.

Source: Provided by Derek de la Harpe, commercial director, Wilderness Holdings (personal communication, October 21, 2019). Copyright 2019 by Wilderness Holdings Limited.

Wilderness Safaris organizes its business according to the “4Cs” (commerce, community, culture, conservation) framework, an approach to ecotourism management pioneered by The Long Run, a nonprofit organization whose ambition is to become the leading global association of private protected areas.

The 4Cs framework provides a concrete way for businesses to internalise sustainability in their operations and decision-making. It recognises the importance of business viability to secure biodiversity conservation and community well-being in the long term. Reciprocally, it emphasises the importance of nature and supportive communities in sustaining nature-based businesses. Members are encouraged and supported to continuously expand their positive impacts on the health of the planet and well-being of people.

As shown in Figure 10, Wilderness Safaris also ties its operations to 15 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Figure 10. Wilderness Holdings’ contributions to UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Source: Wilderness Holdings Limited (2018, pp. 116–118). Copyright 2018 by Wilderness Holdings Limited. In the public domain.

Ecotourism is of growing interest to the global impact investing community. Wild Philanthropy, a charity founded in 2016 by Will Jones to rescue at-risk ecosystems and communities in Africa through purpose-driven travel, is a case in point. Wild Philanthropy works in concert with Journeys by Design, a specialty travel company also founded by Will Jones, whose high net worth clients typically pay approximately $60,000 each for a bespoke African experience, which includes the opportunity to build a personal “conservation legacy,” achieved by pairing them with private conservation projects. As shown in Table 4, Wild Philanthropy and its partners invest in at-risk landscapes that include underperforming, high-potential ecotourism enterprises, encouraging local ownership of those businesses. Figure 11 shows Lale Biwa, a local ecotourism operator and a shareholder of Wild Expeditions Ethiopia. Journeys by Design drives clients to these businesses, whose tax-deductible donations fund local charities.

Table 4. Wild Philanthropy Business Model



(1) Identify at-risk ecosystems and communities across East Africa and the Horn

Case study: Omo Valley, Ethiopia. This is home to a range of communities whose way of life is threatened by the damming of the Omo River for commercial irrigation, including the 370,000-acre Kuraz Sugar Project that led to the eviction and resettlement of three tribes. Downstream, ancient flood cycles are disrupted. Wildlife is being crowded into increasingly small areas, heightening conflicts with people. At least 170,000 people face a crisis unless alternative livelihoods are found.

(2) Invest in and mentor ecotourism enterprise models to trigger revenue flow

Wild Philanthropy, a U.S.-registered public charity and nonprofit organization, identifies underperforming, high-potential ecotourism projects in at-risk areas, such as the Omo Valley.

Wild Enterprise, Wild Philanthropy’s impact investment arm, provides support for ecotourism enterprise in the form of seed capital, marketing, operational and accounting expertise, and general business advice.

For example, in the Omo Valley, Wild Enterprise invested in a camp owned by Lale Biwa, a Kara tribesman and shareholder in a local company established by the impact investment, called Wild Expeditions Ethiopia.

Wild Philanthropy owns the “Golden Share” that prevents Wild Enterprise from deviating from its social mission. Ten percent of Wild Enterprise’s profits are reinvested back into Wild Philanthropy.

Journeys by Design leverages its global database of clients and its international network of travel agents to arrange bespoke “Conservation Journeys,” which combine the classic safari (at places such as Lale’s camp) with opportunities to visit critical conservation zones and meet stakeholders to begin a conservation legacy narrative. All profits from Conservation Journeys are reinvested in Wild Philanthropy.

(3) Provide grants to charitable partners working on high-impact conservation and social projects in targeted, at-risk ecosystems and communities

First-time travelers wanting to engage at a deeper level and build a “conservation legacy” may become members of Wild Philanthropy. Annual donations range from $20,000 to $100,000, often paid from clients’ private foundations. In addition to tax deductions, beneficiaries receive “special access” trips to exclusive locations, personally hosted by Will Jones, founder of Journeys by Design.

Funds are channeled into vetted charities that serve a variety of purposes, including “traditional” conservation and community development work, as well as building new community-led lodges and camps; upgrading existing lodges and camps; investing in vehicles, aircraft, and other infrastructure to bring tour operations up to the highest international standards; increasing staffing and training; marketing to selected agents and private guides; solar pumps for irrigation; and so forth.

(4) Use travel as a mechanism for inspiring and promoting core ecosystems projects to donor travelers

Conservation Journeys are the key to building and sustaining interest and, therefore, investment in at-risk ecosystems. A key ingredient of the model is the opportunity for donors to travel with Wild Philanthropy to experience wilderness and visit projects firsthand.

Source: Based on 2017 Wild Philanthropy brochure and interview with Paul Herbertson, CEO, and Josh Guilmant, governance manager, at Wild Philanthropy UK offices, August 28, 2019.

Figure 11. Lale Biwa, ecotourism operator and shareholder in Wild Expeditions Ethiopia.

Source: Copyright 2019 by Wild Philanthropy.

Little attention has been given to the business models pioneered by the likes of Wilderness Safaris and Wild Philanthropy.24 Research is needed to better understand the safeguards (e.g., asset locks and mission locks) that may be used within an entity’s DNA (articles of association or equivalent legal agreements) to ensure that ecotourism enterprises drive positive social and environmental impact despite, for example, changes in ownership. Research is also needed to understand various funding mechanisms (e.g., social bonds, green bonds, sustainability-linked bonds), the terms and conditions (e.g., tenor of bond, coupon rate, minimum investment requirements), the use of proceeds, and the metrics used to gauge performance.

The conversion of fleeting ecotourist into long-term impact investor-stakeholder is a significant development for ecotourism and host countries alike. Only a handful of African countries have invested sufficiently in protection of their wildlife and in development of appropriate infrastructure to generate significant benefits from wildlife-based tourism (Lindsey et al., 2014, as cited in Lindsey et al., 2017). Globally, annual funding for conservation provided mainly by philanthropic, multilateral, and governmental sources is only approximately $50 billion (Parker et al., 2012, as cited in Martin, 2015), compared to the estimated $300 to $400 billion required (Credit Suisse et al., 2014, as cited in Martin, 2015).

Research is needed to determine the potential downside risks of impact investing schemes. Wild Philanthropy is one of several models combining foreign capital with local ownership in an attempt to mitigate against exploitation by foreign interests, which has long been a topic of debate in the tourism literature. Some critics associate ecotourism with neocolonialism and the perpetuation of economic and political hegemonies (e.g., Hutchins, 2010), although Wondirad et al. (2020) found little evidence of this in practice. Research is needed to explore how the field of impact investing could be democratized to expand the pool of potential participants beyond the high net worth community, to include host populations. With the collapse in international arrivals due to Covid-19 and the shift to domestic tourism, another critical question is whether ecotourism offerings developed for international clients could have the same appeal domestically.25

The Influence of External Environments

Weaver and Lawton (2007) note that while protected areas are implicated in almost all empirical supply-side studies, they have not been systematically studied in their own right. The value of such research is demonstrated by the case of ecotourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In 1993, Héctor Ceballos-Lascurain was hired by the Ecuadorian government to develop an Ecotourism Master Plan for the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, a project funded by GTZ (German Technical Cooperation). In an interview, he suggested that for the first time in the history of Ecuador, oil drilling would cease because ecotourism offered a sustainable alternative.26

Nevertheless, oil exploration continued unabated. Shunned by international lenders following its $3.2 billion debt default in 2008, Ecuador turned to China to finance its ambitious infrastructure development program under President Correa. In mid-2009, PetroChina offered PetroEcuador $1 billion in financing. The following year, Chinese state-controlled firms received around a third of Ecuador’s oil exports, rising to 83% by 2013 (Schneyer et al., 2013).

