The world has seen the growth of tourism increase dramatically in the past fifty years and with this growth comes a concern for the cultural and environmental impacts associated with it. Ecotourism is the new breed of tourism based around the concept of nature and cultural appreciation, espoused by many to bring significant economic benefits to the host countries as well as being a sustainable alternative to mass tourism. The aim of this paper is to review the literature that focuses on the environmental impacts of ecotourism. This will be achieved through the discussion of five key areas.
First, the multitude of definitions surrounding ecotourism will be examined with a view to identifying the core concepts. Second, the key players involved in the ecotourism industry will be identified. Third, the positive and negative impacts associated with ecotourism will be discussed. Fourth, the contributing factors that determine the level of environmental impact. Fifth, the future of ecotourism and how it can be managed. Finally, conclusions and recommendations for future research.
World tourism is growing in terms of number of travellers as well as in economic expansion (World Tourism Organisation (W. T. O), 1997) and as the worlds largest industry (Nelson, 1993) it earns approximately $US 2. 5 trillion annually (Dearden, 1993). Tourism takes on many different guises and nature-tourism is one of these, which, in it’s most sustainable form has been labelled ecotourism. Within the worldwide tourism industry ecotourism is one of the fastest growing sectors (Eagles, 1995) and according to a 2001 W. T. O and United Nations Environment Programme study ecotourism may represent between two and four percent of global tourism (W. T. O, 1997).
Although this is a relatively small percentage share it is not the volume that is significant but the fact that it is a type of tourism that attempts to minimise the negative effects of traditional mass tourism, be these economic, social or environmental (Doan, 2000). There has been a proliferation of ecotourism-related articles in professional journals since the late 1980s (Sirakaya, 1999) and due to the expansive nature of ecotourism the literature covers a multitude of topics. It is for this reason that for the purpose of this paper I have focused on the journals that are concerned particularly with the environmental impacts of ecotourism.
These journals take the form of definition articles (Edwards, 1998; Sirakaya, 1999; Fennel, 2000), articles on particular case studies (Burton, 1998; Doan, 2000; Thomlinson, 1996; Obua, 1997; Nianyong, 2001; Chin, 2000), and articles on impact related aspects from more of a resource point of view (Beaumont, 2001; Tyler, 1999; Acott, 1998). Section 1: Defining the Concept of Ecotourism Before even beginning to identify what environmental impacts ecotourism is having on the environment it is important to clarify the concept of what it is.
The problems of defining ecotourism have been debated at length (Blamey, 1997), and there is a tremendous amount of literature exploring the definitions of ecotourism. It can be observed that Ceballos-Lascurain (1983) was one of the first people to provide a working definition (Sirakaya, 1999; Thomlinson, 1996; Edwards, 1998; Fennel, 2001). His definition was normative and he suggested that ecotourism incorporates the notions of travelling to relatively untouched natural areas with the objective of enjoying and admiring the area’s natural and cultural manifestations.
From that period on the definitions came to include the notion of ecological sustainability and that ecotourism should provide economic benefits for local people, as well as provide funds for conservation of the visited areas (Boo, 1990; Lindberg and Hawkins, 1993; Tyler, 1996). Researchers from the field of biological research tend to focus mainly on the environmental aspects of the definition (Tyler, 1999; Nianyong, 2001; Acott et al. , 1998) when using the term ecotourism in their research papers.
While others have not included a definition of what they consider ecotourism to stand for (Obua, 1997; Burton, 1998), suggesting that people reading articles in the tourism journals are assumed to have a comprehensive understanding of what the term ecotourism means. In the recent years research focusing on the definitions of ecotourism have been performed through content analysis of pre-existing definitions, one such being by Sirakaya (1999) who looked at it from a supply side view and identified whether tour-operators in the America’s viewed themselves in fit with their own ecotourism definitions and policies.
