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Author: Chris Roche & Brett Wallington - Wilderness Safaris

( Article Type: Opinion )

What is Ecotourism?

Ecotourism, or ecological tourism, has been a growing phenomenon since the 1950s and 1960s as the First World grew in its appreciation of nature and its vulnerability to human development and population growth. Difficult to define as a result of its complexity and variability, this specific form of tourism resisted categorisation as:

  • appropriate tourism
  • nature tourism
  • sustainable tourism
  • responsible travel
  • adventure tourism and other terms.

It was only in 1983 that Mexican landscape architect and environmentalist Héctor Cebellos-Lascurain originally coined the term ecotourism and offered a definition:

“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 visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socioeconomic involvement of local populations.”


This definition proved to be robust enough to survive the evolution of the industry over the ensuing decades and in 1999 was formally adopted by the IUCN as the official definition of ecotourism.
It has been simplified since. For example, The International Ecotourism Society’s very similar definition of ecotourism is:


“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.”

Both of these definitions emphasize nature and sustainability and remain relevant today with a strong underlying premise that the experience of nature by today’s population does not compromise the ecosystem, both in the sense of its ecological functioning and in terms of the experience of it by future generations. In other words use can continue indefinitely without detracting from the area’s ecological integrity.


Ecotourism vs Nature-based Tourism 

Despite the clarity of definition, the term ecotourism has become much abused and in common parlance has perhaps even lost its meaning. This has resulted in the misuse and misunderstanding of the term and popular confusion with superficially similar nature-based tourism. Nature-based tourism, similarly to ecotourism, is dependent on the experience of natural resources and ecosystems. In contrast to ecotourism however, sustainability of this use or experience is not taken into account. Thus many nature-based tourism activities have ‘borrowed’ the term ecotourism and led to its corruption.


In some quarters this has led to a (perhaps premature) rejection of the term ecotourism and a search for a new, more authentic categorization. This has resulted in a myriad of new dissections of the term and postulation around its criteria. None can yet claim to be absolute.



The Four 'Cs' of Ecotourism

Our own efforts in this regard characterize the Wilderness group as being in the business – traditionally understood as ecotourism – of creating sustainable conservation economies. In order to structure a framework around this interpretation of ecotourism we have adopted the 4Cs philosophy of the Zeitz Foundation: Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce. The principles of each C are explored briefly below.



 Typically understood as the conservation of biodiversity, conservation is actually far broader and includes the equally important facet of sustainable operations. In the ecotourism context the latter facet might best be described as operational sustainability through environmental management systems. This includes the sustainable construction, management and operation of ecotourism camps thus resulting in the lowest possible carbon footprint, disturbance to an area, impact on the ecosystem and management of wasteenergy and water.

In the more traditional understanding of biodiversity conservation, the ecosystem in which an ecotourism operation is situated, as well as the associated wildlife, needs to be understood, monitored and protected by the operation branded as an ecotourism destination. Furthermore, and where relevant, the ecotourism operation should help to promote the reintroduction of indigenous species, and to rehabilitate natural environments through vegetation management and other mechanisms.



People are at the heart of any sustainable business or endeavour. Honest, mutually beneficial and dignified relationships with staff and rural community partners in ways that deliver a meaningful and life-changing share of the proceeds of responsible ecotourism to all stakeholders are critical. Possible mechanisms to achieve this include community-centric employment, joint ventures, education and training, social and health benefits, and capacity building. All these aspects – if they are to be sustainable – need to be driven by the commercial robustness of the ecotourism model.


Culture is a multifaceted element that governs respect for the culture of all employees as well as remote rural communities surrounding the conservation areas. This is reflected in: a healthy social environment in camp; area-appropriate camp design, décor, entertainment and meals; respect for traditional rights within and surrounding the conservation area; and communication of the area’s traditional culture to guests and staff.



Commerce deals specifically with the tourism aspect of ecotourism and is the often neglected underpin to the sustainability of ecotourism. Without it, the robustness of the model to endure economic and social cycles and upheaval is compromised as is its ability to engender conservation, community and cultural benefits. It is perhaps the most critical element to sustainability in the modern world. Ecotourism can only make a difference if it is doing well. If a business is profitable, based on sound business principles and on good, solid moral values, then it can make good on its promise to make a difference.

Despite the dissections, no one can yet claim to have redefined ecotourism. We believe that a definition of ecotourism will necessarily remain fluid as a result of changing circumstances and needs. We do, however, believe that the explicit inclusion of a commercial underpin to ecotourism is increasingly important and that no ecotourism operation can claim to be truly sustainable without such. Conservation – much less ecotourism – cannot afford to rely solely on philanthropy or aid in the modern world.


Sustainability of Ecotourism 

A critical component to the sustainability of ecotourism is the ecotourist; and crucially the decisions that ecotourists make in terms of which operator and experience they support through their travels. The more educated the consumer is about the pure tenets of ecotourism, the more likely they will differentiate between genuine ecotourism and other forms of nature-based tourism, and the more likely that this decision-making process will drive the quality and credibility of the ecotourism industry.

Associated Sustainable Development Articles:

Sustainable Development ~ Land Reform

Associated Organisations:

Future Nature Edu , Africa Geographic , BirdLife South Africa , Botanical Society of South Africa , CapeNature , The Cape Times Caltex Environmental Awards , Responsible Traveller , Stormsriver Adventures , Drifters Adventours , Eagle Encounters , EcoBound Environmental and Tourism Agency , Ecocircle® Holdings , Eco-ist (The) , Ecopsychology CC , EcoRangers Africa , Ecotraining , Friends Group , The Good Work Foundation , Imvubu Nature Tours , Londolozi Private Game Reserve , Meadowsweet Organic Herbs , Mohlolo Landscape Architects , The National Association of Conservancies/Stewardships of South Africa (NACSSA) , Ocean Blue Adventures , Open Africa , Whale Coast Conservation , Rozendal Farm , Global Sustainable Tourism Council , Sappi Limited , South African National Parks , Stubbs Africa Advertising , Treehaven Waterfowl Trust , Treverton College and Preparatory , Waenhuiskrans Arniston Community Development Trust , Wales: Environmental Partnerships , White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp , Wildnet Africa Properties , World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary and Monkey Park , South African Association for Marine Biological Research , African Windpower , Cape Town Green Map , Pest Free SA , Bulungula Lodge , The Architecture Co-op , West Coast National Park , Bicycle Cape Town , The Backpack , Tierhoek Organic , GBS Environmental Consulting , Avis , Wilderness Safaris , Eco Atlas , Addo Elephant National Park , Agulhas National Park , Golden Gate Highlands National Park , Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park , Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site , Mokala National Park , Namaqua National Park , Mountain Zebra National Park , Table Mountain National Park