The Challenge of Ecotourism: A Call for Higher Standards
by John Shores
This essay was first published in 1995.
One of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism business
is nature-oriented tourism. The travel industry has enlisted
the support of environmental organizations and park agencies
and is promoting nature travel as the hottest "environmentally
correct" activity available. But is ecotourism the panacea these
promoters claim? The author argues that ecotourism really means
environmentally sound tourism. The definition must be sufficiently
rigorous to create a goal that challenges tour operators, park
officials, and the traveling public. The definitions in popular
use are too lax and may foster the false idea that a trip or
tour is environmentally benign when in fact it is destructive
of the local, regional, and global environments. The solution
is to establish a 0-5 scale to classify the stages of ecotourism,
much like the difficulty scales used to classify whitewater
rafting or technical climbing. The author proposes preliminary
criteria for defining the Ecotourism Level (EL) of different
stages in the greening of the travel system.
Tourism is one of the growth sectors of the global economy.
In the developing countries, tourism of all types contributes
roughly US$ 50 billion annually. (Anon 1989) Even in the current
period of widespread economic recession and depression, tourism
has remained surprisingly strong.
Under the broad umbrella of tourism, one of the hottest segments
is travel with nature as a principal objective. Known under
a variety of names, nature-based tourism is promoted by the
travel industry as a unique opportunity to see and experience
natural environments and local customs in ways not available
to participants in mass tourism.
Nature tourism is developing a popular following. It is touted
by some of its champions as a solution to chronic underfunding
of national parks and other protected areas. Others see it as
one of the central elements in sustainable economic development.
It is promoted as a panacea much the way the green revolution
was promoted in recent decades. Nature tourism is supposed to
attract foreign investment in the "smokeless" tourist industry;
bring national and international tourists to visit natural and
cultural sites; provide local employment for rural populations;
preserve ecosystems and cultures; and generally solve the ecological,
economic, social, and political woes that hinder sustainable
But is this realistic?
2. The Rainbow of Definitions for Nature-Based
Nature-based tourism encompasses a broad spectrum of activities
and enterprises. The lack of generally accepted definitions
has hindered our abilities to identify and analyze nature tourism
and its many variations.
1: The Rainbow of Nature-Based Tourism
Any travel during which the traveler
views or appreciates the green environment.
Travel in which nature is the central
value rather than an after-thought.
Travel organized to provide appreciable
financial support for the protection of the green environment
visited or enjoyed.
Travel in which the traveler personally
engages in activities that support conservation or restoration.
Travel in which all activities are
From a review of travel industry advertising, we might conclude
that nature-based tourism is any travel that includes viewing
or appreciating elements of the green environment. The travel
has a green component as one of its values or attractions. This
definition is so broad that almost any travel would qualify,
as long as something green was seen along the way. This might
best be termed "incidental" nature-based travel.
Another definition of nature-based tourism is linked to the
motives of the traveler:
"Traveling to relatively undisturbed or
uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of
studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants
and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations
(both past and present) found in these areas." (Ceballos-Lascurain
This definition focuses on the motives of the traveler, but
fails to consider the impact this travel may have on the site
or culture visited. As one author has pointed out, "[T]ourists
can destroy what attracts them, the very qualities that make
a place special." (Reilly 1978)
Travelers who want to select and support truly "green" tours
need clear and reasonable terms to distinguish among different
advertising claims. Today the traveler is faced with a variety
of offers for nature-based tourism.
3. Current Usage of "Ecotourism"
"Ecotourism" today unfortunately is used as an all-inclusive
term. People are using the term so loosely that nearly all travel
qualifies. The goal posts are spread so far that every attempt
scores a goal. This adversely affects protected areas and biodiversity
in several ways.
Continued use of all-encompassing definitions in the nature-tourism
arena weakens the power of the concept, contributes to ambiguity,
and encourages misuse and abuse of the idea. Precise definitions
will allow us to communicate with requisite accuracy among ourselves
and communicate with authority to the broader traveling public.