These definitions took a normative and positive viewpoint that can also be seen in Fennels (2001) article. He also used a content analysis method and incorporated the concept of definition alterations over time as well as differentiating between definitions provided by government and individuals (researchers) mainly in the Americas. Perhaps the most exhaustive study of definitions was undertaken by Edwards et al (1998), who conducted a content analysis of the ecotourism policies employed by the government agencies of all the countries in the America’s.
All these content analyses provide a fresh insight into the definition of ecotourism although they are biased due to the fact that they use very few definitions provided by researchers and governments outside of the America’s. A commonly cited definition that I think encapsulates the main findings of the three content analysis studies previously described (Sirakaya, 1999; Fennels, 2001; Edwards et al. , 1998) is one that originated from the Ecotourism Society (1993), and for the purpose of this review is the definition I shall be using. It is:-
Purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the cultural and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local citizens. Section 2: Identification of the Key Players in the Ecotourism Industry In this section I will identify four different groups who have key roles to play in the ecotourism industry; the communities residing in the host ecotourism country/area, the tourists, the tour operators, and the government agencies.
All of the above groups are interconnected and affect each other and in turn effect the environmental impact on ecotourism destinations, this will be discussed further in section four. The literature only provides very fleeting references into the nature of the communities that are affected by ecotourism. The main way that local communities would appear to get involved in the ecotourism industry is through being employed in the local tourist activities.
Be it through building accommodation (Obua, 1997), guiding (Chin et al. , 2000), or by being involved in local conservation projects (Nianyong, 2001). Yet even descriptions of these activities are very minimal and so will not be addressed further in this review. On a general level of description about the tourist group the authors tend to refer to them as eco-tourists (Beumont, 2001; Acott, 1998), and they are observed to be mainly westerners (Chin et al. , 2000).
It is agreed that all eco-tourists have the underlying wish to travel to natural areas with a view to appreciating the unspoilt environment (Tyler, 1999; Beumont, 2001; Acott, 1998) and within this concept is the discussion in the literature concerning the ‘spectrum’ of nature based tourists (Burton, 1998). Beumont (2001) identified a range of different types of nature based travellers by suggesting that each eco-tourist is unique in terms of their knowledge of the nature and attitude towards it.
This idea can be seen in a slightly different guise in Acott’s (1998) research which takes a much more phenomenological approach and segments eco-tourists into ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ groups. Shallow eco-tourists are of an anthropocentric frame of mind in that they view humans as separate from nature and that nature is an instrument that serves human ends. ‘Deep’ eco-tourists adopt a much more holistic view of the world and view humans to be intrinsically linked with the environment.
Burton (1998) identifies these differing types as ‘casual’ and ‘dedicated’ eco-tourists with ‘dedicated’ ones having higher expectations in terms of the quality of the ecotourism experience. Eco-tourism as a product is delivered by the ecotour operators and companies (Thomlinson, 1996). They characteristically have the parent business located in the base country (predominantly western) who prepare nature tour packages and then co-ordinate with the other half of their business in the destination country (Higgins, 1996). The majority are small-scale operations (Blamey, 1995; McArthur, 1994).
This enables the operators to practice environmentally responsible practices and to ensure high quality experiences for the tourists (Burton 1998; Thomlinson, 1996). In compliance with the definition of ecotourism ecotour operators ideally should act in an environmentally responsible manner yet many researchers suggest that they are masquerading as ecotour companies and use the term ecotourism as a marketing tool (Nianyong, 2001; Thomlinson, 1996; Beaumont, 2001; Burton, 1998).
With respect to government agencies involvement and attitudes towards ecotourism the content analysis study conducted by Edwards et al. 1998) provides the most comprehensive insight into their agenda’s. As well as this empirical study the literature identifies them as playing an important role in the management of the ecotourism industry with them being the creators of the policies which control the exploitation of natural areas (Nianyong, 2001; Chin et al. , 2000; Beaumont, 2001; Burton, 1998). This is especially true when the ecotourism activities take place in national parks as designated by governments (Obua, 1997; Nianyong, 2001; Woodward, 1996).
