Eco Tourism – Definitions, Types, History, Characteristics, and Functions

Around the world, ecotourism has been hailed as a panacea: a way to fund conservation and scientific research, protect fragile and pristine ecosystems, benefit rural communities, promote development in poor countries, enhance ecological and cultural sensitivity, instill environmental awareness and social conscience in the travel industry, satisfy and educate the discriminating tourist, and, some claim, build world peace.

Ecotourism is a form of tourism that attempts to minimize its impact upon the environment, is ecologically sound, and avoids the negative impacts of many large-scale tourism developments undertaken in the areas which have not previously been developed.

History of Eco Tourism

The origins of the term ‘ecotourism‘ are not entirely clear, one of the first to use it appears to have been Hetzer(1965), who identified four ‘pillars‘ or principles of responsible tourism: minimizing environmental impacts, respecting host cultures, maximizing the benefits to local people, and maximizing tourist satisfaction. The first of these was held to be the most distinguishing characteristic of ecological tourism.

Other early references to ecotourism are found in Miller’s (1978) work on national park planning for ecodevelopment in Latin America, and documentation produced by Environment Canada in relation to a set of road-based ‘ecotours’ they developed from the mid-1979s through to the early 1980s.

Ecotourism developed ‘within the womb’ of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Growing environmental concern coupled with an emerging dissatisfaction with mass tourism led to increased demand for nature-based experiences of an alternative nature.

At the same time, less developed countries began to realize that nature-based tourism offers a means of earning foreign exchange and providing a less destructive use of resources than alternatives such as logging and agriculture.

By the mid-1980s, a number of such countries had identified ecotourism as a means of achieving both conservation and development goals. The first formal definition of ecotourism is generally credited to Ceballos Lascurain in 1987.

Definitions of Eco Tourism

According to Ceballos-Lascurain, ecotourism is the, ” 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 manifestation (both past and present) found in these areas.”

Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as,” responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

According to the Ecotourism Association of Australia, ” ecotourism is nature-based tourism that involves education and interpretation of the natural environment and is managed to be ecologically sustainable.”

This definition recognizes that ‘natural environment’ includes cultural components and that ‘ecologically sustainable’ involves an appropriate return to the local community and long-term conservation of the resource.

According to Tickell, ecotourism is “travel to enjoy the world’s amazing diversity of natural life and human culture without causing damage to either”.

Ecotourism is ecologically sustainable tourism that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation.

Types of Ecotourism

Types of Ecotourism

Fennell considers that ecotourism exits within the broader classification of tourism types which, at an initial level, can be divided into the following types:

  1. Mass Tourism
  2. Alternative Tourism

Mass tourism we saw as the more traditional form of tourism development where short-term, free-market principles dominate and the maximization of income is paramount. The development of the tourism industry was originally seen as a desirable and relatively ‘clean’ industry for nations and regions to pursue. This was particularly true in terms of benefits in foreign exchange earnings, employment and infrastructural development such as transport networks.

These days we are more prone to vilify or characterize conventional mass tourism as a beast; a monstrosity which has few redeeming qualities for the destination region, their people and their natural resource base.

This is not to deny that ‘mass tourism‘ has caused problems, because it has. There has, quite justifiably, been a need to identify an alternative approach to tourism development that lessens the negative consequences of the mass tourism approach.

Thus the ‘alternative tourism‘ perspective has become a popular paradigm. This alternative approach has been described as a ‘competing paradigm’ to mass tourism, but it can also be viewed as a complementary approach to tourism. That is, it is not possible to have ‘alternative tourism’ to.

So, the discussion returns to a semantic debate, perhaps it is best to accept that alternative tourism is a natural outcome of the maturing understanding of tourism development and its strengths and weakness. Fennell states that:

Alternative tourism is a generic term that encompasses a whole range of tourism strategies (e.g. appropriate, eco, soft, responsible, people to people, and green tourism) all of which purport to offer a more benign alternative to conventional mass tourism in certain types of destinations.

However, Weaver quite rightly points out that there are also many criticisms of alternative tourism. It is clear that just because alternative tourism has developed as a reaction to the negative consequences of mass tourism it is not necessarily less harmful or better than its alternatives.

Nature of Ecotourism

Tourism activity is expected to grow by 4.3% per annum in real terms between 2008 and 2017. Ecotourism or nature-based tourism has become the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry growing 3 times faster than the industry as a whole.

There can be no doubting of the increasing trends in environmental concern allied with the historically prevalent trend of travel as for, of escape to nature, driven by the pressures of urban living encourage people to seek solitude with nature, therefore, increasing the numbers of visitors to national parks and other protected areas.