As shown in Figure 12, as of 2016, 68% of the Ecuadorian Amazon was covered by oil blocks—32% operative and 36% open for bidding (Lessmann et al., 2016). Limoncocha Biological Reserve overlaps 100% with oil blocks, Cofan Bermejo Ecological Reserve overlaps 84%, and Yasuni National Park and Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve—both officially designated “Untouchable Areas”—overlap 45% and 22%, respectively. In Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, the overlapping area exceeds 1,300 km. Scholars continue to explore to what extent ecotourism development provides sufficient economic incentive to preclude ecologically damaging “extractivism” (e.g., Gould, 2017). This is particularly problematic for ecotourism, which tends to thrive in relatively undisturbed areas.

Figure 12. Oil blocks (restructured in 2011) and protected zones in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Note: Oil blocks (restructured in 2011) and protected zones in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Solid gray indicates blocks already operative. Hashed gray indicates southern oil blocks, which are part of the XI Ronda Petrolera. Each oil block shows its identification number, as established by Secretaris de Hidrocarburos del Ecuador in 2013. Public protected areas in the Amazon are Yasuni National Park (Y NP), Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve (C WR), Limoncocha Biological Reserve (L BR), Cofan Bermejo Ecological Reserve (CB ER), El Quimi Biological Reserve (Q BR), El Condor Biological Reserve (C BR), and El Zarza Wildlife Reserve (Z WR).

Source: Adapted from Lessmann et al. (2016). Copyright 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

The larger question is how so-called paper parks may be converted into legitimate protected areas. Whereas the number of PAs has increased 10-fold in the past four decades (Snyman & Bricker, 2019) and now exceeds 200,000 (IUCN, 2016), generating 8 billion visitors annually and contributing more than USD$600 billion to national economies, only USD$10 billion is spent protecting and managing these areas (Balmford et al., 2015). Not only are protected areas in impoverished tropical countries often poorly protected, but they may even be poached with the connivance of corrupt officials (“Freelance Conservationists,” 2001). In this context, although Lawrence et al. (1997, as cited in Weaver & Lawton, 2007) may have been justified in their assertion that ecotourism faced a crisis of legitimacy in terms of its ability to deliver on its promises, its capacity to deliver is often determined by external forces beyond its control.

Weaver and Lawton (2007) summarized the state of the ecotourism literature thus:

The expanding ecotourism literature, therefore, is imbalanced but also fragmented in that particular topical areas are not well informed by or connected to the research in other topical areas or even within a given topic. The ecological impact literature, for example, is not at all linked to the research on socio-cultural impacts as manifested in the community-based ecotourism literature. Neither in turn is connected to the literature on interpretation, the industry, or market segmentation. Fragmentation is also evident in the absence of longitudinal studies or of research that tests outcomes from prior empirical research. Imbalance and fragmentation are characteristics that may persist for multiple reasons, including ‘normative’ factors such as mutual citation cliques, funding priorities, and disciplinary or ideological self-isolation, as well as the simple fact that ecotourism is still in a relative state of adolescence. No extraordinary crisis of credibility or legitimacy is therefore necessarily indicated. Still, it behooves the academic community to proactively address these weaknesses by paying more attention to the neglected topic areas and by encouraging integration and continuity of research within and among all topic areas—in other words, an interdisciplinary approach. (p. 1176)

The apparent gap between ecotourism theory and practice serves only to compound these problems. Weaver and Lawton (2007) called for more research to gauge to what extent practitioners and other decision makers are informed by the expanding ecotourism literature and even whether researchers have addressed questions of importance to the nonacademic community.

Part Two

Among the most important research questions is what factors determine success and failure in ecotourism. Stronza et al. (2019) conducted a review of 30 years of ecotourism research in search of empirical evidence. Consistent with Weaver and Lawton (2007), they found that confusion over definitions continues to plague the field. The root of the problem, they argue, is the erroneous assumption, especially among scholars in ecology and conservation biology, that all tourism that occurs outdoors or somehow involves nature is ecotourism. The inclusion of mislabeled forms of ecotourism in their studies has, they argue, led to the erroneous conclusion that ecotourism has failed to achieve conservation.

In Table 5, Stronza et al. (2019) attempt to distinguish ecotourism from other kinds of nature-based tourism (albeit with not one but two definitions of ecotourism). Ecotourism and conservation tourism are, in their view, the only forms of nature-based tourism that satisfy all four criteria for biodiversity conservation. Moreover, “ecotourism is the one activity specifically designed with proactive concern and intent for channeling revenues from visitors to conservation activities and to enhancing the welfare of local people” (p. 241).

Table 5. Types of Tourism Associated With Conservation, Categorized by Their Predicted Impact on Biodiversity Conservation

Type of Tourism

Conservation Impact







Outdoor recreation

“Experiences that result from recreational activities occurring in natural environments” (Moore & Driver, 2005, p. 11)


Wildlife tourism

“The viewing of, and non-consumptive encounters with, wildlife solely in natural areas” (Newsome et al., 2013, p. 23)


Nature-based tourism

“Any form of tourism which uses natural resources in a wild or undeveloped form” (Fennell, 2008, p. 25)


Pro-poor tourism

“Tourism that generates net benefits for the poor. Benefits may be economic, but they may also be social, environmental or cultural” (Ashley et al., 2001, p. 2)


Responsible tourism

Widely considered a precursor for ecotourism: “(1) minimum environmental impact; (2) minimum impact on—and maximum respect for—host cultures; (3) maximum economic benefits to the host country ‘grassroots’; and (4) maximum ‘recreational’ satisfaction to participating tourists” (Epler Wood et al., 1991)

Sustainable tourism

“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities” (United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2005, p. 12)





“A form of tourism that specifically focuses on geology and landscape. It promotes tourism to geo-sites and the conservation of geodiversity and an understanding of earth sciences through appreciation and learning” (Newsome et al., 2013, p. 25)



“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015)





Ecotourism (academic)

“Sustainable, non-invasive form of nature-based tourism that focuses primarily on learning about nature first-hand, and which is ethically managed to be low impact, non-consumptive, and locally oriented (control, benefits and scale). It typically occurs in natural areas, and should contribute to the conservation of such areas” (Fennell, 2008, p. 24)





Conservation tourism

“Commercial tourism that makes an ecologically significant net positive contribution to the effective conservation of biological diversity” (Buckley, 2010, p. 2)





Note: ED, environmental interpretation and ethics; IL, diversified livelihoods; PA, support for wildlife and protected areas; SI, strengthened resource management institution.

Source: Adapted from Stronza et al. (2019, p. 232). Copyright 2019 by Annual Reviews.

Stronza et al. (2019) identified four ways in which ecotourism benefits biodiversity conservation.