The influence they have on environmental impact management will be discussed further in section 4. Section 3: The Positive and Negative Environmental Impacts. The positive environmental impacts are essentially indirect benefits that are derived from educating tourists on environmental issues, and providing economic benefits for the destination country/area to aid in conservation of their natural resources. With respect to issue of education Beumont (1998) cites the writings of Boo (1991) and Goudberg et al. 1991) who argue that ecotourism provides environmental education or interpretation for participants which in turn creates awareness and understanding of the natural environment therefore creating support for conservation.
This idea is supported by Chin et al. (2000: 31) whose qualitative study based around a questionnaire completed by 210 eco-tourists who visited Bako national park in Borneo. It showed that “90% of respondents indicated the importance of learning about nature as part of their experience, suggesting that visitors to Bako would be highly receptive to educational strategies. It is the ecotour operators who are essentially the main providers of the environmental education and Blamey (1995) notes that ecotour operators in Australia primarily set up their businesses because of their personal interest in the environment. Economic benefits derived from ecotourism and that positively impact the environment take a number of forms. Boo (1990) argues that ecotourism can stimulate the economy and in turn generate direct funding for conservation.
An example of this is where Doan (2000) cites Wells (1993) who talks about mountaineering fees that are being used for the cleanup of Sagmarth National Park in Nepal, and has led to increased ecological quality. An indirect environmental benefit derived from ecotourism is that it provides an alternative to more damaging types of industry (Thomlinson, 1996). This can be seen in a case study (Obua, 1997) where forest ecotourism was introduced in the Kibale National Park as a sustainable industry instead of ruining the environment through logging.
The definition provided by the Ecotourism Society suggests that ecotourism should not alter the integrity of the ecosystem, yet as Tyler and Dangerfield (1999) argue almost any level of human exploitation has impacts on an ecosystem. His qualitative research took the viewpoint of resource management, the resource being the ecosystems that are exploited by ecotourism, and points out that most of the ecosytems that are visited have developed independently of human interaction and have to adapt rapidly to deal with the human incursion, depending on the level of human disturbance.
Tyler (1999) does point out that marine environments are particularly susceptible to the development of ecotourism, a topic researched at length by Mason (1998) who, through the use of a qualitative research tool assessed the potential effects on two marine environments and found that predominantly negative biophysical effects occurred due to development of ecotourism. A study on forest degradation due to ecotourism (Obua, 1997) was the only quantitative research on the subject of environmental impact that was found in the literature.
Perhaps an area for future research? Other environmental impacts of ecotourism outlined in the literature take the form of general comments about how animal behaviour is disrupted with particular reference to altered eating habits (Burger, 1998; Tyler, 1999; Thomlinson, 1996). Pollution created in the forms of rubbish as well as water and vehicle pollution which is also mentioned in the literature (Mason, 1998; Chin et al. , 2000; Nianyong, 2001) as well as damage done to vegetation due to trampling.
An indirect environmental impact that is discussed in some depth by Burton (1998) and to a lesser extent Beaumont (2001) is the fact that most eco-tourists have the expectation of appreciating the natural environment without the presence of large numbers of people. This has led to the exploitation of previously untouched area in an attempt to provide ecotourists with quality experiences. Section 4: Determining the level of Environmental Impact In the literature one of the biggest debates is whether eco-tourism leads to mass-tourism and it’s associated environmental problems (Beaumont, 2001; Doan, 2000; Mason, 1998; Obua, 1997).
Even if it does not lead to fully-fledged mass-tourism it agreed throughout the literature that an increase in visitors to sensitive natural environments causes an increase in associated environmental impacts. Discussion on at what point the number of tourists is too much for a destination focuses on the concept of carrying capacity (Doan, 2000; Thomlinson, 1996). This is the theoretical limit to the number of tourists that an area can sustain without deleterious effects (Boo, 1990).
