You're walking along a forest path. It's a bright, sunny day, and the world around you is abuzz with bird calls. You listen to the soft rustling of tree branches as a gentle gust of wind peacefully passes through. Here and there, a forest critter leaps between tree trunks, and you are simply amazed by the boundless shapes of life! You take off your backpack and dump all of its contents onto the ground, leaving trash and litter everywhere until you find the development contract that will allow you to bulldoze this entire place to the ground—

Ecotourism Ecotourism

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    Wait, NO! There's a time and place for urbanization and industry, but today we're here as ecotourists. Our goal is to enjoy the environment and leave no trace. There are several different ecotourist principles and types. Ecotourism has numerous benefits, but not everyone is on board. Hike on to learn more!

    Ecotourism Definition

    If you've ever explored someplace away from your hometown, you've been a tourist. Tourism often conjures up images of families enjoying a theme park together on a warm summer's day, or young travelers wandering through sprawling European cities—but tourism occurs in our world's vast wilderness areas as well.

    Ecotourism is distinguished from normal tourism in that it specifically concerns the natural environment. However, ecotourism is not just the act of visiting a national or state park or a wilderness area. It is a specific approach or method to visiting these areas.

    Ecotourism is a type of nature-based tourism that emphasizes reducing or eliminating your environmental impact.

    The main goal of ecotourism is to preserve natural environmental conditions, primarily so that natural ecosystems maintain themselves without interruption, but also so that future generations can enjoy natural sites in the same way that modern tourists can.

    Ecotourism-based businesses seek to offer ecotourism experiences. Their goal is to make your visit to wilderness areas as environmentally friendly as possible.

    Ecotourism is considered a form of sustainable development. Inherently, ecotourism is a deliberate attempt to sustain natural tourist sites for future generations. Check out our explanation on Sustainable Development for more information!

    Ecotourism is sometimes called green tourism. A related concept, eco-friendly tourism, also seeks to minimize your environmental footprint but does not necessarily involve natural sites. For example, a trip to Rome or New York City could theoretically be eco-friendly if you use public transit for transportation and recycle your waste.

    Ecotourism Principles

    There have been several attempts to codify how ecotourism should be practiced. In 2008, author Martha Honey, co-founder of the Center for Responsible Travel, suggested seven principles for ecotourists and ecotourism-based businesses.1 They are:

    1. Travel to natural destinations
    2. Minimize impact
    3. Build environmental awareness
    4. Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
    5. Provide financial benefits and power for local people
    6. Respect local culture
    7. Support human rights and democratic movements

    Honey's principles are geared toward making ecotourism financially sustainable. Simply conserving the environment does not make ecotourism sustainable. It also must be financially profitable and benefit local communities. Otherwise, the appeal of pristine nature will likely eventually yield to an expanding need for natural resources. In other words, ecotourism can hold urbanization and industrialization at bay so long as it provides an alternate source of stable income for local people. This is why over half of Honey's ecotourism principles directly pertain to people rather than nature.

    It is not always easy to differentiate explicitly ecotourism-based businesses. There are several different organizations that provide accreditation or certification to ecotourism-based businesses. The common goal of these organizations is to verify that a business is responsibly meeting ecotourist principles and promoting sustainable development. Organizations include, but are not limited to, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, the International Ecotourism Society, and Ecotourism Australia.

    Because ecotourism is a relatively new concept, standards can be inconsistent. No organization, for example, is explicitly following Honey's seven principles, although most organizations share similar criteria.

    Types of Ecotourism

    There are two overarching types of ecotourism: hard ecotourism and soft ecotourism.

    Soft ecotourism is typically the more accessible form of tourism. It requires less physical exertion and less disconnect from civilization and is typically accessed through an ecotourism-based business or a government agency. Soft ecotourism provides a relatively hassle-free chance to experience nature. Soft ecotourism can be as simple as going for a stroll in your nearest state park and watching the birds and plants.

    Ecotourism, Ecotourist Types, Bird Watching, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Birdwatching or "birding" is a form of soft ecotourism

    Hard ecotourism is, well, a little more hardcore. This is "roughing it"—getting stuck in a wild place, with or without the guidance of an ecotour business or any of the services we usually rely on in society. Hard ecotourism requires more self-reliance and physical fitness. Think primitive camping deep within an unmonitored wilderness area.

    Both soft and hard ecotourism revolve around traveling to natural environments while limiting your environmental impact. One could argue that soft ecotourism is more economically and culturally sustainable, but does not offer a truly "wild" experience as hard ecotourism does.

    Some geographers identify a third form of ecotourism, adventure ecotourism, which revolves around intense physical activity or sport, like ziplining or surfing, in a natural environment.

    Ecotourism Examples

    So we know most ecotourism excursions can be classified as either hard or soft, but what actual activities qualify as ecotourism?

    Expeditions, Treks, and Hikes

    Probably the most common form of ecotourism is an expedition or trek of some kind. This can take many forms. As we mentioned earlier, a simple, brief walk in your local state park is a form of ecotourism, as is unintrusive birdwatching. Going on a safari to see the wildlife of Tanzania can also count as ecotourism, even if you sleep in a cozy hotel with room service. The trip has provided income for multiple businesses, that are then financially incentivized to keep local wildlife alive and natural ecosystems intact. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a hike on the Appalachian Trail, a 2,190-mile journey with limited access to resources.

