Ecotourism: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

  1. tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, especially to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife.

What IS Ecotourism?

Most of us are familiar with the concept of ‘ecotourism’, and since you’re reading this you have probably even participated in an activity or stayed at a place that advertises itself as such.  You might have chosen it based on that point alone, right?  In fact, ecotourism can be good for more than a few reasons, not the least of which is the awareness and (hopefully) conservation of threatened habitats and species.  The definition above even uses the word ‘conservation’, and in the context of the definition implies that wildlife and habitats should benefit from those activities.  But while the idea behind ecotourism is a good one, the results are not always good for wildlife and ecosystems.  Those of us that participate, either as operators or guests, are likely aware of at least some of the conservation issues surrounding the resource we are visiting, but many users are not familiar with the costs of ecotourism itself.  The following is a brief overview of some of the best, and worst, of the industry, and I hope that after reading you will be a more educated and aware visitor to the world’s most special places.

As much as we’d like to believe that sharing the world’s treasures can’t be a bad thing, the reality is that wherever people go there is an impact.  For instance, we’ve all heard of “The Tragedy of the Commons”.  Applying that concept to ecotourism we find that without some limit to our visitation, usage, and means of restoration, the resource becomes degraded.  We can see this manifested as road expansion, deforestation, waste from litter or motor vehicles, noise pollution, decreased animal survivorship, and loss of biodiversity…just to name a few.  For many visitors, too, there comes a point in which the number of visitors detracts from the experience of others.

Let’s start with a simple example; for instance, whale-watching.  Whale watching is a fascinating activity that educates people about the behavior, intelligence, and social network of whales and some of the threats they face during their lives in the sea.  Presumably this awareness increases donations to conservation agencies and may even increase pressure on governments to tighten up regulations.  This kind of publicity also influences popular science and encourages research through available grant funding.  But as the activity gains popularity, these issues unfold:

-more boats clutter the waters, creating physical hazards,

-noise pollution affects whales’ communication abilities,

-whales can be displaced from food, and food sources can be displaced, and

-stress can affect parenting and feeding behaviors.

Taken as a whole, these pressures can affect how many whales survive.  Eager guests also want the best photographs, which puts pressure on captains and crews to get closer and maneuver so that other boats aren’t in the background of priceless photographs.  If each boat pushes the limits a little more, this exponentially increases the likelihood of those negative consequences.  And of course, we haven’t even mentioned pollution in the form of fossil fuel consumption, which ultimately affects the health and productivity of the ocean ecosystems overall.


Another problem with ecotourism is that the word itself has become a form of ‘greenwashing’; this is simply the claim that something is what it actually isn’t in order to sell more experiences.  Most visitors care to some degree about animals, so it makes sense that operators try to convince them that they (the company) are doing the ‘right things’ when it comes to protecting resources.  These operators rely on the naiveté of their guests or clever marketing strategies to promote careless practices as safe ones.  Often it is easy to see the negative consequences that bring immediate effects, such as scaring a herd of buffalo toward a pride of lions, however it is often the long-term consequences, such as habitat degradation, that visitors and operators alike overlook.  In order to combat this, many certification boards have popped up that allow eco-tours and lodges to voluntarily jump through a series of hoops in order to earn a stamp of approval.  Restoration programs, operator education and training, and sustainability agreements are all examples of initiatives that help qualify organizations.  Often, these certification programs have been designed in an attempt to develop some sort of standard and provide reliable information to consumers.  Unfortunately, there is no universal regulatory board to define best practices, and even fewer still to provide the boots-on-the-ground to enforce standards.  This is not to say that some stewardship or sustainability certificates or councils are not meaningful or reputable…simply that we should be aware that some of them are bogus, and perhaps a little more research can reveal the truth.

So how will you know if an activity or location is conscientious and gives back to the resource?  With the certifying council, look for both a domestic and international presence.  International oversight without local buy-in and support is meaningless, and often domestic-only is more subject to corruption.  Also, check the board of directors or contributors of both the certifying agency and the operator.  Are there qualified people listed?  Is there research being conducted?  Quite often reputable organizations will staff research biologists, attorneys, etc, and they might be listed on an ‘About Us’ page or directory.  Is the council also a tour provider?  Good certifying agencies probably will not also provide services…an obvious conflict of interest.  For operators, look for actual conservation projects, evidence of community involvement, and statements about minimizing impacts on the website of operators.  If they aren’t listed, don’t be afraid to write and ask before you give them your money!!