They also refer to Butler’s life cycle model and Burton (1998) cites Thomlinson’s (1996) empirical evidence, and argues that once the number of tourists reach a certain level then ecotourism turns into mass-tourism. So as described, the number of tourists converging on a destination is a key factor on the level of environmental impact, yet what factors contribute to the differing numbers of ecotourists? A common idea in the literature is the attitudes of the governing bodies towards the development of ecotourism sites (Thomlinson, 1996; Obua, 1997; Chin et al. 2000; Nianyong, 2001). A common theme is that governments have been tempted by the prospect of making a ‘quick buck’, and therefore do not put in place policies limiting exploitation of their countries natural resources, and policies limiting numbers of tourists. Although one country that has minimised environmental impacts through limiting the number of western tourists is Bhutan (Brunet, 2001), yet not totally as they still allow an unlimited number of Indians to cross their borders, a policy controlled by the government!
Nianyong (2001) also illustrates that governments should be instrumental in helping to develop environmentally responsible policies within their country as well as providing funds for research. Yet in the case of Nianyongs’ research which was a survey conducted in China, he points out that a lot of ecotourism destinations are in the third world, this is can be seen in the way that most of the case studies on ecotourism are based in the third world. These host countries can’t afford to provide funds for appropriate ecotourism development, a point corroborated by Chin et al. 2000) whose study was based in Malaysia. Yet paradoxically authorities were responsible for increasing the number of eco-tourists to the Bako national park in 1988 through tourism promotion. Chin et al. (2000) suggests that this was driven by economic interests. The next area of discussion focuses on how eco-tour operators affect the level of environmental impact that ecotourism destinations experience. As previously mentioned it is suggested that eco-tour operators are simply exploiting the concept of ecotourism by using it as a marketing tool.
Burton (1998) cites a number of researchers who suggest that surveys indicate that a large number of eco-tour operators cannot be considered to act in an environmentally responsible manner (Botrill and Pearce, 1995; Weiler, 1992; Holden & Kealy, 1996; Jones, 1993). This obviously has serious implications for the level of environmental impact and in Belize supposedly ecotourism companies have destroyed large swaths of mangrove swamps in order to develop luxury bungalows (Thomlinson, 1996).
Also although most eco-tour operators are small businesses there are so many of them they can negatively impact the environment through a cumulative effect (Thomlinson, 1996; Beaumont, 2001). As illustrated the number of ecotourists descending upon an area is one of the main factors determining the level of environmental impact Yet there are references in the literature that point out that it is the innate attitude of the actual eco-tourist towards pro-environmental causes that plays an important part in the level of environmental impact that ecotourism destinations experience (Acott, 1998; Chin et al. 2000; Beaumont, 2001). Acott (1998) who discusses ecotourism in terms of ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ differentiates different types of eco-tourists in terms of the level to what extent they pursue environmentally sustainable lifestyles. He uses the example of a low impact eco-traveller who stays in very basic accommodation and pursues a minimal impact experience compared to a large group of bird watchers staying in a luxury hotel with the expectation of a westernised ecotourism experience.
Section 5: The Future of Ecotourism The focus of this section is to identify the numerous variables correlated with the success of ecotourism as a sustainable option for the future, and the recommendations documented in the literature to ensure the long-term success of ecotourism. As it is recognised that large numbers of tourists have detrimental affects on the environment, many of the researchers talk about limiting visitor numbers (Burton, 1998; Thomlinson, 1996; Nianyong, 2001; Chin et al. 2000). Yet how many is too many? Tyler (1999) and to a lesser extent Doan (2000) suggest that the resource base (the ecotourism destination) as an ecosystem needs to be considered primarily, and to define saleable products that will have an absorbable impact. In relation to actually controlling the number of visitors it is generally agreed that government tourism agencies are ones who have the power to implement these controls.
Thomlinson (1996) suggests that infrastructure should be limited thus discouraging large scale tours, this was actually achieved in Bako National Park Malaysia, whereby the authorities decided not to build a main road into the park and only allow tourists access to the park via river boats. Nianyong (2001) also suggests that operators wishing to establish ecotourism businesses in national parks should have to obtain licenses thereby maintaining the integrity of the industry.
