What is ecotourism? Definition and meaning

Ecotourism is a type of tourism which involves responsible travel to areas of ecological interest. 

The term is often used in relation to tourism in natural environments, such as rainforests, where active measures are taken to protect and conserve the environment.

Ecotourism promotes the observation and appreciation of nature and traditional cultures in a natural area and encourages visitors to leave a small carbon footprint.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education”.

According to an article published on the Botanic Gardens Conservation International website, “ecotourism can best be pictured as a subset of nature-based tourism (occurring in a natural setting but without the specific educative and ecological, cultural & social sustainability awareness of ecotourism) which in turn is a subset of the wider tourism industry.”

Ecotourism is focused on the conservation of natural resources and should direct financial benefits for conservation and local people. Local communities are often involved in the development of ecotourism and have control over the level and type of tourism they want in their area.

The principles of ecotourism

According to a UN publication titled “Ecotourism: Principles, Practices & Polciices FOR Sustainability”, the principles of ecotourism include:

  • Minimizing the negative impacts on nature and culture that can damage a destination
  • Educating travelers on the importance of conservation.
  • Stressing the importance of responsible business.
  • Directing revenues to the conservation and management of natural areas
  • Maximizing economic benefit for the host country, local business and communities, particularly those living near natural and protected areas.
  • Ensuring that tourism development doesn’t exceed social and environmental limits of acceptable change determined by researchers
  • Relying on infrastructure developed in harmony with the environment, conserving local plants and wildlife. 

Embedded below is an animation created by the Royal Geographical Society on the three key principles of ecotourism:

Ecotourism accounts for a sizeable portion of the gross domestic product in countries such as Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Kenya, Madagascar, Nepal and Ecuador (Galapagos Islands).