Support for Wildlife and Protected Areas (PA)

In the face of larger commercial and industrial threats, the research suggests a positive influence of ecotourism on endangered species and landscape conservation overall, in comparison with other competing uses of natural resources. A recent global assessment of biodiversity hotspots found that ecotourism is more likely to support conservation when (a) a specific forest conservation mechanism is in place (e.g., protected area, payment for ecosystem service program, or other conservation pledge), (b) there is a spatial boundary delineating the area governed by the conservation mechanism, (c) local families receive direct economic benefits, and (d) community-oriented monitoring and enforcement are strong (Brandt et al., 2018, as cited in Stronza et al., 2019). The survival of many threatened species would not be possible without the direct conservation benefits of the “ecotourism shield,” which often covers an area vastly larger than the spaces where ecotourist–wildlife interactions occur.27 In Video 3, Eric Osterman, one of two naturalists with Ecuador Reptile Adventures, explains several ways in which ecotourism can support wildlife, including the identification of new species for science.

Video 3. Interview with Eric Osterman, guide with Ecuador Reptile Adventures, on the benefits of ecotourism (Jackson 2019).

However, unless sensible and practical measures are taken, flora and fauna may be harmed by our desire to observe and understand them better. As examples, in the United Kingdom, the WiSe Scheme promotes responsible marine wildlife watching through training and accreditation for wildlife cruise operators and others. Visitors to the Galápagos National Park are required to comply with 14 rules, including the requirement to stay within the marked trails at visitor sites and to be accompanied by a licensed Galápagos guide at all times. Figure 13 describes the official rules for visitors, which all visitors are provided with prior to their departure from mainland Ecuador.28 Costa Rica’s National System of Conservation Areas has gone a step further, advocating punitive measures for visitors who stray into prohibited areas.

Figure 13. Galápagos National Park visitor rules.

Source: Copyright 2019 by Parque Nacional Galápagos. In the public domain.

Diversified Livelihoods (IL)

Especially in protected areas whose main goal is the strict conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services (i.e., IUCN categories Ia and Ib), insufficient actions have been taken to mitigate the burdens on local stakeholder groups, such as restricted access to, and use of, natural resources (Zafra-Calvo et al., 2019). In December 2010, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution 65/73, stating that “ecotourism can … contribute to the fight against poverty, the protection of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development.” Notwithstanding Stronza et al.’s (2019) positive impact score for ecotourism along the Diversified Livelihoods dimension in Table 5, empirical support is lacking. According to Ferraro and Hanauer (2014),

The empirical evidence for or against ecotourism’s poverty-reducing powers typically comprises selective accounting of jobs lost and gained, expenditures made, or local prices changed. Such accounting, however, cannot hope to capture the myriad direct and indirect channels through which ecotourism can affect poverty (it will also often capture the effects of other mechanisms). No study has tried to estimate the causal effect on poverty in the communities around protected areas from the additional tourism caused by protection.

Their study’s results suggested that nearly two thirds of the poverty reduction associated with the establishment of Costa Rican protected areas is causally attributable to opportunities afforded by tourism. Other studies have showed how ecotourism can reduce pressure on natural resources and biodiversity, while contributing to a sense of community pride, and in some cases, revitalize ethnic traditions, customs, shared identities, and languages, many of which are tied to intact ecosystems and endemic wildlife species (Stronza et al., 2019). For example, the town of Mindo, a global destination for birdwatching in the Ecuadorian cloud forest, takes pride in its fervent proconservation, antimining ethos, which street artists have made visible (Figure 14).

Figure 14. Antimining street mural, Mindo, Ecuador.

Note: “Sin oro se vive” means, “Without gold you live.” “Sin agua se muere” means, “Without water you die.”

Source: Copyright 2019 by Giles Jackson.

In 2001, Roque Sevilla, formerly mayor of Quito, purchased 3,200 acres of mostly primary growth Chocó forest near Mindo, which was under threat from deforestation and gold mining. For almost a decade, he continued his conservation efforts on the private reserve, whose intrinsic beauty and unique biodiversity compelled him to share it with the world through ecotourism. Sevilla built Mashpi Lodge, now a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World, on the grounds of the defunct sawmill, training local people who once worked as loggers and hunters to staff his lodge instead (Mashpi Lodge, 2017). In 2017, Mashpi Lodge was recognized by the UN Global Compact for its commitment to the conservation of Ecuador’s Choco Bioregion.

In Video 4, Mashpi guide Fernando Arias describes how, compared to subsistence hunting and farming, ecotourism pays better wages for less demanding, more fulfilling work, while also reducing pressure on natural resources and contributing to a sense of community pride. Once people develop a sense of ownership and pride, they can become the first line of defense for conservation (Hiss, 2021).

Video 4. Interview with Fernando Arias, guide at Mashpi Lodge, on the benefits of ecotourism (Jackson 2019).

Conversely, other studies have found that ecotourism failed to curb destructive activities and/or generate a sufficient and/or dependable income stream. In a landmark study, Buckley et al. (2016) concluded that ecotourism does not overcome major conservation threats associated with natural resource extractive industries. Specifically, “In the longer term, for species under threat from extractive industries such as logging or fisheries, ecotourism can only yield an overall conservation gain if those industries are halted.”

Sometimes the impacts on conservation are ambiguous. Stronza (2007, as cited in Stronza et al., 2019) found that while employment in ecotourism led to a general decline in farming and hunting, this new income stream fueled greater market consumption and expansion of agriculture.

Environmental Interpretation and Ethics (ED)

Scholars have explored ways in which interpretation, guiding, and messaging during ecotourism experiences can lead to new attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors, both in destinations and in tourists’ places of origin. Moreover, ecotourism may nurture new or deepened feelings of stewardship and environmental ethics among host destination communities; for example, interactions with outsiders may help build awareness of local resource scarcity. Interestingly, Hunt and Stronza (2011, as cited in Stronza et al., 2019) found that ecotourism employees acquired new environmental concern and stewardship ethics, so much so that they became critical of their own employer’s environmental policies.

Large ecotour operators, such as Lindblad Expeditions, generally follow a coordinated interpretive strategy for their naturalists that defines how specific conservation messages are introduced over the course of the visitor experience (Kohl, 2008). However, according to Black and Weiler (2013), “Given the largely descriptive studies on this topic, little can be concluded regarding exactly how, or well, interpretation facilitates the goals of ecotourism” (p. 347).29 Given that interpretation is among the important factors distinguishing ecotourism from other forms of nature-based tourism, it is striking how little is known about encounters between guide and ecotourist. For example, in a single day, Ecuadorean guide Ivan Suarez covered an extraordinarily wide range of topics, including native Andean cosmology (Video 5), endangered species endemic to the high-altitude Páramo ecosystem (Video 6), and the principles of organic agriculture (Video 7). In his view, the primary goal of interpretation is education; however, this works both ways. “You learn from me; I learn from you. It’s a relationship based on reciprocity” (personal communication, November 7, 2019). The interplay between guide and traveler seems a rich area for cross-disciplinary inquiry, which may, for example, explore the sociocultural, cognitive, and linguistic dimensions of interpreting as an activity and process, as well as its role in operationalizing ecotourism principles.

Video 5. Interview with Ivan Suarez, entrepreneur and guide, on the topic of indigenous cosmology (Jackson 2019).