Money, money, money…

Speaking of money…One of the biggest problems with many ecotours is that little, if any, of the money garnered for services in exploitation of natural resources and wildlife actually makes its way back to those resources.  Even in National Parks within the United States, only a small portion of the entrance fee goes to the park.  Most of that is absorbed by park personnel salaries, vehicle maintenance, and services, etc.  In the case of the most visited parks, portions of fees help sustain lesser-known parks that cannot sustain themselves.

Now, the care of our National Parks and indeed those around the world is somewhat of a political and philosophical discussion.  In fact, it has been in the news recently as the current U.S. administration hikes up the rates for visitation in 17 of the most visited parks.  It also created quite a stir on social media.  So, should these costs be passed on to the consumer, or should the government quit pirating tax funds from the Park system?  My answer is BOTH- and more!

  1. Our federal government must absolutely stop stripping away funding for the parks. But a certain amount of this is in the hands of the voters! We need to put people in office that care about the benefits of nature parks, to include not only ecological benefits, but also human health and wellbeing.
  2. We as citizens SHOULD be willing to pay a little more to help protect our parks- provided that the funds aren’t stripped away by the government. If you think paying $70 per car-full of people is expensive for a full day at a National Park, try taking your family of four to a 2-hour movie and see how much you spend. Priorities, people.
  3. Any commercial user should be required to pay more. For better or worse, commercial operators make money exploiting natural resources. I know, because I’m one of them.  Tourists’ dollars go directly from the guests to the pockets of operators, while virtually none finds its way into mitigating the impacts of tourism aforementioned.  To one degree or another around the world, tour operators use roads, create noise and waste, eventually degrade ecosystems, and impact wildlife.  They ultimately aid in the growth of popularity both through advertising and word-of-mouth by their guests.  This attention increases popularity and the impact grows.  Operators become money-rich while the resource becomes ecologically poorer.  On the other hand, other activities involving wildlife and ecosystems, such as hunting, support conservation through the sale of licenses and tags.  Each hunter is required to purchase a license and in some cases a tag or stamp.  Not only does this help manage the hunted species, it also goes into habitat development, conservation, and management of endangered or threatened species.  Because ecotourism exploits the environment in its own way, not simply through harvest, I think eco-users participating in commercial tours should pay a usage tax or purchase a stamp.  That money would go directly into conservation.  In my line of work, this would translate to a ‘viewing stamp’, such that bear viewers would pay a little extra per person (the equivalent of a hunting stamp) to acquire a permit for the duration of their stay.  That money would then be used to monitor and enhance bear habitat, protection, and research the viewing impact on bears.
  4. International guests should pay more than domestic visitors. The international crowd of visitors to U.S. National Parks is enormous, and with enormous visitation comes enormous impacts. Why should U.S. citizens shoulder that financial burden?  I don’t want to exclude international guests, and I definitely want them to feel welcome here, but I do feel like the parks are in the trust of the American people and any impact from non-U.S. citizens should be covered by the guest.  I would personally be happy to pay more than a citizen while visiting another country’s Parks.  In fact, I’m quite certain that this exists in other countries around the world.  This definitely exists in other industries, whereas ‘members’ pay less than ‘guests’.  This is easily transferrable to the U.S. park system.

Regulation and Management

This international perspective is a great segue into the next part of this blog.  Around the world we see ecotourism destinations managed in all sorts of ways.  Some are managed exclusively by the government, others are community-based, some are privately-owned reserves, and others still are managed jointly by local and federal governments, non-governmental organizations, and international committees.  In general, the best system to-date is that of the privately managed reserve working with specialized experts.  Managed much like a business, these folks protect their reserve and put money back into it because it is their life’s work.  They love it, they live off it, and they want to pass it on to their children and share it with others.  Private reserve owners use funds raised by tourism, grants, and government incentives to build and sustain the resource.  Simply put: they need it and it needs them.  On the other side of the spectrum, tour operators that use public lands (like National Parks) for commercial use do not own the land and are not responsible for its upkeep and protection.  Upkeep falls on the public, so operators are not directly invested.  Many (but not all!) only have eyes for the personal gain.  The money that they receive for their services goes into their pocket to grow their business and nothing more…minus perhaps the usage fees and annual permits that we discussed previously.

