The debate over ecotourism's success as a tool for conservation and development in the developing world is aggravated by the dispute over what exactly ecotourism is. The International Ecotourism Society offers a succinct and often cited definition: "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people" (TIES). Ecotourism is often tied to the concept of sustainable development. "Sustainable tourism development meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future" (WTO a). As the notion of ecotourism gained popularity, Boo (1990) was one of the first to express reservations over ecotourism's potential. She warned that it should not be viewed as a harmless alternative to mass-tourism and pointed out its possible dangers.
The research that followed was mostly critical of ecotourism and not focused on highlighting any success. Honey (1999) provides a recent, objective and comprehensive look at the realities of ecotourism and its place in a broader development strategy. Measuring ecotourism is difficult because it is often lumped together with nature, wildlife and adventure tourism. "Much of what is marketed as ecotourism is simply mass tourism wrapped in a thin green veneer" (Honey 1999: 51) a concept referred to "ecotourism lite." A cott and La Trobe (1998) refer to the same phenomenon as "shallow ecotourism." They provide a conceptual framework for measuring whether an ecotourism venture is a sincere attempt at sustainability and conservation or if it is simply an exploited term.
Ecotourists and their impacts are measured on a continuum ranging from shallow ecotourism to deep ecotourism. Shallow ecotourism differs little from conventional tourism except in its marketing, and deep ecotourism is that in which decisions are made from a bio centric, not anthropogenic, nature. Deep ecotourism views nature as having an intrinsic value. Ecotourism can be played out on three different stages though they are often not exclusive.
Government protected areas, private reserves, and Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) ventures can all host visitors. Government protected areas are typically national parks or reserves which are often established because there is economic justification in doing so. Tourists attracted to the park are worth more than the resources in it. For example, a lion in Kenya is worth far more as a tourist attraction than it is as hunting game (Wood 2002). While these areas enjoy a high level of protection, they often displace local people or mean enforcement of land use that marginalizes historical stewards of the land. However, "it is now recognized in parts of Africa, for example, that local people should be compensated for the loss of access to resources they suffer when wildlife parks are created" (Scheyvens 1999: 246).
Private reserves that tourists pay to visit have been successful in terms of conservation in Latin America and Africa (Kiss 2004; Langholz et al 2000). When Costa Rica imposed steep hikes in park entrance fees in 1994 there was a shift of visitation to private reserves (Hearne and Salinas 2002). If these parks choose to register with the government they receive benefits ranging from tax breaks, to assistance with projects, and expulsion of squatters (Honey 1999). Langholz et al (2000) studied the economics of 68 private reserves in Costa Rica and found that although they can be profitable this was not the only motivator for their preservation. Most owners placed a high non-market worth on the land such as its bequest value. Although the reserves in Costa Rica are not big in size, the quality of protection they are receiving is very high (Langholz et al 2000).
In South Africa the total area of private reserves now exceeds that of state owned protected areas despite being smaller in average size (Kiss 2004). These reserves can be particularly successful in the conservation of large mammals if they are adjacent to protected areas or if a number of reserves cover a contiguous area (ibid). Almost every attempt to define ecotourism includes positive economic and social contributions to local people. The most direct way to accomplish this is with Community Based Ecotourism (CBET), another difficult term to define. CBET can range from a small number of community members economically benefiting from tourism related activities to community ownership in ecotourism enterprises (Wunder 2000; Kiss 2004). To date, much of the research on CBET is 'anecdotal and subjective and lacks quantitative data and analysis' (Kiss 2004: 232).
Scheyvens (1999) provides a framework that lists economic, psychological, social and political signs that indicate the level of empowerment a local community is receiving from ecotourism activity. This framework emphasizes the importance of local communities in having control over ecotourism initiatives. Others clearly state that Cbet can not be successful without government intervention (Campbell 1999; Honey 1999). In Optional, Costa Rica, a community ripe for tourism development, there is a strong desire from members of the community for an increase in tourism. However, the planning of any endeavors would have to come from outside the community (Campbell 1999). These results seemingly apply to most similar communities in the developing world.
With help from the Domin can government the Carib community, the only remaining native Caribbean community, formed a management plan in 1993 to promote ecotourism as a way to increase their economic activity while preserving their culture and natural resources (Slinger 1999). While its successes are small, namely increased sales of local crafts and environmental education of locals and tourists, it does demonstrate the success of linking local communities with federal government. Note (1999) lauds the success of tourism for the Inuvialuit people of Canada's western Arctic region for providing economic benefit while preserving their natural resources and their way of life. Their success is the result of a cooperation between the Canadian government and a council of Inuvialuit people. Wunder (2000) studied the economic success of five Cuyabeno indigenous groups whose level of participation range from direct employment from outside agencies to a strictly autonomous operation and concluded that they all received significant benefits that out-compete alternative income sources.
Further, the level of autonomy was not a significant factor in the level of success. An important factor shaping decisions on ecotourism development is tourist preferences though few studies have been published that analyze what ecotourists want in a destination. Duffy (2002) surveyed travelers at various ecotourist spots in Belize and found that most ecotourists engaged in the same self-indulgence as traditional tourists. They only "want to believe that their vacationing does not have the same impact as that of the mass tourists from whom they like to distinguish themselves" (Duffy 2002: 46). The only change related to ecotourism that respondents expressed a desire for was more environmental interpretation from guides.
Surveys of visitor preferences in Kibble National Park in Uganda (O bua and Harding 1996) and Braulio Carrillo National Park in Costa Rica (Hearne and Salinas 2002) found that most wanted improved facilities that were not conducive to ideal ecotourism. Some respondents were concerned with conservation and expressed a desire for no improvements to infrastructure as well as visitor number and access limitations, but the economic need to maintain or improve visitor numbers will probably result in the improvements requested. It is evident that there is not enough demand for truly deep ecotourism ventures and that a balance must be struck between providing what potential tourists want and the prescribed goals of ecotourism. To accomplish this, government assistance to local communities is essential (Campbell 1999; Duffy 2002; Honey 1999). The relative success of ecotourism in Costa Rica is due, in large part, to its preserved and diverse ecosystem.
However, perhaps more important, is the stability of its democratically elected government. Cothran and Cothran (1998) convincingly suggest that the success of Mexico's tourism industry hinges on its political stability. Mexico already has many of the ingredients of an ecotourism hot spot. It ranks eighth in international tourist arrivals (WTO b), has a host of historic and natural wonders, and already has an existing mass-tourism infrastructure. However, political and financial instability deter a number of tourists and would be tourism investors. This phenomenon is not isolated to Mexico.
"Whatever the specific problems within developing countries, tourism will not necessarily wait for them to be sorted out; it will simply move elsewhere" (Cothran and Cothran 1998: 494). The success of ecotourism is dependent on the political, economic and social situations in each country. Any improvements in current practices will take us one step closer to global sustainability; a notion in its infancy. Much of the recent literature is critical of ecotourism as a viable sustainability practice but is so while implying ecotourism is seen as a panacea for sustainability. None of the recent literature makes this claim. The time has come for a shift in the paradigm.
Research should now focus on small successes toward sustainability, conservation and local economic success and how they can be placed in a broader development strategy.