The debate over ecotourism’s success as a tool for conservation and development in the developing world is aggravated by the dispute over what exactly ecotourism is. The International Ecotourism Society offers a succinct and often cited definition: “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people” (TIES). Ecotourism is often tied to the concept of sustainable development. “Sustainable tourism development meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future” (WTOa).
As the notion of ecotourism gained popularity, Boo (1990) was one of the first to express reservations over ecotourism’s potential.
She warned that it should not be viewed as a harmless alternative to mass-tourism and pointed out its possible dangers. The research that followed was mostly critical of ecotourism and not focused on highlighting any success.
Honey (1999) provides a recent, objective and comprehensive look at the realities of ecotourism and its place in a broader development strategy. Measuring ecotourism is difficult because it is often lumped together with nature, wildlife and adventure tourism. “Much of what is marketed as ecotourism is simply mass tourism wrapped in a thin green veneer” (Honey 1999: 51) a concept referred to “ecotourism lite.” Acott and La Trobe (1998) refer to the same phenomenon as “shallow ecotourism.
” They provide a conceptual framework for measuring whether an ecotourism venture is a sincere attempt at sustainability and conservation or if it is simply an exploited term. Ecotourists and their impacts are measured on a continuum ranging from shallow ecotourism to deep ecotourism. Shallow ecotourism differs little from conventional tourism except in its marketing, and deep ecotourism is that in which decisions are made from a biocentric, not anthropogenic, nature. Deep ecotourism views nature as having an intrinsic value.
Ecotourism can be played out on three different stages though they are often not exclusive. Government protected areas, private reserves, and Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) ventures can all host visitors.
Government protected areas are typically national parks or reserves which are often established because there is economic justification in doing so. Tourists attracted to the park are worth more than the resources in it. For example, a lion in Kenya is worth far more as a tourist attraction than it is as hunting game (Wood 2002). While these areas enjoy a high level of protection, they often displace local people or mean enforcement of land use that marginalizes historical stewards of the land. However, “it is now recognized in parts of Africa, for example, that local people should be compensated for the loss of access to resources they suffer when wildlife parks are created” (Scheyvens 1999: 246).
Private reserves that tourists pay to visit have been successful in terms of conservation in Latin America and Africa (Kiss 2004; Langholz et al 2000).
When Costa Rica imposed steep hikes in park entrance fees in 1994 there was a shift of visitation to private reserves (Hearne and Salinas 2002). If these parks choose to register with the government they receive benefits ranging from tax breaks, to assistance with projects, and expulsion of squatters (Honey 1999). Langholz et al (2000) studied the economics of 68 private reserves in Costa Rica and found that although they can be profitable this was not the only motivator for their preservation. Most owners placed a high non-market worth on the land such as its bequest value. Although the reserves in Costa Rica are not big in size, the quality of protection they are receiving is very high (Langholz et al 2000). In South Africa the total area of private reserves now exceeds that of state owned protected areas despite being smaller in average size (Kiss 2004).
These reserves can be particularly successful in the conservation of large mammals if they are adjacent to protected areas or if a number of reserves cover a contiguous area (ibid).
Almost every attempt to define ecotourism includes positive economic and social contributions to local people. The most direct way to accomplish this is with Community Based Ecotourism (CBET), another difficult term to define. CBET can range from a small number of community members economically benefiting from tourism related activities to community ownership .