    Camping and Glamping

    You won't make it far on the Appalachian Trail without camping—sleeping overnight in a natural area, another common form of ecotourism. One form of camping is primitive camping, which is camping with access to virtually no human-made resources besides what you can fit in the backpack you bring with you. An increasingly popular form of camping is glamping, a portmanteau of "glamorous camping." Glamping sites can feature luxury tents or even small cabins. The aim of glamping is to offer a comfortable experience in a secluded environment. Most camping experiences fall somewhere in between. Many campsites in US national parks offer running water, limited electricity, and public restrooms, but you'll usually need to bring your own tent.

    Ecotourism, Ecotourism Examples, Glamping, StudySmaterFig. 2 - Glamping sites often feature luxury tents

    Agrotourism is farm-based tourism. Farmers may give visitors a tour of their farm, an overview of their careers, and even allow them to interact with farm animals like sheep, goats, horses, and alpacas. Farms are artificial ecosystems, in that they are artificially maintained by humans, so it is debatable whether agrotourism can be properly considered a form of ecotourism. Agrotourism can be a very profitable source of income for small farms.

    Ecotourism Benefits

    When done right, ecotourism can make it financially profitable to protect the environment. By turning nature into a tourist destination, ecotourism provides jobs, generates money, and imparts an appreciation for the natural world that extends beyond the resources we can get from it.

    Ecotourism is growing. Globally, ecotourism is expected to generate as much as $100 billion annually within the next five years. Long-term, ecotourism may prove to be one of the most financially profitable uses of land.

    Ecotourism, Ecotourism Benefits, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Ecotourism, especially organized tours, can generate a lot of income

    This all works to prevent resource extraction and land development. Ecotourism helps maintain ecosystems and slow environmental degradation, which positively impacts humans in less tangible ways. We depend on these ecosystems to regulate the environment, of which we are a part.

    Disadvantages of Ecotourism

    There are two major disadvantages of ecotourism: negative environmental impact and disruption of local or native traditions.

    Negative Environmental Effects

    But wait—we've just waxed poetic about how ecotourism can be good for the environment! While inviting tourists to enter the natural world is better for a natural area than building an apartment complex or highway over it, human intrusion into a natural landscape will have some kind of effect. Most ecotourists try to "take only memories, leave only footprints," but some waste will inevitably be left behind. Just the act of traveling through a pristine wilderness can disrupt it. Wildlife viewing in particular can acclimate wild animals to humans, which can lead to dangerous or even deadly interactions as animals lose their fear of people.

    Erosion of Traditional Lifestyles

    Despite Martha Honey's deference to local culture, ecotourism (especially soft ecotourism) is also dependent on global capitalism to function. Some native groups, like the San, Omaha, and Maasai, have deliberately resisted globalism, capitalism, or both, especially since the conservation aspect of ecotourism is at odds with traditional subsistence hunting and gathering and/or nomadic pastoralism. These groups may be forced to pick between profit-based industrialization or profit-based ecotourism in a world that is increasingly interconnected and monetary in nature.

    Ecotourism - Key takeaways

    • Ecotourism is a type of nature-based tourism that emphasizes reducing or eliminating your environmental impact.
    • Ecotourism seeks to protect natural areas by providing a financial incentive to keep them intact.
    • The two major types of ecotourism are soft ecotourism and hard ecotourism.
    • Ecotourism can include hiking, camping, birdwatching, going on safari, surfing, or even a simple walk in a state park.
    • Ecotourism has proven to be very profitable and effective at protecting nature, but ecotourism can still harm the environment and disrupt native lifestyles.


    1. Honey, M. 'Ecotourism and sustainable development, 2nd edition.' Island Press. 2008.
    2. Fig. 3: Ecotourism ( by Woodwalker ( License Type: CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ecotourism

    What do you mean by ecotourism? 

    Ecotourism is essentially a type of nature-based tourism that emphasizes reducing or eliminating your environmental impact. It creates a financial incentive to preserve natural areas.

    What is an example of ecotourism? 

    Camping, hiking, and wildlife viewing are all examples of ecotourism. A specific example of ecotourism would be visiting Tanzania to see native wildlife. 

    What is the main goal of ecotourism? 

    The main goal of ecotourism is to preserve the environment, both for the enjoyment of future generations and for natural ecosystems in and of themselves.

    What are seven principles of ecotourism? 

    Martha Honey developed these seven principles of ecotourism: 

    1. Travel to natural destinations
    2. Minimize impact
    3. Build environmental awareness
    4. Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
    5. Provide financial benefits and power for local people
    6. Respect local culture
    7. Support human rights and democratic movements

    What are the two main disadvantages of ecotourism? 

    In spite of its best intentions, ecotourism can still cause environmental damage. Additionally, it may disrupt native or local lifestyles.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Ecotourism is a form of _________ development. 

    Ecotourism is sometimes called: 

    Which of the following is NOT one of Martha Honey's seven principles of ecotourism? 

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