Both are important if the concept of nature-based tourism is
to make a meaningful contribution to the conservation of protected
During the past two decades, it has become increasingly popular
to be "green." Hoping to take advantage of this wave of popularity,
some individuals and organizations have begun to advertise their
products and services as environmentally friendly. Unless the
consumer or traveling public is much more informed and motivated
to choose appropriately, green stamps or green seals will not
have any meaning. Worse yet, the label may be used to deceive
the traveling public.
It is in the best interests of local communities, the travel
industry, and protected area practitioners that green stamps
and labels be adopted, that these endorsements have precise
requirements, that the requirements be respected, and that the
public be informed and motivated to insist on compliance. A
few examples will show the range of these benefits. Communities
will benefit because local impacts of nature-based travel will
be benign. The travel industry will benefit because an attractive
market segment will have products that can be differentiated
and sold at a premium. Protected area practitioners will benefit
because the visiting public will have less of a negative impact
on resources and broader public support for protected areas
will come from these travelers once they return home.
4. Bringing Ecology Back Into Ecotourism
How can we ensure that the concept of ecotourism develops along
this beneficial path? The prefix "eco" that we hang on tourism
comes from the Greek word oîkos meaning "house." It is
the same prefix we use on economics and ecology. In the case
of ecotourism, the immediate origin should be the word "ecology"
if we are to reclaim the term and support it with strength and
Ecotourism means quite simply "ecologically sound tourism"
or "ecologically sensitive tourism." The same amount of caring
we would afford our own home is implied. Ecotourism is "tourism
to the house or home." All of the attention and maintenance
that a homeowner puts into a house should be the amount of care
we put into tourism. The ecotourist must care for the place
visited as much as she or he cares for and appreciates home.
Are there efforts under way to set standards? The vast and
decentralized travel industry is not easily controlled, but
a few leaders among its members have become strong supporters
of standard setting and voluntary compliance. Some of the earliest
efforts were by tour operators sensitive to the problems of
local participation in nature travel.
Journeys International, a tour organizer operating out of Ann
Arbor, Michigan, established the Earth Preservation Fund and
directed 10% of all ground costs into the fund. Proceeds were
used to finance conservation activities in the countries visited
by Journeys. The fund has supported efforts such as tree planting
and environmental sanitation and clean-up.
One of the early efforts at guidelines for nature travel was
the National Audubon Society's "Travel Ethic for Environmentally
Responsible Travel"©. Audubon promotes these
guidelines as the rules for its tours and urges all tour operators
to adopt them as goals. The seven major points deal with wildlife,
sustainability, waste disposal, environmental appreciation,
strengthening local conservation, respecting bans on trade in
endangered species, and respect for the cultures visited. The
ethic has been copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without
written permission from the National Audubon Society.
The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) has developed
similar guidelines in association with Club Med®.
Ten Commandments on Ecotourism
"Whether you are traveling on business, pleasure, or
a bit of both, all the citizens of the world, present
and future, would be grateful if you would respect the
ten commandments of world travel:
Respect the frailty of the Earth
Leave only footprints. Take only pictures.
To make your travels more meaningful,
educate yourself about the geography, customs, manners,
and cultures of the region you visit.
Respect the privacy and dignity of
Do not buy products made from endangered
plants or animals.
Always follow designated trails.
Learn about and support conservation-oriented
programs and organizations working to preserve the environment.
Whenever possible, walk or utilize
environmentally sound methods of transportation.
Patronize those members of the travel
industry who advance energy and environmental conservation;
water and air quality; recycling; safe management of waste
and toxic materials; noise abatement; community involvement;
and which provide experienced, well-trained staff dedicated
to strong principles of conservation.
Ask your ASTA travel agent to identify
those organizations which subscribe to ASTA Environmental
Guidelines for air, land, and sea travel."
The time has come for establishing criteria that focus on the
conservation of the resources, both cultural and natural. The
standards must be clear and defined in steps or phases so that
travelers can make rational choices among tours and operators.