There are also suggestions that as ecotourism is after all a business, causing smaller eco-tour operators (who have less of an impact on the evironment) being forced out of the market by larger operators. These larger operators are seen to be the leading edge of mass tourism and achieve greater profits through economies of scale (Burton, 1998, Thomlinson, 1996). Therefore they argue that government agencies need to promote and perhaps subsidise the smaller operatives and restrict the growth of larger operators.
Yet the tension that exists with governments, especially in third world countries, is that they lack funds and by limiting the number tourists they are limiting the economic benefits provided by the ecotourism industry. These government agencies have to realise that although increase in visitor numbers means greater profits, eco-tourists want to experience nature without being crowded by other humans (Burton, 1998). Boo (1990: 96) noted in reference to the environmental effects of ecotourism ‘that tourism, if not managed properly, can destroy tourism’.
The issue of educating eco-tourists is the other fundamental tool that can be used in maintaining the sustainability of ecotourism. By creating positive attitudes towards environmental preservation amongst tourists it fosters awareness about the future implications of ecotourism amongst the very people who are the consumers of the product, and who directly impact the environment they are visiting. Fortunately according to Sirakaya’s (1999) research ‘according to tour operators, ecotourism also includes involvement in after travel to inspire personal responsibility’.
The raises the point addressed at length by Beaumont (2001) that it is the responsibility of the eco-tour operators to provide quality education to the tourists. Nianyong (2001) also points out that local communities in the host destination need to be educated and involved and encouraged to participate in environmental conservation. A point only briefly touched upon in other articles. Section 6: Conlusion Five lines of enquiry were discussed, each focusing on different aspects. However, these aspects are highly interconnected.
The first section outlined how research into the definitions of ecotourism had mainly been qualitative. Recently however the research has tended to be functionalist in nature with quantitative studies employing content analysis techniques as a means to attempt to settle the definition debate. I observed definite core themes in the research yet felt as did the most recent researchers did that pinpointing an exact definition was act of futility, due to the global nature of ecotourism.
Yet the definition I used at the bottom of section 1 provided the basis of reference for the duration of the review. In the second and third section the research findings illustrated the interconnectedness of the key players in the ecotourism industry and the effects they are having as a whole on the environment. The articles that were found to provide the best insight into the detailed effects of what environmental impacts ecotourism has on host countries were found in Case Study articles, where various regions were examined in depth.
Although a problem with these case studies was that they were slightly limited in that they all examined ecotourism activities in national parks. I would suggest future research that focuses on areas that are not national parks, but which do accommodate ecotourism, one such place being Kodaikanal in southern India, a place where as an ecotourist myself, inspired this review. There was also a distinct lack of detailed quantitative research of a geographical nature into environmental impacts, yet research of this nature is inherently difficult due to the complex nature of ecosystems.
Section four and five viewed ecotourism and it’s capacity to minimise environmental damage in the context of ‘the bigger picture’ by pulling together the previous sections. The literature acknowledged that ecotourism is a business after all and that market forces as with nearly everything in this world are driving factors behind whether ecotourism is a success or not in the future. Yet it can be seen just through observing the recent initiation of new journals such as the Journal of Sustainable Tourism that there is concern for the well-being the environment, especially with the dramatic annual growth of tourism.
Therefore research into the ecotourism industry will almost certainly continue apace. This is fortunate as Tyler (1999) points out there are a multitude of dimensions and paradigms associated with ecotourism research, ranging from philosophy to ecological economics. To conclude, the future of ecotourism is an uncertain one. Negative environmental impacts have definitely been observed, although in other areas where effective policies have been implemented the environment has apparently not suffered and the sustainability of the industry is assured.
There is evidence that supports the theory that ecotourism leads to mass tourism and it’s associated problems. Yet, I would observe that the commonality amongst all these issues is that geographical location causes the differing variables associated with ecotourism development and is the deciding factor as to whether ecotourism can be implemented successfully to protect the environment. This is where further research should be directed enabling future ecotourism planners to have a reference point according to their global location.
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