Video 6. Interview with Ivan Suarez, entrepreneur and guide, on the topic of anthropogenic threats to the Polylepis, a tree endemic to the Andes (Jackson 2019).

Video 7. Interview with Ivan Suarez, entrepreneur and guide, on the principles of organic agriculture (Jackson 2019).

Itinerary design is another promising area for research. For example, Samba Galápagos Islands’ itinerary combines evening dinner lectures aboard the Samba, an expedition vessel (Figure 15) with early morning field excursions (Video 8 captures a rare encounter between a Galápagos hawk and a sea lion and its pup). The evening lectures provide context, help guests assimilate the day’s events, and prepare them for upcoming excursions.

Figure 15. Lecture on the formation of the Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador, by Juan Salcedo, naturalist and operations coordinator aboard Samba.

Source: Copyright 2019 by Giles Jackson.

Video 8. Wildlife encounter between a Galapagos Hawk and a Sea Lion, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador (Jackson 2019).

Article I. Whereas all guests of Samba Galápagos follow the same itinerary, Mashpi Lodge created the position of “Explorations Coordinator,” whose job is to customize itineraries for individual guests and small groups. In Video 9, Gonzalo Espinosa explains how this works in practice.

Video 9. Interview with Gonzalo Espinosa, Explorations Coordinator at Mashpi Lodge, on the topic of individualized guest itineraries (Jackson 2019).

Further research is needed into itinerary design, as well as customer survey design, which often serves as a critical planning input (see, e.g., Figure 16, Samba Comment Card). While some researchers have reported poor response rates from surveys and comments cards in the hospitality and tourism industry generally (e.g., Crotts et al., 2009), anecdotal evidence suggests that response rates for ecotours may be significantly higher on average, reflecting guests’ depth of engagement (Natali Constante, personal communication, November 2, 2019).

Figure 16. Samba comment card.

Source: Copyright 2019 by Samba Galápagos Islands.

Ecotour guides perform a wide variety of roles, including interpreter/educator, information giver, leader, motivator of conservation values/role modeler, social role/catalyst, cultural broker/mediator, navigator/protector, tour and group manager/organizer, public relations/company representative, and facilitator of access to public areas (Black & Ham, 2005, as cited in Black & Weiler, 2013). An important question is the extent to which guides stay current in their field to perform all of these roles effectively. At Mashpi Lodge, a core function of staff scientists is to keep guides abreast of new knowledge (see Video 9).

Moscardo (2013) observed that while it is possible to structure the ecotourism experience in a way that is both safe for wildlife and tourists and sustainable for both the natural environment and host communities, this does not often happen in practice. The Galápagos National Park, which operates among the largest and most comprehensive guide certification programs in the industry, strives to maintain this delicate balance. In Video 10, Natali Constante, a licensed Galápagos National Park guide, explains how the certification process works and describes guides’ role in helping address problems associated with tourism development, notably the scourge of invasive species. Since tourism accelerated in the 1970s, nearly 30 new alien species have been recorded annually, compared to an average of less than one per year for the previous 440 years (Toral-Granda et al., 2017).30

Video 10. Interview with Natali Constante, guide at Galapagos National Park, on the training and activities of park guides. (Jackson, 2019).

Strengthened Resource Management Institutions (SI)

The species, landscapes, communities, habitats, and places at the heart of ecotourism operations are often common pool resources, the management of which must address two basic challenges: exclusion and subtraction. “Exclusion” entails controlling access to potential users, knowing that opening habitats to commercial operators, tourists, and other outsiders inevitably brings problems. “Subtraction” entails preventing single users from diminishing or degrading the resource for all others. By expanding the numbers of users, revenues, and technologies, ecotourism can accelerate subtraction. Ecotourism, however well intentioned, commodifies common pool resources as attractions and destinations, as well as inevitably shifts the ways in which they are used and perceived. Therefore, strong institutions are needed to ensure they are governed and managed sustainably, from wildlife monitoring to establishing rules and sanctioning rule breakers (Stronza et al., 2019).31

Future Directions in Ecotourism Research

Stronza et al. (2019) found that impact studies tend to focus on either ecological or social impacts but rarely both and that research tends to lack time-series data, precluding authors from discerning effects over time, on conservation, levels of biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, local governance, or other indicators. These authors therefore proposed a framework for the rigorous analysis of ecotourism, based on six research principles (Table 6).

Table 6. Types of Tourism Associated With Conservation, Categorized by Their Predicted Impact on Biodiversity Conservation

Research Principle



Define ecotourism

Adhere to accepted definitions

Avoid false equivalency and definition fallacies (“apples and oranges”)

Gather longitudinal data

Panel data; long-term assessment of biodiversity

Understand changes over time on the same criteria with baseline data

Address scale

Test questions at multiple scales using the same methodology; define scale and units of analysis explicitly

Avoid scaling mismatches and identify scaling limits, the fundamental consequences for the interpretations and conclusions drawn from analysis

Measure noneconomic benefits

Shift emphasis from biology and tourist studies to social science in local communities

Noneconomic factors have tremendous influence on conservation institutions, values, and behaviors

Conduct participatory evaluations

Ethnographic research emphasizing emic data, empowering participatory action research approaches

Deepens and expands range of possible variables that will have impact on conservation; enables local monitoring by engaging local residents a priori rather than after the fact

See the larger context

Incorporate broader social-ecological and political ecological systems-level analysis into the study of ecotourism

Avoid “throwing the baby out with bathwater”

Source: Adapted from Stronza et al. (2019, p. 240). Copyright 2019 by Annual Reviews.

The first principle, “define ecotourism,” calls for greater clarity in measurement to enable more rigorous assessments of ecotourism, through adherence to accepted definitions. However, in light of current developments in the field, extant definitions seem outdated. For example, the prevailing emphasis on passive interpretation overlooks ecotourism’s embrace of proactive, practical action—fueled by the convergence of ecotourism with participatory, citizen science. Notable examples include the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program—the world’s largest birding community—and the global Wildbook® program.

Wildbook® is a long-term, multidisciplinary, multi-institution nonprofit project blending structured wildlife research with artificial intelligence, citizen science, and computer vision to speed wildlife population analysis and develop new insights to help mitigate extinction events (Wildbook, 2020). As shown in Figure 17, citizen scientists/ecotourists sit at the center of the Wildbook® ecosystem. Their role is to help the underresourced wildlife research community understand and counter widespread vertebrate losses by collecting and contributing large volumes of wildlife data. For example, over a 22-year period, scientists and ecotourists together recorded 30,000 encounters with 6,000 endangered whale sharks in 54 countries. The platform scaled to hundreds of species by 2021 (Tanya Berger-Wolf, personal communication, November 5, 2020).

The whale shark is an ideal flagship species for citizen science projects because of its charismatic nature, its size, and the associated ecotourism ventures focusing on the species at numerous coastal aggregation sites. . . . Citizen science has been vital in amassing large spatial and temporal data sets to elucidate key aspects of whale shark life history and demographics and will continue to provide substantial long-term value.

Figure 17. Wildbook® ecosystem.

Source: Wildbook® website. Copyright 2020 by Wildbook®.

