Balancing Costs and Benefits of Eco-tourism

Nowhere is there such a dichotomy between human survival and the conservation of nature than in the developing world. Take many parts of Africa for instance, where poverty and lack of resources force people to clear cut trees for fuel, building materials and to clear land for crops. In the face of global environmental degradation however, protecting land and wildlife to the exclusion of human use has been a strategy employed extensively in many countries.

Placing humans as separate from nature has in many cases caused displacement of people from their lands, promoted changes in social and gender interactions, and fostered in others a negative relationship towards institutionalized conservancy (West et al., 2006). Protecting areas to the exclusion of humans may protect ecosystems and particular species more effectively in many cases, it also has a large trade off on the human impact side of the equation. When looking at environmental impact overall, this cannot be ignored.

In many places throughout the world, Eco-tourism has become the solution to bringing together natural protection and sustainable livelihoods. Eco-lodges, when run correctly, have the potential to provide income for people otherwise being excluded from protected areas, while at the same time helping conserve the land and wildlife. Local communities can benefit through direct employment, by selling goods to the lodge, indirectly by selling goods to tourists, or through a variety of projects that can be set-up by the lodge and its owners.

For all the potential good these types of projects may do, there is a serious need to examine not only their potential environmental impacts, but also their social impacts. Looking purely at the “environmental” side of things (non-human), eco-tourism carries certain impacts that a conservancy does not. Tourists bring pollution (trash, increased motor use), erosion from trails, and general stress on plant and animal species from exposure to pathogens or simple physical disturbance. Socially, tourism can serve to commodify both nature and the social and cultural practices of local communities involved. This can lead to westernization of local cultures and erode the value that certain cultural practices have within communities.

On the other hand, eco-tourism has the potential to educate tourists and local people about the value of ecosystems and their components. It has been shown that satisfying experiences in eco-tourism can increase favorable attitudes towards the environment (Lee & Moscardo, 2008). It has also been my experience in talking with many people who live around Kibale National Park in Uganda (as well as people in Zanzibar and Rwanda) that benefitting from conservancy and eco-tourism creates a much brighter outlook on the policies of conservation, and encourages people to learn about the environment being protected. Of course, there is the counter argument that when those tangible benefits disappear, so will the positive attitudes. I would not argue against the fact that when faced with a struggle for survival, environmental concerns take a backseat. Nonetheless, attitudinal change is a positive outcome of a successful project.

Another important aspect of eco-tourism that warrants further investigation, particularly in ex-colonial countries, is the issue of ownership. Many eco-lodges in developing countries are owned by Europeans, or by white colonial people, and are frequented generally by those same types of people. This can be problematic as it can be seen as a form of neo-colonialism, whereby the local people are dependent on the foreign or white owner for money and placing western education and values above what existed there prior. It is not within the scope of this blog to discuss this at length, but it is necessary to keep this in mind when assessing long-term impacts of such projects. Watch below a video from UNEP on eco-tourism. Though it doesn’t explore this hierarchy, it is quickly visible.

As we know, social impact assessment lags a good deal behind regular environmental assessment and is subject to examination under the dominant academic social science paradigm (so its parameters are subject to change). Eco-tourism, for all its potential and realized positive results, requires continued consideration for its social impacts, particularly in the long term.


Lee, W H, G Moscardo. 2005. “Understanding the Impact of Ecotourism Resort Experiences on Tourists’ Environmental Attitudes and Behavioural Intentions”. Journal of Sustainable Tourism. 13(6): 546-565.

West, P, J Igoe, D Brockington. 2006. “Parks and Peoples: The Social Impact of Protected Areas”. Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol 35: 251–277.


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