There are a number of dimensions to nature-based tourism. All forms of travel to natural areas are not necessarily ecotourism, but this provides a useful step in differentiating nature-based tourism from ecotourism and gives us a number of levels at which to distinguish the relationship between specific tourism activities and nature:

  • Those activities or experiences that are dependent on nature.
  • Those activities or experiences that are enhanced by nature.
  • Those activities or experiences for which the natural setting is incidental.

There are several classes of nature-based tourism, each utilizing a combination of these dimensions. Bird watching, for example, can provide a pleasant and relaxing holiday based around a general interest in nature and the environment. So that without the natural environment it would be difficult to carry out the activity.

Similarly, camping is an activity/experience which often enhanced by nature. Most people would prefer to camp in some type of natural setting rather than on the side of a busy road. Therefore, nature is an integral part of these experiences but not the fundamental motivation for them.

Principles and Guidelines of Ecotourism

Ecotourism attracts people who wish to interact with the environment and, in varying degrees, develop their knowledge, awareness, and appreciation of it. The Ecotourism Society gives the principles and guidelines of ecotourism. These are following as:

  •  Prepare travelers to minimize their negative impact while visiting sensitive environments and cultures before departure.
  • Prepare traveler for each encounter with local cultures and with native animals and plants.
  • Minimize visitors impacts on the on the environment by offering literature, briefing, leading by example, and taking corrective actions.
  • Minimize traveler impact on cultures by offering literature, briefings, leading by example, and taking corrective actions.
  • Use adequate leadership, and maintain small enough groups to ensure minimum group impact on destination. Avoid areas that are under-managed and over-visited.
  • Ensure managers, staff and contract employees know and participate in all aspects of company policy to prevent impacts on the environment and local cultures.
  • Give managers, staff and contact employees access to programmes that will upgrade their ability to communicate with and manage clients in sensitive natural and cultural settings.
  • Be a contributor to the conservation of the region being visited.
  • Provide competitive, local employment in all aspect of business operation.
  • Offer site-sensitive accommodations that are not wasteful of local resources or destructive to the environment, which provide ample opportunity for learning about the environment and sensitive interchange with local communities.
  • Focuses on personally experiencing natural areas in ways that led to greater understanding and appreciation.

Characteristics of Eco-Tourism

Ecotourism is travel to fragile, pristine, and usually protected areas that strives to be low impact and (often) small scale. It helps educate the traveler, provides funds for conservation, directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of local communities, and fosters respect for different cultures and for human rights.

Some important characteristics of ecotourism are following as:

1) Involves travel to the natural destination. These destinations are often remote areas, whether inhabited or uninhabited, and are usually under some kind of environmental protection at the national, international, communal, or private travel.

2) Minimize impact. Tourism causes damage. Ecotourism strives to minimize the adverse effects of hotels, trails, and other infrastructure by using either recycled or plentifully available local building material, renewable sources of energy, recycling and safe disposal of waste and garbage, and environmentally and culturally sensitive architectural design.

3) Builds environmental awareness. Ecotourism means education, for both tourist and residents of nearby communities. Well before the tour begins, tour operators should supply travelers with reading material about the country, environment, and local people, as well as a code of conduct for both the traveler and the industry itself. Ecotourism projects should also help educate members of surrounding communities, schoolchildren, and the broader public in the host country.

4) Provides direct financial benefits for conservation. Ecotourism helps raise funds for environmental protection, research, and education through a variety of mechanisms, including park entrance fees; tour company, hotel, airline, and airport taxes. And voluntary contributions.

5) Provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people. Ecotourism holds that national parks and other conservation areas will survive only if, there are happy people around the perimeters. The local community must be involved with and receive income and other tangible benefits (potable water, roads, health clinics, etc.) from the conservation area and its tourist facilities.

6) Respects local culture. Ecotourism is not only “greener” but also less culturally intrusive and exploitative than conventional tourism. Whereas prostitution, black markets, and drug often are byproducts of mass tourism, ecotourism strives to be culturally respectful and the human population of a host country.

7) Supports human rights and democratic movements. The United Nations-sponsored World Tourism Organization proclaims that tourism contributes to “international understanding, peace, prosperity, and universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.

Such sentiments, however, are little reflected in conventional mass tourism. In this way, ecotourism supports humans rights and, to establish international peace.

Functions of Ecotourism

Eco-tourism is nature-based, environmentally educated and sustainably managed. Ross and Wall (1999) outline the five fundamental functions of ecotourism namely:

1. Protection of natural areas
2. Education
3. Generation of money
4. Quality tourism
5. Local participation

Economic Effects of Ecotourism

The job generated by ecotourism provide an important reason for interest in and support for, the phenomenon. These jobs often occur in areas relatively untouched by traditional development efforts and represent tangible economic benefits from natural areas.

Several studies have assessed the local employment benefits of ecotourism; not surprisingly, the level of benefits varies widely as a result of differences in the quality of attraction, access and other factors.

