Sustainable tourism and ecotourism

Posted: 6 September 2004

Various terms attempt to describe tourism that is low-impact, good for the environment and for local communities.

Environment-centred definitions:The US-based Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." It is usually understood as involving small-group travel.

Nature tourism - the simple visiting and viewing of nature, sometimes disparagingly dubbed ' ecotourism lite ' - is not necessarily sustainable. Indeed, tourism to fragile natural destinations can do considerable damage if not carefully managed.

Sustainable tourism is a broader concept than ecotourism. It means any tourism - including urban tourism and mainstream (resort) tourism - that does not degrade the environment.

People-centred definitions:Pro-poor tourism (see means tourism that benefits poor people in tourist destinations. The UK-based NGO Tourism Concern is working towards a definition of fair-trade tourism that applies the precepts of fair trade (fair wages, shares of profits) to tourism.

Community tourism (or community-based tourism ) denotes tourism where small local communities - typically rural villages in the South - benefit and are involved in the management and decision-making process.

All-embracing terms:Loose terms like alternative, responsible and ethical tourism embrace both environmental and human concerns, but tend to be hard to define in any precise way.

The ecotourism sector

  • 'Wildlife tourism' accounts for an estimated 20 per cent international tourism.

  • Tourism earned Kenya US$297 million in 2002. It is the country's leading source of foreign exchange, generating a third of the country's foreign currency earnings. The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates that 80 per cent of visitors to Kenya come to see wildlife.

  • The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan practices a policy of "high-value, low-volume" tourism and accepted only 6,000 visitors in 2002, at a cost of US$250 each per day.

  • In 1993, the World Resources Institute estimated countries in the South earned US$30 billion a year from ecotourism.

  • Between 1980 and 1995, visitors to seven 'ecotourism destination' countries with high levels of biodiversity in the South (Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand) rose 242 per cent, from 19.5 million to 47.2 million (WTO).

  • A 1992 survey estimated that 7 per cent (8 million) of US travellers had taken at least one 'ecotourism' holiday. In a 1994 study, 77 per cent of North American tourists had taken a holiday involving nature and the outdoors. The Ecotourism Society estimates that 30 per cent of US tourists can be classed as 'wildlife-related tourists'.

  • In 1996, 219 US companies offered 'ecotours' to the South. However, various commentators estimated that only between 25 and 40 of these were offering 'genuine' sustainable ecotourism. (Honey)
Funding bodies
  • International institutions: In the decade up to 1979, the World Bank operated a special tourism department. This backed 24 projects in 18 countries, with a total investment of US$1.5 billion. By 1993, the Asian Development Bank had given £2.12 million to tourism projects. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Redevelopment gave US$12 million towards a hotel development in Albania. By 1996, the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) had invested in over 100 tourism ventures, providing loans and equity investment of more than US$600 million. Such loans are almost entirely for large mega-developments, such as Cancun in Mexico. Projects supported by the IFC, for instance, usually range from US$5 million to US$150 million (IFC: Tourism Sector Review , 1995).

  • Conservation organisations: The three large NGOs that have funded tourism projects are WWF, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.
Sustainable tourism: the industry approach

In 1996, the WTTC and WTO published a report called Local Agenda 21 for the Travel and Tourism Industry - the industry response to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit's Agenda 21, calling for sustainable development. The report sees tourism developing within the economic framework of NAFTA, GATS and similar 'free trade' agreements.

This means opposing government taxation and (environmental) regulation and removing restrictions on imports and foreign ownership of hotels and companies, thus relying on enlightened corporate self-interest and market forces to move tourism towards sustainability. According to the WTTC's Millennium Vision: 'The environmental policy agenda should focus on [the industry's] self-improvement, incentives, and light-handed regulation as the preferred approach.'

  • In 1997, the WTTC successfully opposed a UN proposal for a tax on air travel to fund environmental protection.

  • A 2000 survey by WWF claimed that Green Globe, the WTTC-backed environmental certification scheme, allowed 500 companies to use its logo, although only about 60 of these actually met the criteria involved. In 1995, a fake travel business set up by a TV company (World Television News) was given the right to display a Green Globe symbol for US$200, simply by sending in an application form (Honey).

This section was compiled by Mark Mann, author of The Gringo Trail and Tourism Concern's Community Tourism Guide.