Ecotourism is often presented as the savior for wildlife and wild places — providing local communities with financial incentives to preserve nature while also reducing poaching and development pressure.

But, lately, others question whether rich Westerners jetting around the world really help much at all: They disturb animals, create demands for new development and only employ local people in low paying jobs.

Some conservationists even consider tourism to be a significant threat to natural areas.

Which view is correct? Is ecotourism a problem, or a solution?

My biases up front: I’d rather travel for the purpose of seeing wildlife and enjoying various outdoor activities than just about anything. My wife has remarked it’s my drug of choice.

That aside, I still think the issue of ecotourism defies easy answers. Problem or solution?

It depends.

Certainly, the ecological havoc wreaked by tourists in places like the Galapagos is well documented. A fragile ecosystem, animals unafraid of humans and an increasing number of cruise ships has been a recipe for disaster.

One doesn’t have to look hard to see tourists behaving badly in nature.

People harass and feed wild bison, leave trash strewn across the Himalayas, demand resorts in places they shouldn’t be — the list is long.

And then there’s the whole carbon footprint issue. We all know that flying has tremendous impacts, so can we really justify flying off to some far-off corner of the world to see animals or scenery?

These are important concerns. Without a doubt, ecotourism can be a threat. But is it always?

After all, would there even be a Galapagos left as we know it if it wasn’t for tourism? Really?

Consider other island ecosystems and how difficult it is to conserve native island wildlife. If it wasn’t for those tour boats, the Galapagos would likely be a highly developed, rat-infested island devoid of wildlife.

Yellowstone may at times be crowded with tourists behaving badly, but would there still be herds of bison and packs of wolves and grizzly bears without those tourists?

The Serengeti faces issues, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the wildebeest population there continues to migrate, during a period of time when so many other large mammal migrations have disappeared.

Private ranches in places like Brazil’s Pantanal and Namibia still have large populations of wildlife, in part because many ranchers here now attract tourists. It seems naïve to expect that they will keep conserving wildlife if visitors quit showing up.

Ecotourism, ultimately, is a complicated issue. And in that way, it’s not so different from most other conservation issues.

Some conservationists have the tendency to declare activities as simply “good” or “bad” — whether it’s ecotourism, ranching, timber harvest, invasive species, hunting, fire, or agriculture. All have their proponents and detractors.

However, we should make decisions based on the reality of our world, not on utopian fantasies where humans no longer have any impacts on nature.

We can work to make sure that ecotourism is done in appropriate ways that benefit wildlife and local communities.

And as the saying goes, conservationists can’t “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Ecotourism isn’t perfect.

In many cases, though, it’s the best solution we have.

(Photo: Caimans draw tourists to Brazil’s Pantanal. Credit: Matt Miller/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Ecotourism itself may not be bad, but the dependency on it is. It becomes like a drug, demanding more and more, and when it fails, the consequences are awful.

    Ecotourism should only be used as a small (and undependable) part of a revenue stream that conservationists use to protect an area. Tourists are fickle and very sensitive to any type of disturbance – especially the combination of politics and violence (Kenyan tourism has still not recovered from the political unrest of 2007).

  2. Eco-tourism is in a way, facing the same thing that Zoo’s and Aquariums have had to wrestle with: when is the benefit of education outweighed by the impacts to that in which we are educating about.
    In simpler terms, when does the impact to the blue-footed boobies habitat surpass the benefit of educating people to save it.

  3. The problem that I have with Ecotourism is two fold: First, it always comes with a price tag and, secondly, it sounds as though something new is being invented.

    I question motives when I see the multi-day packages selling for thousands of dollars. Ecotourism is a commodity to sell. Those who lament about it are selling it. I’m not buying.

    Ecotourism is what my family calls “vacation”. Travelling from National Park to National Park for the past 50 years and RVing along the way makes me realize that someone is trying to repackage and sell what already exists.

    Then who is buying?

    I believe it is largely a population who has not discovered what some of us have known for an entire lifetime: Vacationing in Nature beats all!

    What we have to learn now is how to be better visitors. And for this we depend upon organizations such as the Nature Conservancy to help us improve our citizenship in nature.

  4. I can definitely see how ecotourism can be seen as merely disturbing to the wildlife and a waste of jet fuel especially since people enjoy mixing luxury travel with eco travel. However, if you do ecotourism right, do a lot of research on your destination and what you plan to do when there you can find eco hotels and tour companies that really make an effort to be environmentally friendly. Eco tourism can increase the traveler’s appreciation for nature, which is always a positive thing.

  5. I think ecotourism should be a form of experiential learning for people to appreciate nature.Though it comes with a price but it should definitely inform, promote mental and physical balance of tourists as well as help in redistributing wealth because you can only sell what you have.

  6. This write-up is apt. Striking the balance between ecotourism and sustainable development is key to making it a future rather than a fad.

  7. An ecotourism is a great pillars of
    sustainable tourism and conservation development for nations that took it as the main principles of environmental management.there some constraints remain such as low level of infrastructures and professional tour guides at destinations.governments must seek the trusted measure that will rejects these issues.

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