Unless the conservation community takes the lead in insisting
on rigor in the definitions, they will quickly deteriorate to
the least common denominator -- and anything green will qualify
5. The Proposed Scale of Ecotourism:
Ecotourism Levels 0 - 5
What the industry needs and the public must demand is a ruler
for measuring the impact of tourism on natural and cultural
resources. Although there can be many motives for a trip, travelers
are not in the habit of conducting an environmental impact assessment
for each part. Eventually we can define the different types
of tourism and the impacts they cause. For a start, I have proposed
a scale for classifying nature-based travel. The scale measures
the level of achievement according to the principles of ecotourism.
The scale is not strictly cumulative. Different levels of the
ecotourism scale in some cases measure different attributes
rather than increasing or decreasing amounts of the same attribute.
For example, Level 1 involves net financial flow of support
from the traveler to the site visited. Level 2 involves a separate
attribute, personal commitment.
The scale is still in a preliminary phase of development and
is presented as an example of the kind of cooperative effort
that will involve travelers, tour operators, local communities,
3: The Ecotourism Levels
The beginning (zero) level of ecotourism
requires that the travelers be exposed to or made aware
of the fragility of the ecosystems they have come to enjoy.
This is the very lowest "awareness" threshold. Incidental
nature travel would usually qualify at this level.
Level 1 ecotourism requires that a
net positive flow of monetary support occur between the
traveling ecotourist and the ecosystems visited. Financial
earmarks, whether airport departure taxes or designations
of a portion of land travel costs, would qualify at this
Level 2 requires that the ecotourist
engage in a personal way in supporting the environment.
Some ecotourists have planted trees, others have participated
in litter cleanups.
Qualifying at Level 3 requires certifying
that the specific tour system is benign to the environment.
The system should include the international air travel
as well as on-site transport and accommodation. Level
3 requires demonstrating that the net effect of the traveler's
presence is neutral or positive.
Level 4 requires demonstrating that
the net effect of the travelers is positive. On-site efforts
to use appropriate technology, low energy consumption,
recycling, organic agriculture, sustainable harvesting
methods, and make a personal contribution to ecosystem
restoration can be used to balance less environmentally
benign aspects of the larger travel system that might
involve air travel, stays in luxury hotels, and excessive
A perfect "5" in ecotourism would
be a trip where the entire system was operating in an
environmentally sound way. This means that the trip advertising,
transport, accommodation, and treatment of residual products
must all be considered.
Level 5 should be the ultimate goal for ecotourism supporters,
whether they are tour operators, the traveling public, or the
resource management agencies. No deluge of third-class mail
solicitations, no advertising in non-recyclable magazines. Transportation
must be environmentally benign (no Concordes, limited use of
petroleum products -- in fact, maybe only solar and animal transport
would qualify, other than walking and swimming). On-site accommodations
and all visitor and staff activities must be benign to the environment.
Heating and air-conditioning would be solar and low-impact.
Foods and souvenirs would be produced in sustainable ways. All
residual products would have to be handled in a benign way.
Sewage containment and treatment would be an absolute requirement.
Used products would be recycled, soaps and cleaning solutions
would be biodegradable, and non-degradation of the environment
would be the standard.
6. The Ecotourism Challenge to Tour Operators,
Park Agencies, and Others
Tour operators and resource management agencies must come together
to ensure enviro-centric travel and use in national parks and
their surrounding lands. Several efforts are needed. Park managers
need to develop clear criteria for setting the limits of acceptable
change for each ecosystem. Local communities, resource industries,
tour operators, and national environmental organizations will
each have viewpoints to consider.
Tour operators need to learn enough about the ecosystems they
visit to understand the need for restrictions and limits. This
same information can be used to enrich the visitor experience,
Local communities need to be encouraged to take the long view
in selecting a development path for their landscape and their
economy. They may find partners in development and conservation
by inviting the environmental groups to work with them to find
solutions and the capital to make them happen.