Some important economic effects of ecotourism are following as:

Fiscal Impacts (taxes, fees, expenditures)

Ecotourism not only generates government revenue through business and other general taxes but also through industry-specific channels, such as payment of occupancy and departure taxes.

Reduced access to the resource

Tourism utilizes various resources as inputs into the products and services provided to visitors. In the case of ecotourism, one of these products is nature in a partially or totally preserved state.

Preservation of natural areas often involves reduced local access to resources, such as wood or medicinal plants. In so far as tourism is a partial or sole rationale for preserving an area, it also causes reduced access to resources.


Many destinations have experienced increased price for goods, services, and land due to tourism development, and this is a cost borne by residents of the area who purchase these items.

Effects of the income distribution

In some cases, tourism development exacerbates existing income inequalities within destination communities, while in others it generates new financial elites.

Revenue sharing

At some ecotourism destinations, residents benefit from revenue-sharing programmes that either provide cash payments or, more commonly, funding for community projects such as well or schools.

Environmental Effects of Ecotourism

The impacts of ecotourism depend on what ecotourism is. The critical issue is that ecotourism should involve deliberates steps to minimize impacts, through the choice of activities, equipment, location and timing, group size, education and training, and operational environmental management.

There is now quite an extensive literature on impacts such as trampling, which is easy to quantify experimentally. However, very little is known about impacts such as noise disturbance, soil and water-borne pathogens, and interference with plant and animal population dynamics and genetics, which are likely to have far greater ecological significance.

Some important environmental effects of ecotourism are following as:

  • Crushing or clearance of vegetation.
  • Soil modification.
  • Introduction of weeds and pathogens.
  • Water pollution from human waste.
  • Air pollution from generator exhausts, noise from machinery, vehicles, and voices.
  • Visual impacts.
  • Disturbance to wildlife through all of the above, and through food scraps and litter, etc.


A new group of tourism clients has emerged who are demanding different activities, experiences and approaches to tourism from the industry: ‘ these are the ecotourists – people who require environmentally compatible recreational opportunities, where nature rather than humanity predominates‘.

They are shrugging off the shackles of traditional tourism in search of knowledge and experience. Their interest is not in lounging by hotels pools or hectic sightseeing schedules. They are interested in visiting wilderness, national parks, and tropical forests, and in viewing birds, mammals, trees and wildflowers.

They want to experience new lifestyles and meet people with similar interests to themselves and they want to see their traveling dollars contributing toward conservation and benefiting the local economy.

Ecotourists can be generally characterized as having higher than average incomes, largely holding tertiary qualifications and there tend to be more female ecotourists than men.

According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourists are experienced travelers who are more likely to have a college/university degree and have a higher income bracket.

Ecotourists are expecting discovery and enlightenment from their ecotourism experience. Personal growth in emotional, spiritual, as well as intellectual terms, appear to be expected outcomes from ecotourism travel for the majority of these travelers.

Ecotourism Organizations

Ecotourism organizations are the administrative or functional structures that are concerned with ecotourism. Ecotourism organizations help into to minimize the negative impacts and maximize the positive impacts of ecotourism. These organizations can be sorted into three categories:

  1. Membership non-government organizations (NGOs)
  2. Public sector or governmental agencies
  3. Non-membership organizations (NGOs)

Ecotourism organizations, found throughout the world, play important roles ranging from grass-roots advocacy to international policymaking.

International Organizations

In the international arena, many different organizations address ecotourism related issues.   World Tourism Organization (WTO) plays an important role in the development of ecotourism. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is another international governmental organization that deals with ecotourism, through its international development assistance programme.

WTO and UNDP are just two examples of how international governmental ecotourism related organizations can play a role in making ecotourism a tool for sustainable development. At the international level NGOs also play a role.

Tourism Concern, a UK based NGO dedicated to ensuring tourism is just and sustainable form of business has worked for many years to make tourism more sustainable.

The US-based TES is dedicated solely to ensuring that ecotourism is a viable tool for biodiversity conservation and community development.

National Organizations

Government plays an important role in the national arena. Government related ecotourism organization active at this level generally come from areas: parks management agencies, universities, tourism ministries, and environment or natural resource ministries.

For example, in Kenya, much of the government related ecotourism activities at the national level is performed by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KYS), a quasi-governmental organization whose mandate is the management of wildlife in the country.

Every country has their national organizations for conservation and preservation of natural resources and ecotourism.

Sub-national Organizations

Below the national level is found regional, state and local areas for action. Ecotourism organizations play a role at each of these levels.  Queensland Tourism and Tourism Saskatchewan are two examples of state-level public sector ecotourism organizations.

In Australia, Queensland Tourism’s environment division publishes a quarterly newsletter titled EcoTrends informing industry, NGOs, universities and the public sector about ecotourism- related events, accreditation recipients, department research and policy.