In Australia, rising threats to the Great Barrier Reef have compelled ecotourism operators, who have the most at stake, to join the Coral Nurture Program. Spearheaded by Dr. Dave Suggett and Dr. Emma Camp of University of Technology Sydney (UTS), in partnership with ecotourism operators and the Australian/Queensland governments, its purpose is to explore solutions that enhance the resilience and recovery of coral communities from the action of stressors such as warmer waters and storm events. Another important goal is to give policymakers confidence that, guided by science, participating operators will remain in regulatory compliance.

The key bottleneck in reef restoration is the slow speed and high cost of outplanting corals nurtured on aluminum frames. Owned and operated by marine scientists Jenny and John Edmondson, Wavelength Reef Cruises developed a faster and more economical method, which was successfully used to propagate and outplant 5,800 coral fragments from 25 nursery frames. The approach is currently being scaled up to different reef sites in partnership with Quicksilver Group, Sailaway, Ocean Free and Ocean Freedom, and Passions of Paradise. From the experiences of these ecotourism operators, standard operating procedures will be developed to guide the program’s future expansion across the reef. According to John Edmonson, as with ecotourism accreditation, if a few key operators find that the exercise is worthwhile, then other tour operators tend to join in. The same principle applies to ecotourism product development. If a few operators find that adding hands-on citizen science projects into the ecotourism experience, such as incorporating some simple outplanting of coral fragments to the reef substrate as part of an environmental dive, then others tend to follow suit. According to Edmonson,

I feel that ecotourism is evolving from (1) sustainable nature-based tourism to (2) more educational and interactive tourism to (3) the next stage, which adds an element of practical action—the opportunity to actually do some good, leaving the environment all the better for the visit. In our case, ecotourism supports adaptation to climate change and maintains or increases live coral cover, which in turn helps maintain fish stocks and ecological health and diversity.

(personal communication, March 20, 2020)

According to the New York Times,

If sustainable tourism, which aims to counterbalance the social and environmental impacts associated with travel, was the aspirational outer limit of ecotourism before the pandemic, the new frontier is ‘regenerative travel,’ or leaving a place better than you found it (Glusac, 2020).

Spearheading this effort is the Future of Tourism Coalition, which developed 13 guiding principles.

Practical action benefits the ecotour operator as much as the ecotourist, who increasingly yearns to be “part of the solution.” Moreover, although unease about the climate implications of air travel has not significantly impacted associations of jet travel with social status (Gössling et al., 2020), “flight shame” is a growing concern that practical action might help travelers psychologically offset. The emphasis in ecotourism on practical action is likely to increase, given “the unequivocal evidence that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs” (WWF, 2020, p. 3). Heightened public awareness of wildlife markets and poaching due to Covid-19 has already boosted advocacy for wildlife protection, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Although scholars have begun to explore the convergence of ecotourism and citizen science (e.g., Currie et al., 2018), what is lacking is a theoretical framework for understanding the different forms that practical, regenerative action may take. Table 7 proposes a simple typology, based on ecotourist involvement (direct or indirect) and duration of engagement (short or long term). Empirical research is needed to compare and contrast practical action strategies around the world. It seems worth exploring how practical action might be incorporated into certification programs, to recognize the commitment and contributions of participating operators.

Table 7. Typology of Practical Action in Ecotourism



Short term

Ecotourist A plants nurtured coral fragments on the Great Barrier Reef substrate as part of an environmental dive

Ecotourist B patronizes Wavelength Reef Cruises, an Advanced Ecotourism certified operator partnering with the Coral Nurture Program

Long term

Ecotourist C completes 18 dives in 8 days with Galápagos Shark Diving; uploads photographs to Wildbook®, returns in subsequent years

Ecotourist D makes a long-term impact investment in Africa through Wild Philanthropy’s conservation legacy planning service

While Buckley (2013) argued that there is no clear demonstration that ecotourism education changes client behavior to any significant degree, insufficient account has been taken of the role of emotion in studies of how ecotourism may promote conservation (Tisdell, 2013). Juan Salcedo,32 naturalist and operations coordinator with Samba Galápagos Islands, argues that emotion is key to the delivery of transformative ecotourism experiences, which, in his opinion, should be the overriding goal of the ecotourism operator.

Why do I do this? I strive to create not only a unique, memorable and joyful experience, but also, a transformative one—transformative in the sense of breaking down the artificial separation between humans and nature, which has caused us to view nature in instrumental terms. Running our business on sustainable principles and helping build a local economy that benefits Galápagos residents are obviously important—which is why we periodically invite local teachers to join our tours who would otherwise never set foot on their own islands. However, positive contributions of this kind are increasingly expected of all tourism enterprises. At its core, ecotourism is about creating meaningful first-hand encounters with nature. Our mission is to educate and inspire, awakening guests to the beauty and fragility of nature, and the existential threat to its existence. This, coupled with the realization that we are part of nature, not outside it, can have a profound and lasting effect. I have heard from former clients who say that their experience with us caused them to re-think what they’re doing with their lives. Never underestimate the transformative power of ecotourism. But it’s only transformative if we make this our goal.

(Juan Salcedo, personal communication, October 12, 2020)33

After decades of discussion, there is still considerable debate and confusion over what the meaning of ecotourism is or what it should be (Cobbinah, 2015). Table 8 proposes several amendments to the TIES (2015) definition, which may help further distinguish ecotourism from other forms of nature-based tourism.

Table 8. TIES Definition of Ecotourism, Amended

TIES Definition (2015)

Proposed Amendment

Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education

Responsible travel to natural areas that educates and inspires through interpretation, ideally paired with practical action, helps conserve the environment and sustain the well-being of local people




“Responsible” encompasses the obligations of the service provider and the values of the ethical traveler.


This definition is meant to distinguish interpretation for guests from education for staff. However, this function is assumed under (1).


This definition overlooks the very real risk of placing the integrity of ecosystems and communities at the whim of the leisure travel market.


Benefits for paying clients are only implied by this definition, not explicitly stated.


Ecotourism’s core mission is to educate and inspire through guided, firsthand encounters with nature.


Ecotourism has embraced opportunities for practical, regenerative action, which should be encouraged.


Ecotourism is best developed as part of a broader, diversified strategy for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ecotourism is no panacea, but it can help.


The second principle, “gather longitudinal data,” derives from an implicit goal of ecotourism: long-term conservation. Longitudinal studies are needed to track patterns and processes related to the presence of ecotourism over time, such as rebounding of wildlife populations, resilience of ecotourism ventures, and the accumulation of negative and positive changes. The pressure for quantification is only likely to increase as ecotourism gains currency in impact investing circles, where financial returns are often tied to measurable, long-term conservation outcomes.

Indicators of direct and indirect effects of ecotourism, either good or bad for conservation, can be measured only with understanding of the same indicators across sites, and also with panel data over time, such as in longitudinal case studies. Such controls allow researchers to evaluate impacts on species, populations, or communities in ecotourism destinations as well as on what happens to visitors’ behaviors during and after travel.

Various studies demonstrate how longitudinal approaches provide greater context for understanding how ecotourism plays out against other economic activities and how ecotourism reverberates within local communities—changing how people think about, use, harvest, protect, or interact with wildlife and other natural resources.