Environmental organizations have the challenge of ensuring
the objectiveness of the policy environment, where each interest
group may hold a set of values very different from the next
group. Promoting dialogue and facilitating conflict reduction
will be continuing challenges. Providing independent analysis
of official data, and independent data collection when the official
data are in question, are also roles for the environmental organizations.
7. What the Traveling Public Can Do
The challenge of ecotourism depends on the traveling public.
Through voting with dollars and pressuring with votes, the traveler
can change the way the travel business treats natural areas.
The first step is to be an informed traveler.
Make the effort to collect information before you travel, not
just about the air fares and accommodations, but maps, guidebooks,
history books, and field guides about the places you intend
to visit. Get detailed information from your tour operator.
Find out about the travel and lodging arrangements.
Find out if your tour operator adheres to a set of standards
or code of ethics. Are these environmentally friendly? Do all
of the links in the travel chain also adhere? Can you find and
patronize an operator that follows the minimum disturbance approach?
Ask how food is purchased and how waste is disposed. This is
a good time to ask about special dietary requirements such as
organic or vegetarian food stuffs. Are non-plastic, low-energy
alternatives used? Is glass and aluminum recycled?
How many people will be in your tour? How many other groups
will be in the site or vicinity? Some parks and reserves have
established limits for visitors overall or during certain seasons.
Does the tour use animal labor such as riding or pack animals?
How are these animals treated? How is wildlife treated?
There is a certain amount of truth in the cliché "take
nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints." Yet
today we may ask that eco-travelers leave even less. Stay on
marked trails and avoid shortcuts that create paths for erosion
or soil compaction -- politely called "social trails" but actually
very real disturbances in fragile ecosystems. And unless you
have reliable information to the contrary, avoid picking wild
fruits and flowers and do not collect souvenirs. In fact, some
articles of natural and cultural heritage should not be touched:
rock and cave art, friezes, carvings, and other monuments may
be harmed by dermal oils or even excessive carbon dioxide. Wildlife
may be harmed or patterns disrupted by getting too close. Young
can be particularly vulnerable and should not be approached
if there is any doubt.
Become an eco-traveler who slows down and spends more time
studying and learning about one place. This will not only increase
your level of enjoyment, but decrease your travel costs and
probably contribute less carbon and ozone to global climate
Perhaps most important, vote with your money. Support the operators
who adhere to high standards and admonish the others to do better.
The tour operators must be competitive to survive, but the eco-traveler
can endeavor to see that only the green survive, and that the
very greenest prosper.
Ensuring that nature-based travel establishes and maintains
high standards will be a challenge for all parties. The roles
are different for each player, but together they can find the
ecologically sensitive and economically viable methods and practices
that will ensure survival of the attractions of nature and culture,
without harming the resources. These endeavors will be worthy
of the label "ecotourism" at Levels 4 and 5, and the travelers
who participate will be true ecotourists. Will the parties see
their ways to adhere to the highest principles and standards
of ecotourism? Or will mass tourism overtake the site and result
in the demise of this goose that lays golden eggs. The choice
is ours to make, as travelers and as stewards for this Earth.
John Shores lives in San Jose, California and works as a consultant
and advisor to government agencies, environmental groups and
small businesses. His work focuses on ecotourism, environmental
funds, parks and protected areas, park finance, NGO development.
Check out John Shore's personal website
Anon. 1989. "Riding the tourist boom," South, August 1989,
Boo, Elizabeth. 1990. Ecotourism: the potentials and pitfalls.
2 vols. World Wildlife Fund, Washington DC.
Ceballos-Lascurain, Hector. 1987. "Estudio de prefactibilidad
socioeconómica del turismo ecológico y anteproyecto
arquitectónico y urbanístico del Centro de Turismo
Ecológico de Sian Ka'an, Quintana Roo." (Unpublished)
study conducted for SEDUE, Mexico. (in Boo 1990)
Reilly, William K. 1978. "Introduction" in Bosselman, Fred
P. 1978. In the wake of the tourist: managing special places
in eight countries. The Conservation Foundation, Washington
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