Dealing with Definitions:

When is it ecotourism? And when is it not?

Copyright (c) 1999-2017 by John N. Shores


This section is designed to help the reader wade through the broad collection of terms related to tourism in general, and to ecotourism in particular. The general lack of consistency in the ways that different people use the terms has contributed to considerable confusion and uncertainty on the part of the travelers as well as on the part of travel professionals. In an effort to bring some clarity to the debate, I have been assembling this guide to the terms (below). Unfortunately the different types of travel are not mutually exclusive, so the material does not fit neatly into a simple outline.

In a somewhat arbitrary way, I have sliced the world of travel into three broad types: business-purpose travel, family-purpose travel, and (the real area of our interest here) tourism. The first two, business-purpose and family-purpose, are really not discretionary travel. Sometimes we travel for business or family reasons and we really do not have much choice about making the trip. I do not deal with those types of travel in this paper.

Our primary interest here is tourism -- discretionary travel that people undertake for pleasure.

Note: This is still a work in progress. Send me your comments and favorite definitions. E-mail any comments and materials to John Shores

Discussion and Limitations

One of the common mistakes is to burden "ecotourism" with too many conditions. The International Ecotourism Society - TIES (formerly The Ecotourism Society - TES) makes this mistake when they propose: "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." (from TIES web site) They are on the right track with the concepts of responsible travel and conserving the environment, but they go too far by burdening an environmental term with a social purpose. Here's one reason: The TIES proposed definition erroneously assumes that all sites have resident communities. That's simply not correct. There are no native communities on the Antarctic continent, yet I would argue that the Antarctic is clearly an ecotourism destination. To qualify as an ecotourism visitor to the icy continent, one must guard against causing environmental damage. There is no "local community" to support, except for scientific and military facilities that have been the source of much of the environmental damage already.

Ceballos-Lascurain is much closer to a useful definition when he proposes: "Traveling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas." (Ceballos-Lascurain 1987). But he has only succeeded in defining a broad nature-based tourism, with a little cultural tourism added. Nowhere does he address the issue of environmental impacts. Under his definition, the traveler could admire and enjoy natural and cultural elements so much that the traveler is moved to collect protected artifacts or disturb nesting birds, or simply destroy them through careless disregard. I find that unacceptable. It is not ecotourism.


The proper definition of ecotourism is ecologically sound tourism. It really is that simple. I am amused when novices and even some people who should know better talk about "good" and "bad" ecotourism. There can be no "bad" ecotourism. "Bad" ecotourism does not exist -- it's precluded by the definition. What they are usually deploring is bad tourism that was marketed as ecotourism. The sad fact is really that there is no way to enforce truth in advertising in these cases. Just because a promoter calls something ecotourism doesn't mean that it is.

Within ecotourism, there also can be two broad distinctions. Because any tourism experience involves several components (such as travel, lodging, food, or guides) there exist two ways to qualify as environmentally sound. The overall or net effect of the tourism experience can be environmentally sound -- relative ecotourism, or every component and sub-component in the tourism web can be environmentally sound -- absolute ecotourism.

(Within both relative and absolute ecotourism, there will be gradations. In a separate paper, The Challenge of Ecotourism, I proposed a 0-5 scale for addressing this issue.)

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Nature-Based Tourism

Any tourism where a major attraction or purpose for the trip is the natural environment falls under this broad category of nature-based tourism. Seeing or experiencing nature is part of the expectation of the traveler.

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Luxury or High-End Tourism

Luxury or high-end tourism is any tourism where a major attraction of the trip is the very comfortable or luxurious travel and accommodation offered to the travelers. The term is certainly relative: a trip may involve sleeping in a tent, but on a high-end trip, the tent is erected and prepared by staff, and there may be a hot-water shower instead of cold-water bathing from a bucket.

