Travelling responsibly: the issues facing ecotourism


Since the International Year of Ecotourism, in 2002, ecotourism initiatives have multiplied. The concept has become more visible, and the figure of the responsible and committed tourist has emerged. But ecotourism still needs to become more credible and easier if it is to attract the masses.


The annual Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC) took place in Brazil in April. It explored practical solutions to advance the tourism industry’s sustainability goals. The issue has been gaining prominence since the early 1970s. Tourism has been one of the world’s fastest-growing industries over the past 40 years. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, international tourism will generate $1.4 trillion in export earnings in 2014. It represents an economic opportunity, and sometimes even a necessity, for local populations and authorities. But mass tourism also poses threats, for instance its negative impact on the environment and its capacity to transform the cities and landscapes into “amusement parks” that leave the locals out of the consumption feast. This is why the past 40 years have seen efforts to make tourism more responsible and inclusive developing too.

A form of sustainable tourism

Ecotourism is one of the concepts that have emerged from this process. According to Jonathan Tardiff, researcher at the University of Quebec’s Institute of Environmental Sciences, the idea appeared as the environmental movement was structured, in the 1970s. He attributes the first principles of ecotourism to Gerardo Budowski, then interim Director-General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources – IUCN, who wrote in 1976 in an article entitled “Tourism and Environmental Conservation: Conflict, Coexistence or Symbiosis? that

“a change of attitude, leading to a symbiotic relationship between tourism and conservation in the wide sense, can offer a very large variety of advantages and benefits – physical, cultural, ethical, and economic -to a country.”

In 1987, Mexican architect Hector Ceballos Lascurain gave the first formal definition of ecotourism, highlighting tourists’ quest for closeness with nature. The path to a theorisation of the concept began to be drawn, until it was institutionalised by the International Ecotourism Society (IES), the world’s first international non-profit organisation dedicated to ecotourism as a tool for conservation and sustainable development, in 1990. The IES defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” This definition incorporates the notion of sustainable development and intends to make tourism an effective tool for development while protecting the environment.

Yet, it is still complicated to distinguish ecotourism from other types of responsible tourism. According to the IES, it is a form of sustainable tourism that aims to extend its positive impacts through a special focus on conservation, benefits for host populations and the education of visitors. To be more precise, according to Olivier Dehoorne and Anne-Laure Transler, researchers at the University of the West Indies and Guiana, ecotourism meets six distinctive characteristics:

–  It protects and respects the host country’s nature and culture

– It contributes to the well-being of the host population, improving their living conditions and diversifying their sources of income, especially in the case of under-developed countries;

– Tourists are responsible, which means they care about the place they visit, and grateful for it;

– Local populations are involved in the decision process shaping the regional tourism plan;

– Ecotourism is sustainable, meaning that it is beneficial to the conservation of the space and the local community. It is also economically sustainable, i.e. it makes businesses profitable for the owners, their employees and local citizens;

– It is based on the art of meeting and sharing.

Pascal Langillon, President of the French Association of Ecotourism, insists on the fact that ecotourism applies to holidays and could be called “humanist travelling, not humanitarian work.” “The difference between the ecotourist and the ecovolunteer is that the former is involved by the way his money is used, whereas the latter actively participates in the construction of a well, of a school, etc.” So, ecotourism can appeal to travellers who want to holiday responsibly without participating actively in a project.


Costa Rica: a model for ecotourism?

Because they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the main places where ecotourism develops are protected and fragile areas. Costa Rica is one of the pioneers: recognised for its rich tropical landscapes, it was one the first countries to develop ecotourism, following a crisis in its traditional resources (coffee and bananas) in the 1980’s.

In 1995, the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism supported the creation of national parks with an ambition to link nature conservation and higher tourist numbers. It also initiated a “Strategic Plan for Sustainable Touristic Development 1993-1998” based on the government’s political will to use tourism as a tool for development.

Costa Rica was also a pioneer in the certification process: in 1996, it started participating in the world programme for the Certification of Sustainable Tourism. A year later, the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism adopted its own label for responsible tourism, which assesses tourism companies on five criteria: relationship with the environment; water, energy and waste saving policies; consideration for endogenous and exogenous elements in building a tourism product suited to the needs of the country; client participation and interaction between the company and the local population. Costa Rica also recently created a “Green Court” which can block projects suspected of affecting the environment.

This series of initiatives has made Costa Rica a model of ecotourism. This has had some downsides: attracted by the reputation of the only peaceful and democratic country in Latin America and encouraged by the ecotourism trend, tourists have started to visit massively, which could in turn threaten the sustainability of the country’s initiatives. In addition, the country has become even more dependent on the tourists, and especially on travellers from North America, to fuel its economy. And these are not the only challenges ecotourism faces.

Complicated certification

Like all environmental or sustainable initiatives, ecotourism has also had to face the problem of « greenwashing » on the part of businesses which define themselves as “sustainable”, “green” or “ecological” in order to attract clients, without complying with generally accepted standards. In the 1990’s, ecotourism started to be seen as a good way to make a profit, thanks to the public’s growing interest in protecting the environment. Ecotourism certification became urgent, but actors rushed to create their own labels, complicating the situation as different standards developed everywhere.

To achieve some sort of common definition of ecotourism certification, several of the most important sustainable and ecotourism certification organisms met in 2000, at Mohonk Mountain House (a 120-year-old sustainable tourism hotel in the mountains of New York State). They drafted the Mohonk Agreement, an informal consensus on the minimum standards for certifying sustainable tourism and ecotourism, as well as establishing a clear distinction between these two types of tourism. The initiative was followed by a World Ecotourism Summit in Quebec, under the auspices of the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2002.

These events encouraged countries and regions to modify their tourism policies in order to reconcile economic development, protection of the environment and preservation of their cultural identity. But how well are they controlled? Do they really comply with the standards of ecotourism? Researcher Bruno Sarrasin points to the fact that ecotourism can lead to an “eco power”, which means that politicians have seized the concept of sustainable tourism and hold it up as the best tool for economic growth without really caring about its responsible aspect. In other words, ecotourism has become the property of experts and is disconnected from the field. A parallel can be drawn with the certification of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, which can sometimes freeze a country’s traditions or transform them, indirectly serving the comfort of tourists. That’s why Marie Lequin, an ecotourism specialist, is calling for participative governance regarding ecotourism initiatives and better involvement of local populations in the promotion and conservation of their country. Only through constant dialogue with local people can the tourism industry and its clients be sure they will maximise their positive impacts on the paradises they visit.

Photos © bikeriderlondon / BlueOrange Studio