The third principle, “address scale,” recognizes that ecotourism has impacts on multiple scales, scale influences assessments of ecotourism’s value, and, therefore, research questions and answers must be framed at the appropriate scale if one is evaluating ecotourism against its stated goals. Specifically: “Ecological research on effects of ecotourism on biodiversity will benefit from explicit definition of the scale at which studies on flora and fauna are conducted, and careful consideration when extrapolating results, positive or negative, to larger scales” (Stronza et al., 2019, p. 242). Multiscale studies can identify thresholds where ecotourism can provide an “umbrella of protection,” as well as the governance regimes required to sustain it. More research is required to develop the scaling functions of multiple ecotourism ventures, their interactions, and their broader role in conservation.

The fourth principle, “measure noneconomic benefits,” calls on scholars to look beyond economic measures of employment and income to other social, cultural, ecological, and political factors to understand the full value of ecotourism. Social science indicators might include the distribution of economic benefits, provision for land tenure for local residents, and extent to which social impacts align with existing social and cultural aspirations (i.e., build social capital). This is especially important in light of the fact that relatively few studies of ecotourism are conducted at the local level, let alone capture the experiences and perceptions of local residents (Stronza et al., 2019).

The fifth principle, “conduct participatory evaluations,” calls for a shift in research methodology. Until now, research has followed “etic” (i.e., culturally neutral) protocols, whereby scholars, NGOs, conservationists, and/or other external actors define what success means. Participatory analyses, on the other hand, employ “emic” protocols grounded in the subjective and culturally embedded views of participating subjects. This approach entails asking people not just to respond to questions but also to help determine which questions are most relevant to ask, help gather the data, and then help interpret and present the results. “Participation in evaluation can be empowering, as people in local communities represent and express their own experiences with ecotourism, in their own languages, both literal and metaphorical” (Stronza et al., 2019, p. 243).

The sixth principle, “see the larger context,” proceeds from the fact that few, if any, studies make direct comparisons between ecotourism and other economic activities and instead only compare ecotourism’s impacts on wildlife to the absence of human activity. This is a mistake, since the conservation value of ecotourism is particularly high in places where it competes with other economic activities that are more likely to lead to deforestation, endangered species loss, environmental degradation, and reductions in biodiversity. Research that measures the potential impacts of ecotourism relative to other economic activities, modeling or predicting impacts across different spatial and temporal scales, would demonstrate ecotourism’s value as an alternative for rural communities. While ecotourism’s monetary benefits may not offset oil and gas development, mining, and industrial agriculture, studies that address scale, are participatory, and consider nonmonetary valuations will serve to clarify ecotourism’s place in an array of conservation strategies and ideas aimed at reducing the perverse incentives that draw marginalized residents into less sustainable livelihood activities and forms of development that create greater damage to wildlife and ecosystems (Stronza et al., 2019).34

The importance of seeing the larger context has been laid bare by Covid-19, which exposed ecotourism’s limitations as a vehicle for sustainable development. According to Lauren Gilhooly (2020) a postdoctoral researcher at the Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, Malaysia,

The outbreak of COVID-19 has highlighted an inherent flaw in the ecotourism model: Tourism is a reliable source of income—until it isn’t. As the disease has spread, tourism sites throughout Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas have found their revenues nearly eliminated, leaving a staggering number of people under- or unemployed.

This crisis has profoundly affected communities dependent on ecotourism for their livelihood. For example, in Kenya, 74,000 acres of wildlife and ecosystems of the Mara North Conservancy are at risk, making the area vulnerable to poaching, bushmeat hunting and encroachment. According to Spenceley et al. (2021): “A prolonged shut-down could cause irreversible damage because landowners are likely to return to different land uses, and tourism camps would close,” (p. 106). To mitigate the effects of the pandemic, ecotourism companies have deployed extensive relief operations (e.g., Wild Philanthropy’s African Tourism Crisis Fund). Given that Covid-19 is not an aberration but part of a pattern of increasingly frequent epidemics coinciding with urbanization, climate change, globalization, and travel, the question is how best to mitigate against future risk and uncertainty.

Figure 18 provides a unique insight into how Wilderness Holdings, which operates among the most sophisticated risk management systems in the industry, defined matters deemed “material” to its business in 2018, before the pandemic struck. While the company recognized tourism’s unique exposure to a range of uncontrollable forces, communicable diseases was not among them, because this had not been a significant factor in the past. Having generated zero income for several months, the company became dependent on the goodwill of its shareholders (Derek de la Harpe, personal communication, October 1, 2020). A critical strategic question, therefore, is how to make communities more resilient, without undermining ecotourism’s future prospects.35 According to Spenceley et al. (2021),

The only way to make it more robust is to plan for a different type of tourism that is less exploitative, more sustainable and more in tune with the long-term needs of nature, the communities that depend on it, and the tourists themselves. Tourism will remain an economic activity that supports conservation, but more diverse and stable revenues are required to sustain protected area management. Tourism will only thrive if it is adaptable and functions as an essential environmental and social service. This will be possible if it fully integrates the principles of sustainable development, and focuses on equity, inclusiveness and integration better than it has done in the past. (p. 113).36

Figure 18. Wilderness Holdings material matters.

Note: The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) defines materiality as “the threshold at which Aspects become sufficiently important that they should be reported” (cited on p. 24).

Source: Wilderness Holdings Limited (2018, pp. 116–118). Copyright 2018 by Wilderness Holdings Limited. In the public domain.

Space for Giants (SFG), an international conservation organization that works with several African governments to protect the wildlife landscapes that the remaining elephants need to survive and thrive, used to rely on ecotourism as a primary source of income. A major attraction of ecotourism is that it gives biodiversity economic value. The problem is its sensitivity to external shocks. Therefore, SFG is exploring additional ways to generate a sustainable revenue stream from a natural asset portfolio comprising millions of hectares. The challenge is that most of the planet’s natural forestland, biodiversity, and watersheds are significantly undervalued, because the global financial system treats nature as a public good (Brand, 2018). One proposed solution is to revalue these assets based on recognition of the full range of ecosystem services, sociocultural services, and bioeconomy commodities they provide and to monetize them using a range of financial instruments, including carbon offsets and various types of bonds—tied to measurable and verifiable environmental and/or social performance indicators.37 In Audio 1, Stuart Slabbert, director of African conservation investment at SFG, describes this paradigm shift in the development community.

Audio 1. Interview with Stuart Slabbert, Director of African Conservation Investment with NGO Space for Giants. (Jackson, 2020).

According to Farrell and Twining-Ward (2004), researchers, consultants, managers, and stakeholders need to understand tourism as a complex system using integrative and nonlinear approaches. Failing this, “progress will be hampered and results distorted, incomplete and devoid of full meaning. Transdisciplinarity is desirable and interdisciplinarity is essential, with building desperately needed bridges as the goal” (p. 287). The social-ecological systems (SES) framework introduced by Berkes and Folke (1998) and elaborated by Ostrom (2009) and others seems ideally suited to the task. This approach, which focuses on continual interaction between the social and the ecological (Colding & Barthel, 2019, as cited in Durham, 2021), has been applied to tourism settings (see for example Heslinga et al. 2017; Ferguson et al. 2021; Cole & Browne, 2015; Gargallo & Kalvelage, 2020; Tu et al., 2021; Lazzari et al., 2021; Nyaupane et al., 2018; Yaling, 2011; Behjaty & Monfared, 2019). SES research in ecotourism is in its nascent stage, but shows promise (see for example Karst & Nepal, 2019; Palomo & Hernández-Flores, 2019; Choi et al., 2017).


