Ecotourism:  Promoting Sustainability in the Tourism Product

Ecotourism: Promoting Sustainability in the Tourism Product



Randy Levine;


Eco tourism: Adding Sustainability to the Tourism Product


The tourism industry can be a double-edged sword for small communities whose economies rely on it for survival. Tourists bring in money, but the growth of the tourism product within a community can come at a significant cost if not properly managed. This issue was discussed in an earlier article appearing on this web site, “Cruise Tourism and the Destination; Reconciling Divergent Realities.”

These costs beg the question of whether there exists a more sustainable form of tourism. Luckily, a growing sub-sector of the tourism industry, ecotourism, is attracting attention as a potential answer to just that question.

As this 2006 New York Times article points out, ecotourism is, in its most basic form, an alternate approach to traveling and visiting new places, with an explicit focus on preserving the destination’s environment and benefitting local communities.

As ecotourism becomes more popular, destinations from Wisconsin to Belize are focusing on sustainability in their marketing campaigns. The Times notes that businesses in such locations are taking advantage of the marketing advantages of a destination’s ecotourism initiatives, reducing cost, and appealing to tourists’ own goals of achieving sustainability.

But even sustainability-minded tourism has benefits and drawbacks. What differentiates ecotourism from more traditional tourism product, however, is the balance between those pros and cons. According to the authors of “Ecotourism as a Development Strategy: Experiences from Costa Rica,” tourism should only be considered sustainable if the “environmental, the economical and the social balances… [are] positive.” Eco tourism, then, “should generate money in an ecologically and socially friendly way” compared to other forms of land use.

A central point for the authors is that communities should evaluate the local tourism industry not only through economic measures, but also by its local environmental and social impacts.

While the net impact of tourism according to this characterization of sustainability varied by region in Costa Rica, the approaches of individual communities to building a more sustainable tourism industry provide valuable insight. As varied as the approaches are, examples of successful ecotourism initiatives have certain aspects in common.

According to the authors of the paper, a community seems to meet three conditions when it succeeds in developing a successful, sustainable ecotourism product:

  • First, the general public has a high degree of environmental awareness. This awareness allows for better policy integration and better cooperation between officials, industry professionals, and the community at large.
  • Second, the private sector is involved in building and maintaining policies focused on sustainable development. Such sustainable development is shaped in equal parts by social, environmental, and economic considerations.
  • Lastly, the community’s involvement in the ecotourism industry is high: there is a high level of local entrepreneurship, and local culture and history is “integrated in tourists’ activities.” This focus on cultural and community awareness for visitors and community members alike helps ensure that everybody is educated about tourism’s impacts and works together to shape more sustainable practices.

These conditions are far from simple and are not necessarily easy to achieve. The paper’s authors note that the larger the local tourism industry, the harder it is to meet these conditions, as local and community involvement in such cases falls off. As a result, communities must devote considerable effort to preserving community-based tourism involvement and activity.

This demands a high “institutional capacity” at the community level and a more comprehensive and integrated local planning for the tourism industry (for example, finding sustainable solutions to pollution and waste management). At the regional or national level, the government should also prioritize developing sustainable tourism over mass tourism.

A separate analysis of the growing ecotourism industry, this time focused on the state of Maine, provides further insight and perspective on meeting the challenges of promoting ecotourism.

In “Planning for Ecotourism on the Coast of Maine” published by the Maine Policy Review, author Natalie Springuel provides four elements to guide successful community planning for the development of a sustainable tourism industry:

  • First, there must be a close partnership between regional government and private and nonprofit organizations. This partnership enhances the local and regional institutional capacity to maintain and build on sustainable tourism practices, care for natural resources, and engage and educate community members.
  • Secondly, communities must take a hard look at their resources and management capacity to determine the amount of tourism they can host before the resources are damaged and community wellbeing is threatened.
  • Thirdly, communities should establish “volunteer guidelines” for visitors and community members that promote sustainable practices. Using the Maine whale watching industry as an example, communities should encourage tour operators to highlight conservation efforts and educate tourists on best practices to protect the local environment. The local ecosystem—a major regional resource—ultimately benefits under such guidelines.
  • Finally, as suggested in the Cost Rican study, local entrepreneurs should be highly involved in the sustainable ecotourism industry. For example, lobstermen and fishermen on the Maine coast lead tours and teach tourists about the local industry and ecosystem. In so doing, these entrepreneurs take advantage of regional resources to advance the goals of ecotourism.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are not without their own ecotourism initiatives, which primarily incorporate and support the area’s natural beauty.

Such island “eco-resorts” follow familiar guidelines for sustainable success: developers pay attention to natural resources and environmental sensitivity, incorporate community history and culture into tourist’s experiences, and include guided tours by local rangers to promote sustainability issues and educate visitors.

Where local entrepreneurs in Maine take advantage of ecotourism initiatives by offering tours on a lobster boat, eco-resorts connect visitors to the environment through local scuba tours, visits with local artists, and an introduction to local history and culture.

Especially so soon after the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the threat of natural disaster looms large over mass tourism and ecotourism both, and both products share similar concerns as to resiliency and rebuilding. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, eco-resorts and mass tourism industry sites alike have suffered extensively.

The difference, perhaps, is how these two products aid the community in recovering; the goal of ecotourism is, after all, to support the local community.

Mass tourism brings economic activity, yet for most destinations tourist spending is often funneled back out of the local area—what the Costa Rica case study authors call “economic leakage.” As such, mass tourism causes increased stress to the community and its environment with diminished returns, something ecotourism principles seek to avoid.

With proper planning, education, and attention to community needs and capacity, as well as heightened local involvement, ecotourism principles might, however, provide a helpful framework for a more balanced recovery.

Christopher Visentin

Virgin Islands Capital Resources, Inc.

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