Over the years, ecotourism has been gaining a lot of importance, especially considering that more and more travellers are looking to be more responsible and follow environment-friendly practices. However, many are still not clear about exactly what is ecotourism or the principles of ecotourism. There is a misconception that ecotourism, green tourism, and sustainable tourism are the same thing, and while they all promote responsible tourism, they all mean different things and have different scopes.

In this article, while trying to give a deeper understanding of what is ecotourism, we will give you information about ecotourism like the meaning of ecotourism, ecotourism tourism definition, and the principles of ecotourism. By the end of this article, we hope you will have a clearer understanding of the term and its evolution.

Also read: What is the difference between eco tourism, green tourism and sustainable tourism?

What Is Ecotourism?

Eco-tourism or ecological tourism has been defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES, 2015). To answer the question “What is ecotourism?” in a simpler way, it is a form of tourism that is about going out into the natural world and is more about what you do in a place than where you stay. It is more than just travelling around the whole world and sightseeing.

It is the kind of tourism where fragile and/or pristine natural environments are visited in a way that the impact of the visit is minimised. The environment and local communities should benefit in such a way that the latter is motivated to keep the local environment pristine.

Another way to explain what is ecotourism is to say that it involves travel to places where flora, fauna, and cultural heritage are the main attractions. It supports conservation efforts through the education of tourists, giving them an insight into the human impact on the environment, and helping them gain a better appreciation of natural habitats. It may also benefit the environment through direct investment in conservation efforts.

Also read: 10 simple ways to become a responsible traveller

History Of Ecotourism

Understanding Ecotourism

Although the term ecotourism has been gaining popularity in recent years, it is not a new concept. However, there is no clarity as to the origins of the term as there are several different claims as to when it came into use.

Some claim that the term ecotourism was popularised by Hector Ceballos-Lascurian, who also claimed to have coined the term in the year 1983. This is when he was in the dual role of founding president of PRONATURA (an influential Mexican conservationist NGO) and Director General of Standards and Technology of SEDUE (the Mexican Ministry of Urban Development and Ecology). To him, ecotourism meant travelling to undisturbed areas to enjoy the natural beauty and culture. Later, in 1984, he founded ECOTOURS, Mexico’s first ecotourism agency. Ceballos-Lascurian even served as an Ecotourism Advisor to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the United Nations World Tourism Organisation for many years.

Some others claim that the term was coined in 1965 by Claus-Dieter (Nick) Hetzer, who was an academic and adventurer from the Forum International, Berkeley, USA. He is also believed to have run the first eco-tours in Yucatán in the early 1970s.

[What is an eco-tour?: Tours that involve visits to scenic or remote natural areas and are designed to minimise negative impacts on the environment and local inhabitants.]

There is another claim that eco tourism originated even earlier, in 1901 in fact, with the Sierra Club’s Outing program. These were annual expeditions that took hikers into the Sierra Nevada’s backcountry, showing them its natural wonders so that they could actively work for the preservation of the forests.

Over the past decades, there have been many icons of ecotourism and now, this form of tourism has been gaining a lot of importance. Ecotourism is considered to be one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors in the industry (about 5 percent annually) and there are no signs of it slowing down, even though more traditional forms of tourism have seen a stagnation.

Principles Of Ecotourism

Now that we have seen what is ecotourism and taken a look at its history, we will go over the principles that guide the ecotourism industry. Ecotourism is essentially about bringing together communities, conservation, and sustainable travel.

Many tour packages are being classified as “eco-tours” even though they do not emphasise conservation, education, or social and cultural participation, and low impact on the places visited. Therefore, to help you understand which tours are actually eco-tours, here are the principles of ecotourism:

1. Building Environmental And Cultural Awareness And Respect

group of tourists listening to a male tour guide speaking in a rural area in Kerala, India, what is ecotourism

The major focus of ecotourism is to sensitise people towards environmental issues, improve awareness, and encourage people to be conscious of the effect on the places they visit. Following this principle, a few tour operators create educational programs on conservation for local schools. Interpretive guides, naturalists, and guest lecturers are also offered by other operators to help visitors get a deeper understanding of their experiences. Some operators also offer immersive interactions with local cultures (that are becoming more common) that emphasise proper interactions instead of a usual performer-audience relationship.

2. Minimize Physical, Social, Behavioural, And Psychological Impacts By Operating Low-Impact Eco Tours

Family on a backpacking trip, what is ecotourism

The ecotourism industry’s focus is sustainability, and minimising the negative impact that conventional tourism leaves on the environment. Over time, however, the concept has evolved to include making a positive impact, rather than merely having a neutral impact on the environment and the locals. Maintaining small groups and avoiding under-managed or over-visited destinations is a good way to minimise the impact of the group on the areas visited.

3. Provide Direct Financial Benefits For Conservation

Biggest Cats, Bengal Tiger in Sundarbans tiger reserves in india, what is ecotourism
Conservation efforts lead to a better and safer life for wildlife and their environment

One of the main objectives of ecotourism is to help local conservation efforts by inviting financial benefits. Visiting national parks is one way for tourists to contribute towards the conservation of nature and wildlife. When ecotourism gains more importance and practitioners, more revenue generation opportunities are created that are environmentally better alternatives to urbanisation, deforestation, unsustainable agriculture, and poaching.

Also read: How to be a more responsible wildlife tourist

4. Generate Financial Benefits For Locals And Private Industry

Women collecting tea leaves in Southern India, Kerala
Women collecting tea leaves in Southern India, Kerala

Another important principle of ecotourism is the generation of financial benefits for local communities. Through direct or indirect means, locals must get the financial benefits of eco-tourism. This could be through tours, admission fees, donations, and taxes on travel and accommodation. Community tours are a good way to generate financial benefits for local communities.

5. Deliver Memorable Interpretative Experiences For The Visitors

Group of tourists helping tea pickers harvest fresh tea leaves from a tea plantation in Kerala, India
Group of tourists helping tea pickers harvest fresh tea leaves from a tea plantation in Kerala, India.

Although ecotourism is geared towards reducing a negative impact on the environment and the local communities and generating a positive impact on the same, it doesn’t mean that the tours have to be all about work. Any tour (conventional or not) should be designed in such a way that visitors should enjoy their trip. If the eco-tours are tough and/or too boring, there is a fair chance that many may start losing interest in more responsible tour packages, thereby having a negative impact on the communities that depend on these tours.

6. Recognise The Rights And Spiritual Beliefs Of The Indigenous People And Work With Them

Rajasthani women posing for a photo, what is ecotourism
Take permission before photographing locals

Tourists who are part of eco-tours are encouraged to respect the rights and spiritual beliefs of the locals/indigenous population of the destinations instead of just getting in their faces and taking their photos without their permission. Like any other individual, the local communities value their privacy and it would always be better to first interact and have meaningful conversations with them and, only once permission is received, take a picture of them.

Beware Of Greenwashing!

While you are in safe waters when you practice ecotourism, sustainable tourism, or responsible (all of which are eco-friendly), you must always be careful of tour operators and tourism companies that only pretend to be eco-friendly in order to attract more business, a practice widely known as greenwashing. A good way to make sure that the company or tour operator to whom you are giving your business is legitimately eco-friendly, you will have to do a bit of digging and gathering of all the facts. Once you are convinced that the company is legitimate, go ahead and book your eco-tour and contribute to a better and happier world.


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