According to the WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report, a deep cultural shift is urgently needed—a wholesale transition to a biocentric society and economic system that values nature. Ecotourism has long been viewed as one positive and practical means by which we can rebalance our relationship with the planet, preserve the earth’s biodiversity, and contribute to a more just, healthy, and prosperous society. Ecotourism is estimated to have an economic value of over USD$100 billion by 2027, driven by the growing need of a rapidly urbanizing world to experience and reconnect with wild nature. Although the research to date has confirmed the conservation value of ecotourism—among the first examples of social enterprise—the empirical evidence is mixed and/or the net economic, social, and environmental contributions of ecotourism have not been fully accounted for. A number of methodological issues need to be addressed, including how ecotourism is to be defined, the scale and scope of research studies, and methods of data collection. Above all, the need for a broadened perspective has been laid bare by Covid-19, which decimated the industry—including even the largest and most established ecotourism enterprises. This has spurred debates on how to ensure community resilience in the face of the inevitable risks and uncertainties to come, from climate change to currency crises, pandemics to civil unrest. Above all, careful planning that recognizes the interconnectedness between stakeholders and sectors must replace ad hoc development.

In the post–Covid-19 era, ecotourism operators will increasingly incorporate opportunities for clients to engage deeply through practical, regenerative action. As ecotourism converges with citizen science, partnerships with the scientific community, charitable foundations, impact investment groups, and host populations will become more significant. More research is needed to illuminate the conditions under which these emerging “impact ecosystems,” which are still in their nascent stage, are likely to flourish. Governments, meanwhile, will require improved indicators and impact measurement systems, updated regulatory strategies, and effective policy mechanisms to garner a greater portion of ecotourism revenue that may then be used to address the chronic and growing global conservation finance deficit. Finally, if ecotourism is to fulfill its potential as a means to help effect the kind of deep cultural shift called for by the World Wildlife Fund, we must recontextualize ecotourism as more than just “travel with a primary interest in the natural history of a destination” (Fennell, 2020).

Further Reading

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  • Brandt, J. S., & Buckley, R. C. (2018). A global systematic review of empirical evidence of ecotourism impacts on forests in biodiversity hotspots. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 32, 112–118.
  • Campbell, L. M. (1999). Ecotourism in rural developing communities. Annals of Tourism Research, 26(3), 534–553.
  • Farrell, B. H., & Twining-Ward, L. (2004). Reconceptualizing tourism. Annals of tourism research, 31(2), 274-295.
  • Fennell, D. (2020). Ecotourism (5th ed.). Routledge.
  • Honey, M. (1999). Who owns paradise? Ecotourism and sustainable development. Island Press.
  • Kiss A. (2004). Is community-based ecotourism a good use of biodiversity conservation funds? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 19(5), 232–237.
  • Krüger O. (2005). The role of ecotourism in conservation: panacea or Pandora’s box? Biodivers Conserv, 14(3), 579–600.
  • Ostrom, E. (2009). A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science, 325(5939), 419–422.
  • Spenceley, A., McCool, S., Newsome, D., Báez, A., Barborak, J., Blye, C., Bricker, K., Cahyadi, H., Corrigan, K., Halpenny, E., Hvenegaard, G., King, D., Leung, Y., Mandić, A., Naidoo, R., Rüede, D., Sano, J., Sarhan, M., Santamaria, V., Sousa, T., & Zschiegner, A. (2021). Tourism in protected and conserved areas amind the Covid-19 Pandemic. Parks, 27(Special Issue), 103–118.
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  • 1. United Nations World Tourism Organization (2005).

  • 2. Allied Market Research (2021).

  • 3. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the Covid-19 pandemic brought the travel and tourism sector to an almost complete standstill in 2020, causing a massive 49.1% drop in revenue, a loss of nearly $4.5 trillion. However, 2022 is poised for a strong recovery if governments continue to open up and remove restrictions to travel. The sector could recover more than 58 million jobs and generate $8.6 trillion.

  • 4. This was the result of a multiple preservation campaigns precipitated by greater urbanization, the closing of the frontier, and the rise of automobile tourism. See Wilderness and the American Mind (Nash, 1967), Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America (Schmitt, 1969), and Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Sutter).

  • 5. Two other books by the Commissioner General of Tourism in Belgium (Haulot, 1974) and the director of the Swiss Tourism Association (Krippendorf, 1975) also espoused the tourism–environment connection.

  • 6. According to Honey (1999), between 1969 and 1979, the World Bank provided approximately $US 450 million in loans for more than twenty large scale tourism projects in developing countries, which proved financially and environmentally disastrous, leading to the closure of the World Bank’s tourism department in 1980. Collectively the World Bank and other multilateral agencies wrote-off approximately $10-$12 billion in poor tourism investments (as cited in Biggs, 2008).

  • 7. See Ross Dowling’s (2013) comprehensive chapter on the history of ecotourism, published in the International Handbook on Ecotourism.

  • 8. In his article “Environment, Tourism, Culture,” Hetzer (1965) identified four fundamental pillars of the nascent “alternative tourism” model: (1) minimum environmental impact; (2) minimum impact on—and maximum respect for—host cultures; (3) maximum economic benefits to the host country, especially its grassroots community; and (4) maximum “recreational” satisfaction to participating tourists (Fennell, 2012).

  • 9. In 2004, Lindblad and National Geographic joined forces. Five Lindblad expedition ships now carry the National Geographic name, each serving as a platform for tourists to visit field sites, accompanied by National Geographic certified photographers, writers, field researchers, and film crews (National Geographic, 2020).

  • 10. In 1974, he received the Conservation Award of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.

  • 11. The travel trade plays a critical role in generating business for ecotourism camps and lodges, but as Trent (2000) observed, the contribution of outbound and inbound tour operators is rarely recognized in the literature (outbound tour operators are located in tourism-generating countries, whereas inbound tour operators receive the tourists and operate tours in destination countries).

  • 12. Buckley (2003, as cited in Buckley, 2013) reviewed around 170 case studies in ecotourism and found regional signatures, with different product characteristics more prevalent in different continents and ecosystems. “Private lodges and reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, focus on four-wheel- drive game drives, whereas those in the dense rainforests of the Amazon Basin focus on boat trips, canopy towers and birdwatching” (p. 12).

  • 13. The 1992 Earth Summit led to the adoption of Agenda 21, a comprehensive program of action adopted by 182 governments to provide a global blueprint for achieving sustainable development, and in 1996, travel and tourism became the first industry sector to launch an industry-specific action plan based on Agenda 21.

  • 14. According to Brandon (1996), a number of criteria had to be met for an area to achieve true ecotourism status. First, ecotourism sites must be competitive (i.e., must be unique and be able to attract visitors). Second, protected area authorities must have the capacity and jurisdictional mandates to design and implement sustainable ecotourism consistent with protected area objectives. Third, fees must be collected and must reflect the management costs of tourism and/or site protection, and pricing should reflect both equity issues (e.g., via multitier user fee structures) as well as global market rates. Fourth, such revenues should first be distributed to the parks where collected, with leftover funds applied toward priorities in overall biodiversity conservation in the country.

  • 15. Bruce Poon Tip also founded G Adventures, which offers the Jane Goodall Collection of 20 wildlife-focused tours across the world, endorsed by the ethologist, Dr. Jane Goodall.

