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date: 30 April 2017


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Ecotourism is an evolving field that originated in the 1980s, when leading conservationists explored and wrote seminal papers on how tourism could contribute to the conservation of natural areas. Hector Ceballos Lascurain coined the first definition, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy all undertook research and documentation of the benefits and potential risks of ecotourism in the 1990s. The International Ecotourism Society, founded in 1990, brought together conservation organizations and businesses to create the first definition that was globally accepted in short form: Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.

Small group tour operators flourished during the 1990s, bringing travelers to a growing number of natural areas worldwide, together with top guiding, high-caliber interpretation, and strong ethical contributions to local wellbeing. Many important micro, small, and medium sized enterprises were founded in high biodiversity regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and throughout the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean, offering life-changing experiences while helping build conservation economies and inspiring positive action.

In 2015, nature-based tourism was estimated to have an economic value worldwide of hundreds of billions of dollars annually in protected areas alone, driven by the growing need of a rapidly urbanizing world to experience and reconnect with wild nature. However, this growth has not resulted in growing budgets to safeguard and manage natural areas, which are increasingly under threat. Scientific concerns that poor business practices under the guise of ecotourism might irreversibly damage fragile natural areas have led the conservation community to de-emphasize ecotourism as a conservation tool in favor of business certification. But these efforts have reached only a small percentage of the corporate sector of the eight trillion dollar global tourism industry.

Although the net economic, social, and environmental contributions of ecotourism have not been fully accounted for, the research to date has confirmed the conservation value of ecotourism—among the first examples of social enterprise. One well-documented case is Wilderness Safaris, an $89 million company operating in 58 destinations in Southern Africa in 2015, which reinvests at least 5% of its gross profit (before taxation and depreciation) to help protect the natural assets and support local communities on which the business depends. This example suggests that ecotourism can yield benefits for the conservation of biodiversity and can benefit local communities on a large scale. To increase ecotourism’s role in sustainable development, more businesses will need to scale up, and government management of tourism will require improved impact measurements, updated regulatory strategies, and effective policy mechanisms to garner a greater portion of tourism revenue.