What Is Ecotourism, and How Can It Help the Environment?

It's easier and more important than ever to be a responsible traveler. Here's what you need to know about ecotourism before booking your next trip.

With travel and the environment in the news so much lately, you’ve probably heard the word ecotourism tossed around—especially after stories about places ruined by tourism. As travelers become more aware of their effect on the planet and want to do their part to make a positive difference and live more sustainably, ecotourism has really taken off.

According to the Business Research Company, the global ecotourism market is expected to grow from $157.76 billion in 2021 to $185.43 billion in 2022, reaching a whopping $299.03 billion in 2026. “Awareness of our negative impact on the environment is finally on the forefront of many people’s minds,” says Andréa Bernholtz, a sustainable travel and lifestyle expert. “Eco-sourced foods have become more mainstream, and during the pandemic, people rethought how they want to live their lives and reevaluated what’s really important.”

But what is ecotourism, exactly, and how is it different from sustainable travel? Is it about considering the environmental impact of driving vs. flying and choosing eco-friendly cars? Is it about greenwashing? And just what is greenwashing, anyway? We asked environmental experts to help us understand ecotourism, why it’s growing so quickly and what it means for the future of travel and our planet.

What is ecotourism?

An ecotourism definition isn’t as hard to pin down as you might think. According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.” Simply put, it’s travel that has a positive impact on a destination’s ecology and economy.

What is the aim of ecotourism?

couple shopping at fruit stand while on vacationThomas Barwick/Getty Images

Although the ultimate aim of ecotourism is to protect a destination’s environment and its people, there are a few specific principles that guide that goal. According to Bernholtz, these are the main pillars behind ecotourism:

Support conservation initiatives

Because ecotourism is designed to safeguard the integrity of a natural area’s vulnerable ecosystem, it should allow visitors to experience the beauty of a destination without causing damage. Often, it also lets them participate in activities that benefit the environment. At the InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort, for example, guests can join an in-house marine biologist to learn about the conservation work being done for manta rays and then swim alongside these gentle giants for a truly immersive experience. Travelers can also act as citizen scientists in places around the world, including national parks and dive sites, to help do research and collect data.

Build awareness

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, “When we know better, we do better.” Once we learn that our actions are actually harming someone or something, we can put a stop to them. Plus, human beings are more inclined to care about something when they’re personally invested in it, which happens naturally when they visit a place and get to know the people who live there as individuals rather than a generic group.

As visitors learn about the locals, they’re motivated to do what they can to help these people and to spread the word about how others can too. “Ideally, they leave as new ambassadors who can tell others about the destination and teach them how to take care of it,” says Chandra Wright, Director of Environmental & Educational Initiatives for the Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel. This is how change happens.

Help local communities

One of the key elements of ecotourism is helping local communities thrive. That can happen in a number of ways, all involving some type of financial aspect, from providing jobs to supporting local businesses. It is vital to care for the people who live in a destination—they are, ultimately, the stewards of that land. Just look at Venice, Italy, where overtourism has gotten so out of hand that residents are leaving the city in droves.

Educate

Education is the foundation for everything, and when it comes to ecotourism, that includes visitors and locals alike. We know that visitors need to learn how their actions impact a destination, but so do the people who live there. A great example is Thailand, where residents are being shown how they can make a living by turning their performing elephant businesses into elephant sanctuaries. As travelers stop supporting elephant shows and rides because of the abuse these animals endure, they make a conscious decision to spend their money on businesses that help elephants instead. This is a win all around—especially for the elephants, who are on the list of Critically Endangered species. With education, we have the power to enact real change.

Respect

Respect is tied to awareness and education and is vital for the empowerment of local people, especially Indigenous groups. Ecotourism is all about showcasing their culture authentically rather than turning it into a theme park. This ensures that their traditions live on, the people are valued for who they are, and myths and stereotypes are dispelled.

How does ecotourism help the environment?

A person zip lining above a forest in Costa RicaNiki Harry/Getty Images

Ecotourism helps ensure that a destination’s biodiversity and ecosystems remain protected. For example, because Costa Rica’s rainforest is such a huge draw for visitors, residents work hard to keep it safe rather than deforest it for short-term gains. The money brought into their economy by ecotourism provides, literally, a more sustainable way for their communities and the rainforest itself to thrive. Plus, this is what could happen if the rainforest disappeared.

How does ecotourism help local communities?

As Bernholtz previously pointed out, the idea of helping local communities is so important, it’s actually one of the principles behind ecotourism. Besides protecting their environment, ecotourism provides jobs for residents, bringing money into areas that may have previously been overlooked. With a better economy, communities become safer, cleaner and healthier.

How does ecotourism benefit travelers?

