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Ecotourism - Fad or Future for Tourism?

Number 18 - July 1999
D. Morgan

What is Ecotourism?

Hector Ceballos-Lascurain is credited with coining the term ‘ecotourism’ in 1983 when describing a new form of nature travel. Since that time numerous definitions have been offered to describe ecotourism and a sample of the range of definitions is provided in Table 1. The definitions in Table 1 reveal something of the evolution of the concept of ecotourism and, in particular, highlight its key elements, namely:

  • dependent on the natural environment
  • ecologically sustainable
  • contributes to the protection of natural areas
  • environmental understanding through education & interpretation
  • culturally sustainable
  • sustains local communities
  • involves recreation, adventure & enjoyment.

Ecotourism is clearly a niche or specialist area of the wider tourism market. As Figure 1 reveals, ecotourism can best be pictured as a subset of nature-based tourism (occurring in a natural setting but without the specific educative and ecological, cultural & social sustainability awareness of ecotourism) which in turn is a subset of the wider tourism industry.

A common misconception about ecotourism is that it is necessarily about being small scale. There are many large ecotourism resorts, using best practice energy and waste minimisation technologies, providing innovative interpretive programs and involving local communities in a meaningful manner, that are leading the way in embodying the key elements of ecotourism. The emphasis of ecotourism is therefore not about scale but about different ‘styles’ of ecotourism (eg. self reliant/small group/popular) encompassing the concept of holistic environmental sustainability, which is ecologically, culturally, socially and economically sustainable.

In a relatively short space of time ecotourism has become a world wide phenomenon. Why is this the case and why is ecotourism increasingly playing a key role in the development of the tourism futures of both developed and developing nations?

Table 1 - Ecotourism Definitions

‘Ecotourism is tourism which combines the elements of education, recreation and adventure with the aim of observing and experiencing nature’ (Laarman & Durst 1987).

‘Tourism to natural areas that fosters environmental understanding, appreciation and conservation and sustains the culture and well being of communities’ (Young 1992).

‘Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people’ (Blangy & Wood 1992; Ecotourism Society definition).

'Ecologically sustainable tourism that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation’ (Ecotourism Association of Australia 1992).

'Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features- both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low impact, and provides for beneficially active socioeconomic involvement of local populations’ (Ceballos-Lascurain 1993; IUCN definition).

‘Ecotourism is nature-based tourism that involves education and interpretation of the natural environment and is managed to be ecologically sustainable’ (National Ecotourism Strategy 1994 & Queensland Ecotourism Plan 1997).


Why the Interest in Ecotourism?

A key reason for the growing focus on ecotourism is that it represents the ‘greening’ of tourism, the cutting edge of ideas, actions and technologies which will hopefully lead the way for a more sustainable future for the wider tourism industry. Equally, ecotourism is a response to the demands of an increasingly environmentally aware global community. A community that not only wants to be environmentally responsible at home but also when they are on holidays.

Ecotourists on the move

Of course this growing interest in ecotourism is not only about ecological, cultural and social sustainability, there is also an economic imperative. Although there is a general lack of definitive research and data about the importance and economic contribution of ecotourism, it has been estimated that ecotourism could account for between 40% to 60% of the world wide international tourism market and as much as a 25% of a nation’s domestic tourism (Filion et al., 1992). In Australia, where there is a strong and thriving ecotourism industry, it has been estimated that ecotourism generates a turnover of AUD$250 million per annum and provides 4 500 full-time jobs (Cotterill 1995). Bird-watching is an important segment of ecotourism and the following statistics quoted by Ceballos- Lascurain (1998) reveal something of its significance:

  • during 1994/95 54 million people in the USA took part in bird-watching compared with 21 million in 1982/83
  • between 1990 and 1997 the American Birding Association membership grew from 6,000 to 20,000 with 65% of members taking more than 10 birding trips per annum and spending on average US$3,000 on their trips
  • the 8 week Sandhill Crane migration has been estimated to be worth US$60 million per annum to the state of Nebraska.

Also in the USA, the USDA Forest Service estimates that in 1996, 830 million people visited US National Forests, and by the year 2000 the 78 million hectares of National Forests will generate US$3.5 billion from timber sales and a staggering US$100 billion from recreation (Mitchell, 1997). In Australia anecdotal evidence suggests the ecotourists spend up to 50% more than the average tourist and stay up to twice as long. The significance of ecotourism is further highlighted by the world-wide acceptance of the term by industry and governments of all levels.

Ecotourism associations have been established throughout the world, with influential groups including The Ecotourism Society established in the USA in 1990 followed closely by the Ecotourism Association of Australia in 1991. There are many other active groups in countries such as Brazil, Kenya, Japan, Estonia and Indonesia. In Australia the Federal Government adopted a National Ecotourism Strategy in 1994 and since that time most state governments have adopted state strategies to reflect the intent of the national plan. In Queensland the State Government released the Queensland Ecotourism Plan in 1997 and created the first dedicated Environmental Tourism Department within an Australian State Government tourism agency (Tourism Queensland) to oversee the implementation of the plan.

Ecotourism is undoubtedly a burgeoning niche market within the world tourism industry. Unfortunately, ecotourism is also a much abused concept, with many tourism organisations and operators cashing in on the marketing advantages of ecotourism, with little recognition of its key ideals and principles. So what has to be done to ensure that ecotourism is not just another marketing angle and realises its true potential?

Can Ecotourism Meet the Challenge?

For ecotourism to be more than just a fad and to play a pivotal role in the sustainable development of tourism world-wide, it is suggested that there are six key challenges that the ecotourism industry needs to address.