The way a reserve or location is managed, and by whom, is indeed a very important piece of the puzzle.  Great success has been achieved through interagency and interdisciplinary cooperation.  This means involving and employing local people and governments, the federal government, and special interest groups or research agencies.  The latter two serve as advocates and provide specialized training and consultation.  Local buy-in for any reserve is absolutely essential for sustainability, and believe it or not some of the best examples come out of Africa.  There, poaching and human/wildlife conflict has resulted in the serious decline of many species.  Through community involvement and some dedicated groups, however, some places have made it more profitable for locals to engage in ecotourism rather than poaching.

‘Good’ Ecotourism

While claims of ecotourism can be an outright lie, it certainly isn’t always so.  Some companies and locations make genuine efforts to reduce their ‘footprint’ in areas that they use, minimize the stress on wildlife, and put money back into the resource.  Most places and activities fall somewhere on a continuum between good and terrible.  In a perfect world, we’d like to have no negative effects, but the reality is that we need some form of balance…the trade-off.

So what is ‘good’ ecotourism?  For starters, good ecotourism puts money back into the hands of those that are prepared to protect and restore the resource.  Projects may be very simple, from storm-water management and trail monitoring to more expensive and complex projects such as habitat restoration and population research.  Responsible operators also pay attention to the effect their actions, services, or activities have on the environment.  Once these effects have been identified, they look for ways to minimize that impact without sacrificing guest satisfaction- this is the ‘trade-off’.  With wildlife viewing, it is highly beneficial to understand stress behavior and individual animals’ personalities and tolerances.  Understanding these things helps us know when to leave, and if we are causing or worsening a stressful situation.  In my line of work, a good bear guide knows that his/her group can provide a safe haven for mothers with cubs but in the next moment frighten them with noises or sudden movements.  Responsible guides know both the bears they view and the group they lead.  Some groups may be disruptive, pushy, or inattentive and require stricter group management or greater distances between the group and the bears.  Foot traffic and motor vehicle use is also a common issue in environmental degradation.  Simple self-regulation techniques such staying on designated paths and giving high-traffic areas a ‘break’ to heal can dramatically increase the sustainability of an area and the activities it supports.

Case Example:  Bear-Viewing

Lake Clark National Park is a safe, healthy place for bears and good candidate for sustainable ecotourism. There are no roads, so visitor traffic may only arrive by boat or airplane and is thus relatively self-limiting.  The area supports one of the largest concentrations of brown bears in the world.  In the confines of the park there is no hunting, and all activities are regulated in some way, shape or form.  ATV use, for example, is limited to designated trails.  Air traffic has minimum cruising height requirements and landing is only permitted on private inholdings or on the beach, which is controlled by the state of Alaska.  Periodical closings of sensitive habitats occur as needed and these are decided by an onsite park ranger.  Some of the highest-profile issues could include: crowding or harassment of wildlife, overharvest of salmon, habitat degradation, noise pollution, and increasing visitor use.  Operators within the Silver Salmon Creek area fall into two general categories: overnight and day users.  Overnight users almost always stay at one of two lodges on private inholdings.  The owners have a vested interest in the health of the area and tend to be very conscientious and protective.  However they also have a greater per-operator presence.  Day users arrive by aircraft with a pilot-guide and stay from 30 minutes up to about 8 hours.  Comparatively speaking, they have no stake in the wellbeing of the location, and if there are few bears can simply fly to another location.  They might make multiple trips in a day.  Obviously, both opportunities have their pluses and minuses.

With all that said, when visiting the park you must choose your operator for bear-viewing.  There are definitely some considerations ahead of time and some things to watch for during your experience.  At most viewing locations, it is often the same bear or bears that are being viewed throughout a given season.  In time, many bears become quite tolerant of humans and the ways/means of bear-viewing.  But, it is important to know that not all bears are the same; they each respond in different ways and are also subject to other variables that may change how they react to you.  Examples of these variables include other bears (a big factor) and wind (affects ability to hear and smell).  Just the smell of a male bear in an area can put mothers with cubs on edge.  The wind blows smells around and limits hearing ability, therefore a bear is less able to identify a problem and the direction it is coming from.

In almost all cases, what a bear fears most is other bears.  And while many viewable bears are tolerant of people they still generally want to be left alone.  With these things in mind, a good guide will know not to let his/her group spread out to form a barrier if the bear is ready to leave or needs to escape a threat.  In general, inhibiting a bear’s path of travel is poor practice anyway and should be avoided.  Your guide should probably be able to read the path of travel or foraging and act accordingly, or move your group if it looks like the bear wants to move in your direction.  Spreading out is also very intimidating to bears, so groups should be tight together to be minimally invasive.  Experienced guides will also be able to tell when a bear has had enough.  It’s good practice that if a bear moves away intentionally (as opposed to moving a short distance to forage) it should not be followed.

Another important consideration is how we approach a bear.  If you’re approaching on foot, approaching indirectly and single-file is less intimidating than a direct approach as a ‘wall’ of people.  We know this from watching bear behavior, whereas the type of approach signals the intention of the approacher.  We also know that motor vehicles can be invasive to bears and other wildlife, but in particular helicopters seem to be especially scary.  Any time a vehicle is used, animals should never be pursued or ‘hovered-over’.  In other words, vehicles should only be used to find, not follow.  Vehicle-based viewing guides should have the experience to know when to stop and turn off their engine based on the bear, its behavior, or the situation.  We use ATVs where I work to help us cover a lot of ground in search of bears.  When we find them, we stop short and walk the rest of the way and always stay on designated routes that bears know.  Sometimes a bear will see and hear the ATV and I can tell it’s unsure and maybe a little nervous.  At that time, I will turn off the ATV, walk a short distance away from it, and throw up a little wave.  Not to say ‘hi’, of course…I have then identified myself as human and not another bear, and more times than not the nervousness falls away, the bear resumes its activity, and I can resume travel.  Why this works I’m not exactly sure.  Bears see pretty well, but from a distance the ATV is shaped somewhat like a bear.  The act of getting off the ATV may help the bear determine that it is not a threat.

Now up to this point we’ve only talked about our direct impact on bears, but there are many other effects of our actions.  If we aren’t careful we can be a big distraction that affects a bear’s fishing success.  We can also damage ecosystems through vehicle and foot traffic.  In coastal Alaska we have salt marshes, and some of the plants that live there are susceptible to breakage underfoot.  Enough people each walking their own path can have a serious impact.  Not only do bears and other animals forage on these plants, but ground-nesting birds also use those areas to raise their families.  As visitor use increases, so do these deleterious effects.  With growing numbers of people also come trash, airplane noise, and guides with varying levels of experience, training, and respect.  There is no required training or experience to be a guide, so the result is often the pilot/guide, some of which have little experience or real knowledge of bears and their behavior.  Not only is this a potential safety hazard, but less-experienced guides tend to also have less respect.  Most of these operators have little invested in the resource and some have little more than money in mind.  They have an airplane, thus they have mobility, and therefore have little reason to protect a given location in favor of simply going elsewhere when the resource becomes degraded.  Keep in mind that this is a broad generalization.  There are many fantastic guides, pilots, and pilot/guides that have been doing this for decades, that care very deeply, and that I would trust with my life!!

As I wrap this up I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you with information.  This is really just a broad overview; I couldn’t possibly tell you everything that you might need to know.  But, I hope you have found some of this information useful and at least have a better idea how to choose an adventure and perhaps some questions to ask.  If you take away nothing else, don’t be ashamed or afraid to make sure your money goes to the most deserving candidate with the right values in mind!  There’s almost always a choice- and I hope you’ll choose wisely!


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