Being a responsible traveler makes for a much more satisfying and authentic experience. Instead of simply visiting tourist attractions and eating at chain restaurants, you get to immerse yourself in a local culture and really get to know the people who live there. It enriches your own life and opens your mind to new ideas. It reminds you that you’re a citizen of the world and that it’s up to all of us to take care of the planet we call home.

“Ecotourism is an amazing way to discover the world,” says Wright. “So much of our daily lives is scripted and manufactured. Nature is full of wonder everywhere you look. Being able to get out in a natural area that is protected and largely undeveloped offers a chance to connect with flora and fauna you may never see anywhere else. Just be sure to leave it as you found it—or better—for future explorers to discover.”

Experiencing ecotourism can change your outlook and also make you more eco-conscious, which is great for the environment. “People get inspired to make positive changes and share those changes in their everyday life, continuing the positive impact,” says Bernholtz. That could entail things like using reusable water bottles or changing the narrative on climate change on a large scale, like these social media activists.

Can ecotourism harm the environment?

Unfortunately, if travelers don’t follow all its major principles, there can also be a dark side to ecotourism. In fact, according to Wright, “without explaining and educating visitors about what makes a place special, how seemingly minor things can have a huge negative impact and how they can help ensure the resource remains undisturbed for the long term, [visitors] are more likely to do harm.”

If ecotourism isn’t properly regulated, it can damage the ecosystems it’s meant to protect. Fragile plants and vegetation may be trampled on, garbage may be left behind and overused trails may result in soil erosion. Also, too many visitors may cause stress to wildlife, disturbing the animals’ natural routines and habitats, displacing them or causing them to change their behavior or get used to humans.

The best ecotourism destinations

There are so many amazing ecotourism destinations, where nature is the star of the show and both residents and visitors alike are determined to protect it. Some of the best in the world include Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Belize, Iceland, Norway and Kenya. All these eco-friendly countries are rich with natural beauty and people working to keep it that way. They’re also known for their conservation efforts and wealth of national parks and protected areas.

Closer to home, Alaska and coastal Alabama are ideal ecotourism destinations. They’re places where you can hike, bike and boat through stunning landscapes while viewing wildlife in its natural habitats. Events like the annual Coastal Alabama Birdfest even give visitors the opportunity to get involved by helping to collect measurements and place identifying bands on birds’ legs so researchers can identify and track them.

What are some ecotourism examples?

Explorer with binoculars by the waterfall in the middle of the rain forestSouth_agency/Getty Images

According to Wright, ecotourism activities in these areas can include bird watching, wildlife viewing, nature photography, exploring unique flora, cycling, hiking, kayaking, canoeing and scuba diving. Depending on the destination, you can also take classes from local artists, eat sustainably at restaurants that utilize ingredients from local farmers, attend local music or heritage festivals, and work as a volunteer on a conservation project.

“But,” warns Wright, “these activities aren’t guaranteed to be ecotourism. [Do] your homework to make sure the practices and principles in place are appropriate for leaving a light impact.”

Check hotel websites to see what they’re doing for sustainability, and research a destination’s priorities. Are they focused on helping local communities and the environment, or are they touting corporations and chains? If information isn’t readily available, that’s a red flag. And if any place promotes touching non-domesticated animals, stay away.

How can you experience ecotourism responsibly?

If you’re excited to answer the question, “What is ecotourism?” yourself, here are some tips from Bernholtz and Wright on how to do it right:

  • Listen to guides and signs, and stay on clearly marked trails to avoid damaging vegetation. If something says “don’t touch,” don’t touch it!
  • Take only memories and photos. Don’t take rocks, plants or any part of nature as a souvenir.
  • Leave only footprints. Take your trash with you, and pick up any other litter you come across. Give back by leaving an area cleaner and nicer than you found it.
  • Support local artists and businesses. Make sure tourism money stays in the community.

Ecotourism vs. sustainable tourism

You may find people using the terms “ecotourism” and “sustainable tourism” interchangeably, but although both have an end goal of helping the environment, there is one major difference.

“Ecotourism is all about getting out in nature and conserving the natural resources of a specific area, so it doesn’t really apply in urban, big-city environments,” explains Wright. “Sustainable travel, on the other hand, is broader and includes everything from eliminating single-use plastics to reducing energy consumption to water conservation to recycling. You should be a sustainable traveler wherever you go.”

For other ideas on how to live more sustainably, check out our stories on how fast fashion is hurting the environment and which sustainable brands you should consider instead.

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Lois Alter Mark
Lois is an award-winning lifestyle, shopping, travel, and entertainment writer who covers everything from the best consumer products to the best cleaning and organizing tips for RD.com. Her writing has taken her around the world and introduced her to new people, new food, and her favorite new sport, pickleball.