  • 16. According to the theory of island biogeography introduced by E. O. Wilson and colleagues in the 1960s, the crucial factor in the life and death of species is the amount of available habitat. “As habitats are reduced in size, the diversity within them declines to a mathematically predictable degree swiftly, often immediately and, for a large number, forever” (E. O. Wilson Foundation, 2019). Regrettably, Kiss’s observation that areas conserved by ecotourism may not be large enough has not been addressed in the literature.

  • 17. Similar critiques have been leveled at ecotourism symposia over the years. For example, the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism (the result of the 2002 UN World Tourism Organization Ecotourism Summit) is cited as embodying a patronizing approach (Weaver & Lawton, 2007).

  • 18. Sutherland (2013) observed that threats to the sustainability of natural protected areas created the need for consideration of other settings and experiences for ecotourism, such as botanic gardens, which complement and add value to the ecotourism experience at other ecotourism sites, as well as help reinforce received conservation messages.

  • 19. The Mohonk Agreement (2000) proposed minimum standards for ecotourism, but the challenge always seems to lie in operationalizing such resolutions.

  • 20. There is no substantive record of the losses incurred by Indigenous peoples due to appropriation of their land, cultures, and cultural practices by ecotourism (Johnston, 2005, as cited in White et al., 2013).

  • 21. Queensland adheres to the following (World Tourism Organization’s) definition of ecotourism: “All nature-based forms of tourism in which the main motivation of the tourists is the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.” Specifically, ecotourism exhibits the following characteristics:


    It contains educational and interpretation features.


    It is generally, but not exclusively organized by specialized tour operators for small groups (service provider partners at the destinations tend to be small, locally owned businesses).


    It minimizes negative impacts on the natural and sociocultural environment.


    It supports the maintenance of natural areas, which are used as ecotourism attractions by generating economic benefits for host communities, organizations, and authorities managing natural areas with conservation purposes; providing alternative employment and income opportunities for local communities; and increasing awareness toward the conservation of natural and cultural assets, among both locals and tourists.

  • 22. Ecotourism initiatives are embraced with the expectation that they will give economic value to ecosystem services, generate direct income for conservation and indirect income for local stakeholders, build constituencies for conservation, promote the sustainable use of natural resources, and reduce threats to biodiversity. Too often, these expectations are unfulfilled. Ecotourism activities become a drain on scarce NGO and protected area resources as projects struggle to reach a break-even point, NGOs and protected areas are pulled away from their central conservation mission, and tourism destroys the natural assets that originally drew visitors. In 2001, The Nature Conservancy launched its Conservation by Design framework to help ecotourism planners and protected area managers understand the distinct but intimately interrelated aspects of ecotourism, conservation management, and business development and develop and execute a comprehensive Ecotourism Management Plan.

  • 23. The 4Cs framework is an example of triple bottom line thinking. See Dwyer and Edwards (2013) for an in-depth discussion of this concept in an ecotourism context.

  • 24. Other African safari companies demonstrating a long-term commitment to community, wildlife, and corporate transparency include Volcanoes Safaris, one of the original pioneers of gorilla ecotourism; Il Ngwesi, owned and run by a Maasai community; Nomad Tanzania; and the Congo Conservation Company (Roberts, 2020).

  • 25. Fred Swaniker, cofounder of the African Leadership Group, has called upon Africans to take greater control of their assets. “The safari experience designed as a colonial experience—in the style of the hunters who came 100 years ago—doesn’t speak to middle class Africans today” (Roberts, 2020).

  • 26. The following passage is no longer accessible online: “For the first time in the history of Ecuador, oil exploitation has been stopped by providing more sustainable options for future development through ecotourism. Today, the Cuyabeno Reserve is one of the most popular ecotourism destinations of Ecuador and provides considerable foreign exchange to the country, as well as jobs and socioeconomic benefits to the indigenous communities in the reserve. Ecotourism is proving to be a viable tool for conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of that important Amazonian area” (Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin).

  • 27. These areas are expanding due to the proliferation of “crossover conservation” initiatives, broad coalitions such as the Global Deal for Nature, the Network for Landscape Conservation, the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, The Wildlands Network, the Half Earth Project, and Nature Needs Half. The tasks everywhere are the same: “Protect what survives; repair what’s been damaged; connect places that have been severed; collaborate as never before; and make the whole effort personal by bringing the natural world back into people’s daily lives, wherever they are” (Hiss, 2021, p. 275).

  • 28. Newsome and Rodger (2013) explored whether it is possible for any types of feeding of wildlife to be considered acceptable practice in ecotourism.

  • 29. Much of the research has explored the principles of effective interpretation (e.g., Moscardo et al., 2007, as cited in Moscardo, 2013), but empirical research into how interpretation is actually practiced is lacking.

  • 30. In The International Handbook of Ecotourism (Ballantyne & Packer, 2013), C. Michael Hall and Tim Baird investigate this issue in depth and conclude that there is a real need for greater research on not only the relationships between tourism and biological invasion but also the development of effective strategies to seek to prevent it.

  • 31. See Elinor Ostrom’s design principles for resilient institutions for the management of common pool resources. Cox et al. (2010) reviewed 91 studies that empirically evaluated these principles and found them to be well supported.

  • 32. According to Hugh Rose, a renowned wildlife photographer, “Juan holds the top level credentials for a Galápagos guide. I have worked with Juan on many trips and know him to be the best guide I have ever worked with in the Galápagos! Juan makes it possible for us to be on shore early in the morning before the heat and when the light is best for photography and late in the day as the last rays of sunset light illuminate our subjects and wildlife is at its most active. Juan’s passion and enthusiasm for everything Galápagos is contagious and makes him the top naturalist in the Islands.”

  • 33. Ballantyne and Packer (2013, as cited in Falk & Staus, 2013, p. 164) argued that the tourism industry has the responsibility to engage visitors in powerful and transformative learning experiences, both during and after their visit. Staus and Falk (2013) called for further research into the complex relationship between the affective and cognitive dimensions of visitor experiences as a basis for more effective interpretive programming. Curtin (2013) argued that “emotional affinity, compassion, feelings of connectivity and flow are most likely to be inspired by experiences that are multisensory and that allow time for contemplation, reflection and education” (pp. 212–213).

  • 34. Spenceley and Manning (2013) provide an excellent discussion of the principles of good ecotourism planning processes for rural development at both the destination and enterprise levels.

  • 35. A 2021 report by the Luc Hoffman Institute outlines the challenges facing the nature-based tourism sector and offers recommendations for future resilience and sustainability. Another report published by the World Bank makes the case that the promotion of sustainable tourism in protected areas should be actively included in Covid-19 economic recovery plans.

  • 36. According to Spenceley et al., the IUCN Best Practice Guidelines online directory, and major knowledge-sharing platforms, such as Panorama Solutions and the World Bank’s Nature-based Tourism Tools and Resources Collection offer innovative ways in which the crucial role of protected area tourism in conservation and community development may be recovered in the post-pandemic world.

  • 37. In Zambia, BioCarbon Partners forms habitat protection agreements with local communities and then sells verified forest carbon offsets to provide an alternative income stream (Roberts, 2020). “We’re helping to create one of Africa’s largest migration corridors, by protecting the habitat linking 5 National Parks in Zambia to conserve biodiversity connectivity for Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique” (