Visitors have long been travelling to natural areas under the guise of recreation and tourism. This has led some observers to question whether ecotourism is simply a new name for an old activity (Wall 1994). However, several changes apparently have occurred in the last decade. First, there has been growth in visits to many natural areas, particularly in developing countries. Second, many economic development professionals increasingly have viewed natural-area visitation as a tool for providing employment in regions that have experienced decline, or lack of development, in other industries.
Third, many conservation and resource management professionals increasingly have viewed natural area visitation as an avenue for enhancing natural area finance and providing conservation-related benefits, particularly to residents living near natural areas. Fourth, there has been increasing attention paid to improving the sustainability of all tourism activities, including those occurring in natural areas. Thus, although ecotourism may not represent an abrupt departure from historic recreation and tourism, it does represent a change in the level of visitation for many areas and a change in the goals that various stakeholders attach to this visitation.
The term ecotourism struck a chord with the tourism industry, the travelling public, and with private and public sector agencies charged with the promotion of tourism products. Ecotourism became a buzzword.
By the mid 1990s, ecotourism, as a concept, began to enter a period of maturity. Many of the claims made in earlier years began to be disputed, and the legitimacy of many players to call themselves ecotourism products was challenged. The travelling public either has become more aware of what ecotourism encompasses or more critical about the idea to accept blindly the claims that mass tourism destinations are ecotourism destinations. Assumptions regarding the benefits of ecotourism have been challenged through empirical research (Lindberg, Enriquez, and Sproule 1996; Driml and Common 1995). As a result, a more realistic understanding of what the product entails and the benefits it can provide is emerging.
Ecotourism, Definitions, Concepts and Visitor Types
Much attention has been paid to the question of what constitutes ecotourism, and numerous concepts and definitions exist (Ballantine and Eagles 1994; Blarney 1995; Bottrill and Pearce 1995; Buckley 1994). The Ecotourism Society, based in the US and the most international of the ecotourism organizations, defines ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people. The Australian National Ecotourism Strategy defines ecotourism as A nature-based tourism that involves education and interpretation of the natural environment and is managed to be ecologically sustainable. Numerous other definitions exist around the world.
Most conceptual definitions of ecotourism can be reduced to the following: “ecotourism is tourism and recreation that is both nature-based and sustainable,” and it is this definition1 that is used here. Three features of this definition merit further discussion. First, the definition clarifies the descriptive and the prescriptive components of the ecotourism concept. The nature component is descriptive or positive in the sense that it simply describes the activity location and associated consumer motivations. The sustainable component is prescriptive or normative in the sense that it reflects what people want the activity to be. An important point is that, as used here, sustainability incorporates environmental, experiential, sociocultural, and economic dimensions.
Second, this basic conceptual definition incorporates more complex definitions. For example, some definitions focus on minimizing negative environmental and cultural impacts while maximizing positive economic impacts. Such a focus is a means to the end of achieving sustainability. In some cases it is a means to the end of achieving a sustainable experience. In other cases it is also a means to the end of sustainability. Because most components of ecotourism definitions either focus on the goal of sustainability or on means to achieve that goal, it is practical to use the simple conceptual definition of ecotourism being sustainable nature-based tourism and recreation.
Third, and related to the second feature, by focusing on ends (the desired condition of sustainability), this definition forces critical evaluation of what constitutes ecotourism. For example, is sport hunting ecotourism? Many observers feel that hunting is not ecotourism, but under this definition it would be if it met the sustainability criterion. Though hunting will be inconsistent with concepts of sustainability in some natural areas (or may be rejected on other grounds), it may be appropriate in others. Similarly, a large commercial group of tourists paying an entry fee to visit a hardened visitor centre and associated rainforest boardwalk may qualify as ecotourists to the same degree as a small group of visitors following low-impact principles in a pristine wilderness.
Given the importance of sustainability within the ecotourism definition, a fundamental question is “What is sustainability?” In simplified terms, tourism sustainability is postulated to result from a positive overall balance in environmental, experiential, sociocultural, and economic impacts (“experiential impact” is used to describe the effect of visitors on each other and “sociocultural impact” is used to describe the effect of visitors on local residents). Thus, tourism activities that generate more positive net benefits would be more sustainable, in general, than tourism activities that generate fewer positive net benefits.
The focus on benefits also clarifies ecotourism-related objectives. Historically, many sites have sought to increase the number of tourists, but this objective slowly is giving way to increasing tourist expenditure (a positive benefit), which does not always require increasing the number of tourists. Hopefully, this objective will progress to one of increasing income generated in the region of question (again, which need not involve an increase in expenditure). Ultimately, the objective should be to increase net benefits, a measure of benefits less costs. This refinement of objectives to focus on net benefits enhances the likelihood that ecotourism will be sustainable.
With respect to visitor types and activities, a key consideration is the diversity within the ecotourism market. Ecotourists may differ greatly in several aspects, including:
· distance travelled;
· length of stay;
· desired level of physical effort and comfort;
· importance of nature in trip motivation;
· level of learning desired;
· amount of spending;
· desired activities; and
· personal demographics.
For example, ecotourism experiences can range from 1) a foreigner spending thousands of dollars coming to Australia on a commercial tour to visit the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforests to 2) a local resident camping over the weekend at an adjacent national park. Ecotourists might engage in a wide range of activities, including trekking (hiking, bushwalking), climbing, camping, hunting, photography, sight-seeing, fishing, birdwatching, whale viewing, and general exploration of remote natural areas.
Of particular interest, visitor surveys (e.g., Eagles, Ballantine, and Fennell 1992) and anecdotal reports indicate that many ecotourists feel it important for their visit to contribute to conservation and local development. Though this is not important for all ecotourists, it does present additional motivation for businesses and government agencies to support conservation and development efforts.
Lindberg (1991) provides a typology of nature/ecotourism types, though many other typologies are possible:
· Hard-core: scientific researchers or members of tours specifically designed for education, environmental restoration, or similar purposes.· Dedicated: people who take trips specifically to see protected areas and who want to understand local natural and cultural history.
· Mainstream: people who visit the Amazon, the Rwandan gorilla park, or other such destinations primarily to take an unusual trip.
· Casual: people who partake of nature incidentally, such as through a day trip during a broader vacation.
Actors in the Ecotourism “System”
Ecotourism often involves numerous actors, including:
· Visitors;· Natural areas and their managers, including both public and private areas;
· Businesses, including various combinations of local businesses, in-bound operators, outbound operators, hotel and other accommodation providers, restaurants and other food providers, and so on;
· Government, in addition to its role as a natural area manager; and
· Non-governmental organizations, such as environmental and rural development NGOs.
The relevant actors will vary across sites. For example, local communities may be present at some sites, but not others. Likewise, businesses may play a large role at some sites, but little or no role at others.
A common phenomenon is that ecotourism can generate both symbiosis and conflict between the actors. The potential for ecotourism to result in symbiosis between conservation (e.g., natural areas) and development (e.g., businesses) has been widely touted, but the potential for conflict should not be ignored. For example, natural area managers and ecotourism businesses have a shared interest in conserving the natural environment. However, there often is conflict regarding the point at which tourism activity jeopardizes this conservation.