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The Pitfalls of Sustainable Tourism

Ecotourism has the potential to enact powerful change within Westernized cultures that are often not widely exposed to the beauty of nature. According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), ecotourism includes nature-based forms of tourism in which the main motivations of tourists include “observation and appreciation of nature as well as the traditional cultures prevailing in natural areas.” The WTO website states that educational elements, small groups, generating economic benefits for host communities, and minimizing negative environmental impacts are the primary elements of this form of tourism.

Although widely considered to be a sustainable way to see the world and learn to appreciate nature and local cultures, ecotourism can often perpetuate the same negative practices that it strives to educate against. This form of “sustainable tourism” is generally promoted for reasons involving economic benefit to developing countries. According to Martha Honey in her book, Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, Second Edition: Who Owns Paradise?, these benefits are often overstated. Instead of increasing economic flow to developing nations, the brunt of ecotourism’s economic benefits are focused in the travel agencies and providers located in the developed nations tourists depart from.

In order to understand how these contradictions occur, it is important to consider the demographic of individuals participating in ecotourism. According to a 2015 analysis of the top 50 travel bloggers conducted by Christopher Ko, all but 9 of these bloggers were white, almost 50% were male, and 86% hailed from Group of Twenty (G20) nations (a category of countries defined as world leaders in terms of economics and industrialization).

These statistics are important for several reasons. Immediately, it becomes clear that extensive travel is most available to privileged individuals. At first, this unfairness seems as though it could be positively transformed into a beneficial learning experience. If individuals that are traditionally among society’s most privileged are able to take time out of their daily lives to recognize the world they live in, that should be an excellent opportunity for learning. This education should, in theory, serve to motivate global citizens to take better care of the world we all share.

Although these outcomes would be beneficial to all, individuals participating in ecotourism are not always inspired in this way. According to a study conducted by Chieu (et. al.), in order for overall environmentally sustainable behavior to increase while tourists participate in such activities, the subject must value the activity, must be heavily involved, and must have a high level of satisfaction due to the activity. Even so, ecotourists may initially be inspired by what they learn from their travels, but later compartmentalize this excitement and fail to internalize the changes they need to make in their own lives. It is this internalization that is necessary in order for ecotourism to cause a lasting increase in the environmentally-sustainable behaviors adopted by privileged Westerners.

In order to make a permanent change in the mindset of the individuals living in urban or suburban settings, it is necessary to understand the realities of ecological change on a deeper level. Participants in ecotourism must be able to understand the impact that their day-to-day actions have on the world they live in. Those privileged enough to have the opportunity to travel and explore the world should first understand the impact of their ecological footprint in every aspect of their lives including transportation, food consumption, and household chores. In order for an individual to internalize the positive messages of ecotourism, one must realize that, because humans perpetually interact with the natural environment around them, one positive environmental choice (such as becoming a vegetarian or riding a bicycle to work each day) does not exempt them from continuing to strive for sustainability in all facets of life.

Ecotourism, although designed to help individuals connect with nature, often exhibits only the best aspects of nature (i.e. beautiful coral reefs, scenic snow-covered mountain tops, or grassy plains covered in acres of wildflowers).  These idealized versions of the state of our earth may help individuals to fall in love with the world they live in: an undoubtedly good thing. Even so, they may also serve to encourage individuals to believe that, since these beautiful places still exist, no action is required on their part to work towards preventing further climate change and ecosystem degradation.

An example of this type of idealized nature is described by Asher Jay, a “Creative Conservationist” and contributor to National Geographic, in her account of XCaret. XCaret is an “eco” resort located outside Cancun, Mexico. Self-described on its website as an eco archaeological park, this ecotourism destination features butterfly gardens, sea turtle conservation efforts, and a tropical bird sanctuary. Despite its appealing online marketing, Jay’s article detailing her visit declares, “XCaret is a conservation crime.” She continues on to list dozens of alarming subtleties (ranging from manmade coral caves to heavy use of insecticides) that serve to convince the public that their establishments are beneficial to local environment and culture. According to Jay, her visit demonstrated that XCaret serves as an example, “of how the tourism industry, when allowed to burgeon unregulated by policy, legislation and hard science, devastates indigenous ecological networks, decentralized economies, and socio-cultural narratives.” Later in her article, she discusses the idea that sustainable development goals are imperative when designing the ecotourism industry as a whole.

Although her demands for regulation of the industry are undeniably critical, the state of ecological tourism affairs is further complicated. Because ecotourism is centered around the general idea of short-term tourism, participants are able to engage with their environment for a brief period of time before immediately returning home to their comfortable suburban apartments with factory-farmed meat in the fridge, child-labor-produced blue jeans in the closet, and a gas-guzzling automobile in their reserved parking spot out front. For these reasons, promoting sustainable actions at the site of tourism will not create a more sustainable world overall.

Although the generalized message of ecotourism rightfully promotes environmentalist ideals through helping participants engage with the world around them, this engagement is immediately compartmentalized the moment the activity concludes. In order for ecotourism to make a beneficial impact on the global environmental stage, the industry must evolve to include the realization- in the minds of all participants- that ecological activism is a a multifaceted endeavour that can not be “checked-off” with the fulfillment of one environmentally beneficial action each month or each week or even each day.

Ecotourism is not inherently bad. It has proven to bring valuable income to small villages, and has the potential to demonstrate the beauty of the world to masses of individuals. This being said, the individuals with the privileges required to take advantage of these benefits are, all too often, the same individuals that are aware of their ecological misgivings but have failed to internalize the severity of their actions. If ecotourists are unable to internalize the impact that their actions have on the global ecosystem as a whole, ecotourism will prove to be entirely futile.


Chiu, Y. H., Lee, W., & Chen, T. (2014). Environmentally responsible behavior in ecotourism: Antecedents and implications. Tourism Management, 40, 321-329. doi:10.1016/j.tourman.2013.06.013

Honey, M. (2013). Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, Second Edition Who Owns Paradise? Washington DC: Island Press.

Jay, Asher. “Sustainable Eco-Tourism: An Epic Fail.” The Huffington Post,, 10 Feb. 2016,

Ko, C. (2015, August 3). The Whiteness of Travel: Privilege in the World of Travel Blogging [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Sustainable Development of Tourism. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2017, from

Photo Courtesy of Marcelo Quinteros Mena

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