The first challenge is to deliver practical ecologically sustainable tourism. There is considerable rhetoric in tourism and academic circles about ecological sustainability within the tourism industry but not enough definitive advice and guidance of how to convert the theory into practice. Ecotourism establishments and tour operators need practical and economically viable recommendations about up-to-date technologies, techniques and procedures which will enable them to satisfy the principles of ecotourism and be at the forefront of best practice ecotourism.

The second challenge is to effectively recognise, through appropriate research, the previously discussed different styles of ecotourism. It is important that the particular needs of each ecotourism style, in terms of facilities required, extent of involvement, group sizes, level of interpretation, desired environmental settings etc., are understood and delivered. As with any form of tourism it is important to tailor the tourism product to the customer. This is particularly the case for a specialist market like ecotourism where the customers are generally well educated and discerning. Any mis-matching of the eco-product and the ecotourist could severely limit the capability to deliver on the key principles of ecotourism.

Ensuring that there are real and long lasting economic contributions to conservation is the third challenge for the ecotourism industry. As a high proportion of ecotourism activity occurs in or around government controlled protected areas (eg. national parks, state forests, marine parks, water supply reservoirs and catchments etc.), there are moral, equity and sound business reasons why the industry should contribute to the ongoing protection and management of these areas. The moral imperative relates to the ecotourism industry ‘putting their money where their stated principles are’ by contributing to the sustainability of natural areas and assets. The equity argument revolves around the premise that if private sector tourism operations are making commercial gain from a public reserve, either directly through use or indirectly through marketing or association, then there should be a financial return to the public body managing that reserve. Finally, from a sound business perspective it makes good sense for ecotourism operations to contribute to the protection of the reserves they are operating in and which are a key basis of their business.

Challenge number four is concerned with ensuring that ecotourism delivers effective interpretation of environmental, cultural and resource management values. Interpretation must be more than just a one-way transfer of information, it should be about explanation, stimulation, provocation, revelation and understanding in a manner that personally involves the ecotourist in an interesting and enjoyable fashion. This is a difficult assignment, even in face to face situations, but particularly so when interpreters have to rely on nonpersonal techniques like signage and brochures. However this is the challenge of interpretation, and a key goal for ecotourism, to enhance people’s attitudes and actions towards their environment. In many instances this could be the major contribution of ecotourism, by exposing a wider crosssection of the community to the need to value and protect their natural and cultural areas, resources and heritage.

The fifth challenge is to ensure genuine cultural and social sustainability. There needs to be a real commitment by the ecotourism industry to cultural understanding in terms of valuing and learning from the past and involving and working in partnership with indigenous communities, respecting their cultures and beliefs. In communities where western and traditional cultures coexist the ecotourism industry has the potential to provide real leadership on issues of cultural integrity and greater harmony and integration between cultures. From a social perspective, ecotourism must be inclusive of local communities by ensuring that their operations are reflective of community needs and aspirations, and benefit those communities wherever possible in terms of economic development and job creation. The final challenge concerns the role of governments in the ecotourism industry and the need to develop good working relationships and partnerships between the public and private sectors.

As much of the resource base of the ecotourism industry is under some form of government control (eg. national parks etc.) then so to is the future of much of the industry in government hands. The bureaucratic nature of most government agencies and their general lack of appreciation of contemporary business practices, has traditionally lead to high levels of distrust and poor communications between the public and private sectors. On the other hand there is often a lack of understanding from the private sector of the constraints imposed on the public sector by ever increasing levels of open and accountable government. For the ecotourism industry in particular it is imperative that the government and private industry sectors work together to ensure there is the right policy framework and the most effective and efficient operational environment if ecotourism is to reach its full potential for all sectors of the community.


It would be presumptuous of this paper to specify a role for botanic gardens in ecotourism, as the readers of this review are far better qualified to determine that. However, it is hoped that, in outlining the guiding principles of ecotourism and presenting some key challenges for the industry, a clearer picture of ecotourism has been provided. With this better understanding in hand it may be easier to speculate the role botanic gardens might play in the ecotourism industry and how both parties might benefit from such closer involvement.

As repositories of the earth’s plant life, key players in promoting a more responsible environmental attitude by the community and a vital resource for community relaxation and enjoyment, the role of botanic gardens complements the goals and principles of ecotourism. In particular, the many urban based botanic gardens could play an important role in the expansion of ecotourism from traditional nonurban settings into the cities. This could be crucial to the future of ecotourism as increasingly the world’s population is being concentrated in urban centres and for many of these communities, city botanic gardens might represent the only, or at least regular, opportunity to visit a natural or near natural setting. Furthermore, as the seats of power and decision-making are also generally based in these centres, it is in these conurbations where the fate of nations and their environments are ultimately determined.

For these reasons alone botanic gardens might represent a key opportunity for tourism operations to
better service the needs of a large segment of their market while at the same time delivering on the key principles of ecotourism where they might be best recognised. From the botanic gardens perspective ecotourism could be an excellent opportunity to expose the gardens, their purpose and messages to a wider range of visitors and generate much needed additional income for their ongoing management and development.

In recognition of all of the principles and challenges outlined in the preceding analysis, it is argued that ecotourism is certainly more than just a fad and could in fact be the exemplar of ecologically sustainable development. Ecotourism, more so than any other industry, has the credentials to lead industry, government and the community in the quest for ecologically sustainable development, and botanic gardens could play a key role in this vital pursuit.

About the Author 

David Morgans is the Principal Tourism Advisor in Environmental Tourism within the Queensland Government’s Queensland Tourism GPO Box 328 Brisbane Qld 4000 Australia. Tel: (61) 7 3406 5449
Fax (61) 7 3406 5483 email: