Various definitions may be tacked onto the term ecotourism. Broadly it may be considered tourism centred on the observation of nature. However, more specifically, the International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that promotes conservation of the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. Important aspects of ecotourism include increasing local and visitor awareness, supporting the protection of natural areas by providing economic benefits for managers and other stakeholders and minimizing negative impacts on the natural environment as well as respecting the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities (TIES, UNEP). As the ecotourism industry grows there is increased need for the stakeholders involved to extend their roles from users of nature to proactive advocates for conservation. The EIA process can provide the link between these paradigms. There is also increasing international pressure for ecotourism to be more community-based (WWF).
Ecotourism may be perceived as being carried out in an environmentally responsible manner and it is often assumed that those participating are committed to nature conservation. Though this is the intent, this perception is often misguided and the reality is that ecotourism does often have detrimental impacts on the environment. It can border on the downright unsustainable, both ecologically and economically (Sesega 2001).
Most ecotourists do not fall under the category of being those who are environmentally enlightened, responsible and respectful towards nature but rather under the opportunistic or incidental kind (Sesega 2001). A lack of respect and sensitivity for nature means that tourist activities commonly result in littering, vandalizing, degradation of habitat, disturbance or harm to wildlife and illicit natural souvenir collection. Another issue is that the low profit margins of ecotourism businesses dictate the predominance of economic over ecological considerations (Sesega 2001). The carrying capacity of a natural site is often ignored in favour of catering to more visitors to increase profit. Defining such carrying capacities requires years of monitoring and observation which is frequently lacking by small business ecotour operators. Additionally, many negative impacts may only be easily observed collectively and can take a few years to realize. Ecotourism infrastructure is often poorly designed and managed. This may be due to a lack of proper guidelines or standards, impact assessment and/or legislation (Sesega 2001).
However, the effects of ecotourism can also be positive by generating awareness and support for conservation and local culture and by creating economic opportunities on global and local scales. The implementation of adequate assessment, regulation and accreditation procedures are necessary to realize this potential.
This is where Environmental Impact Assessment comes in. The EIA process should be employed before major ecotourism operations are implemented to determine both project feasibility and potential impacts on the natural environment and on social and cultural aspects of local communities. The WWF (2001) recommends the undertaking of an initial feasibility assessment before commencing any community-based tourism effort. A number of necessary basic conditions include the need for an ecosystem to be at least able to absorb a managed level of visitation without damage and that no threats to indigenous culture or traditions exist. The public participation aspect of EIA is particularly important as members of the local community could voice opinions on whether or not ecotourism projects would benefit their community. The EIA process could be used to determine appropriate management tools as “mitigation” measures. These may include appropriate group sizes, visitor behavioural conduct training, effective communication strategies, raising awareness and education and skilled tour guiding. Accreditation could be granted to ecotourism proponents that, having successfully carried out an EIA, are now practicing sustainable measures. This would allow ecotourists to be better informed regarding their choices in accommodation and activities. Close and constant monitoring would ensure that sustainable practices are maintained and that any other unforeseen potential impacts may be negated.
TIES, n.d. What is Ecotourism? The International Ecotourism Society. Accessed Nov. 10, 2011 [http://www.ecotourism.org/site/c.orLQKXPCLmF/b.4835303/k.BEB9/What_is_Ecotourism__The_International_Ecotourism_Society.htm]
UNEP, n.d. Sustainable Tourism: Definition. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Division of Technology, Industry and Economics. Accessed Nov. 10, 2011 [http://www.unep.fr/scp/tourism/sustain/]
Sesega, S. 2001. Ecotourism and the Pacific Islands Environment – impacts, potential and implications for management. Seminar on the Sustainable Development of Ecotourism in the Pacific Islands, Suva, Fiji.
WWF-International (2001). Guidelines for community-based ecotourism development. WWF-UK.