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Community-Based Tourism

Community-based tourism (CBT) is an integrated approach to tourism that incorporates attention to the environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts of tourism. In popular language, this might be called "politically correct" tourism. One caveat -- CBT is not synonymous with ecotourism. Ecotourism begins with the premise that a natural or pristine environment will be protected. While CBT may include a natural or pristine environment, it is not necessary for CBT. Very successful CBT may be developed in areas with rich cultural and historical resources -- and no pristine natural environments for kilometers.

In the late 1980's I had the privilege to join the Peace Corps staff in Washington as a natural resources specialist. I discovered a ground swell of support in the field for a community-based model for tourism development and management. The idea spread quickly across all the continents and regions. Far more than just an environmental undertaking, the community-based tourism model allowed us to involve Business Volunteers, Health Volunteers, Water & Sanitation Vounteers, Agriculture Volunteers, Education Volunteers, and Natural Resources Volunteers -- and all of their community Counterparts, colleagues, and families.

The term "Community-Based Ecotourism" or CBE is also appearing in the literature. It is a close synonym for CBT, but includes emphasis on the environmental side of the experience.

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Tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place--its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.

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Adventure Travel

Adventure travel is travel to new and exciting places with an intention to seek, or the expectation to find, adventure. It can be as simple as hitch-hiking across a countryside you have never visited before. It appears to require an element of uncertainty, in that the travelers are not following a fixed schedule and are free to speed up, slow, or halt their travel, and often take spur-of-the-moment side trips.

A planned and guided group tour probably cannot really be considered adventure travel. But it could have the same itinerary, without the uncertainty. To the participants, it would still seem like adventure travel.

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In many ways a product of our modern society with growing discretionary income and a strong dose of the "me" generation, ego-tourism is a relatively small portion of the tourism spectrum. Unfortunately it can have significant negative impacts. Uncontrolled off-road vehicles may be the worst offenders. Other forms are less destructive. Thrill-seeking such as bungee jumping probably falls in this category. White-water rafting and canoe and kayak travel probably do also, if the primary motivation is the thrilling activity, not gaining an appreciation for the environment.

Most ego-tourism appears driven by the need to earn bragging rights, not by an interest to learn about and appreciate the place or people visited. The environment may not be at risk, but there is often very little concern for the impact the activities are having on the environment.

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Low-Cost, Low-Budget, or Back-Pack Tourism

Low-budget tourism reached a new popularity in the late 1960's and early 1970's when discount airfares and surplus backpacks made travel possible for a lot of young people, and for others still young at heart. "Travel on a shoestring" with nothing more than the clothes and items that would fit in a backpack really got started soon after World War II, but reached a new level in the 1970's. But low-budget did not necessarily mean low impact, and often low-budget travelers feel justified in cutting corners if it allows them to travel longer. The goal becomes the length of time one can spend traveling, rather than the quality of the experiences one has while visiting certain places.

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Low-Impact Tourism

Low-impact tourism is an effort to correct the mistakes of the low-budget traveler. Low-impact correctly focuses on the effect or result of the travel, not just the cost. Closely related to low-impact travel is the idea of living lightly, or reducing the impact or "footprint" ones lifestyle leaves on the planet.

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Cultural Tourism

Cultural tourism is motivated by an interest to learn about and experience new and different cultures. I suppose that one could differentiate a variety that involved living cultures from a variety that focused on archaeological sites and cultural re-enactments. This latter variety is probably indistinguishable from Educational Tourism.

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Educational Tourism

Educational tourism can be an individual or family activity, but is often associated with group tours. The destinations are often museums, art galleries, and research institutions. In many countries we find school classes participating in educational tourism. Clubs and organizations may sponsor educational tours for their members. A growing segment of this category is the Elder Hostel movement as the population in many countries is growing older, staying healthy, and enjoying more discretionary income.

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For More Information

One of the best resources for information, discussions, and further links to ecotourism on the web is Ron Mader's web site. You might want to look at his definitions at in particular.

For another slightly different perspective on some of these terms, see the similar glossary by Marcus L. Endicott, on the web as Towards Definition, from November 1997.

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